Stirring a Hornet’s Nest

BY P.K. BALACHANDRAN | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 27 2021
Columns Stirring a Hornet’s Nest


The suspected rape and suicide of a female teenage domestic in MP Rishard Bathiudeen’s residence in Colombo stirred a hornet’s nest last week. Going by a survey of domestic workers done by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) however, in only three districts including Colombo, maids are generally treated well. 

According to a report in a local daily, the girl was from Dayagama in Hatton had been sent to work in Bathiudeen’s house in 2020 at the age of 15, because her family was deeply in debt and was being harassed by creditors. The Bathuideen-household had apparently promised her a salary of Rs.25,000 per month, but gave only Rs 20,000, her mother said. 

Her mother has since lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka in Kandy, the paper said. The ILO’s Study on female domestic workers in Sri Lanka 2020 covering 138 ‘live-in’ and ‘live-out’ domestic workers in Colombo, Gampaha and Kandy Districts, would suggest the girl’s fate may be a bad aberration. The incident should be treated as a wake-up call about where things may head, if left unattended and preventive steps are not taken. 

The ILO has suggested steps to be undertaken by the Government. Of the 138 workers interviewed, only five said they had experienced unacceptable behaviour at the hands of their employer or a family member of the employer, during their working life. 

Two had asked for sexual favours; two workers had said they had been touched in an uncomfortable way; and one worker had been raped. Almost 50 per cent of live-in domestic workers and 43.2 per cent of daily domestic workers were highly satisfied with their current place of employment.

 Less than 10 per cent of live-in domestic workers and less than seven per cent of daily domestic workers reported that they were not satisfied or not at all satisfied. The in-depth interviews conducted with 15 domestic workers corroborated these findings, the study found. 

“A majority of them talked about their present and also their previous employers as being kind and considerate to them, and a number of them claimed that they were treated like a household member,” the report said. 

The higher level of literacy in Sri Lanka and the equalitarian SinhalaBuddhist society have resulted in middle and upper class families in Sri Lanka treating their domestics with respect, the authors of the report said.

 Of the total 138 domestic workers surveyed, 93.5 per cent reported that they had a separate room allocated to them; 92.8 per cent were provided with meals; 81.9 per cent reported they were given toiletries; 77.5 per cent reported they were provided with medicines when unwell. “Even though working hours were long and the work-hours were indefinite, 97.8 per cent of live-in domestic workers reported they were given time to rest; and 71.7 per cent reported that the use of their mobile phone was not restricted,” the report said.

 Live-in and daily maids 

A significant majority of live-in domestic workers (80.4 per cent) was permitted to leave the house for short periods of time for various reasons. However this was not counted as paid leave. “Only 22.5 per cent of live-in domestic workers reported that they had faced problems while working. Of these, 46.5 per cent said the problem was related to too much work, while 21 per cent mentioned psychological harassment.” According to a recent Labour Force Survey, there are 80,000 domestic workers in Sri Lanka. 

Over 60,000 of these are women. But despite their wide presence and extensive contribution to the work force, domestic workers have not had legal recognition as being a part of the formal labour force, the ILO notes.

 In March 2018, the Lankan Cabinet gave approval for a ‘Sri Lanka National Action Plan’ for the promotion and protection of human rights that included the rights of domestic workers. The Cabinet also approved the inclusion of ‘domestic worker’ in the definition of a ‘worker’ in the Industrial Disputes Act and the Employees’ Provident Fund and Employees’ Trust Fund Acts recognising ‘domestic workers’ as a ‘worker’ category. The idea was to align domestic legislation with ILO’s Decent Work for Domestic Workers Convention No. 189. Convention No. 189 is yet to be ratified by Sri Lanka. 

The ILO says that Government should set out the terms of work including wages, duties, hours of work, leave, and also benefits paid or received. Salaries and wages in Sri Lanka range from LKR 5,000 to over LKR 30,000 for both live-in and liveout workers indicating that no minimum wage has been stipulated. The survey notes that live-in domestics work long hours. A significant proportion do not have definite start or end times. However, the working hours for live-out workers appear to be confined to eight hours. 

Housemaids had the widest range of duties allocated to them. Care givers were expected to clean the house and do marketing. “There is a popular perception that live-in domestic workers enjoy various monetary benefits in addition to their wages. However, less than half reported that they received additional financial support,” the ILO report says. 

Even though a multitude of grievances were reported, formal grievance mechanisms were absent. While domestic workers did report that they had faced problems while working, most had not made complaints about such problems, the report notes. Further, only a very small percentage reported signing a written agreement with employers. 

The most common form of contract was a verbal one. “A little over half of the domestic workers preferred verbal contracts over written contracts because they feel that written contracts are inflexible and hard to comprehend, giving them little room for negotiation. This points to the need for educating domestic workers on the terms and conditions of contracts and improving literacy in reading and understanding a contract before agreeing to the terms,” the ILO recommends. 

Two step process 

The ILO favours a two-step process towards regularising domestic workers: First: creation of a Road Map for regularising domestic work, and Second: adoption of a comprehensive mechanism for regularising domestic work. There is an acute need for a Road Map to create a model to lead towards legal conditions, the study says. 

It identifies gaps in legislation clearly pointing out that there is no specific law in Sri Lanka that deals with domestic workers. Enabling provisions in existing employment laws require extensive interpretation on the inclusion of domestic workers in their purview, it points out. 

There should be a lead agency, classifying domestic workers, ensuring competency, raising awareness, ensuring an accountability mechanism, documentation, and ratifying the ILO Convention No. 189, the study recommends.

 “Domestic work, although categorised as informal work, is not identified as a distinct sub-category in Sri Lanka’s Labour Force Survey. Informal sector employment is, in fact, only categorised into agriculture and non-agriculture work. Hence, official data does not indicate the contribution domestic work makes to informal sector employment.” 

“However, given the demographic and socio-economic changes that have been taking place in Sri Lankaspecifically a growing ageing population and an expanding middleclass–we can make an informed assumption that domestic work represents a significant proportion of informal sector employment. Sri Lanka’s elderly currently comprises 12.4 per cent of the total population,” the report says. Hence the need for recognition and regularisation.

BY P.K. BALACHANDRAN | Published: 2:00 AM Jul 27 2021

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