Strengthen Safety of Sri Lankans Working Abroad!
It would not be an exaggeration to state that the recent news about the tragic, suspicious death of a Sri Lankan woman who died in a hospital in Kuwait was essentially a sign that Sri Lanka should pay more attention to its existing foreign employment policies and practices.
It was reported that the deceased, who was working as a housemaid in Kuwait at the time of her death, had been admitted to the hospital by her sponsors, with cuts, burns and wounds that had been inflicted over a period of time. Even though reports said that Kuwait’s law enforcement authorities arrested the deceased’s sponsors for allegedly torturing and murdering the housemaid, the exact cause of her death is yet to be ascertained.
Sri Lanka’s foreign employment sector constitutes a large share of Sri Lanka’s annual income, and is one, of the main foreign exchange earners that is contributing to the development of the country. Their contribution is more important now than before as far as the revival of Sri Lanka’s COVID-19-hit economy is concerned. One might say that the said incident, despite being extremely tragic is merely one isolated incident. However, the above-mentioned incident is also a reminder that systems we have in place to ensure the safety and well-being of foreign employees can be and should be further strengthened to avoid the reoccurrence of similar tragedies in the future.
Every year, a vast number of Sri Lankans go to Middle Eastern countries for employment, and housemaids and unskilled workers constitute the majority of these workers. While some of them undergo vocational trainings prior to commencing their employment, some go abroad as unskilled labourers who have not acquired any prior professional qualification or experience. In the recent past, we have heard of many a story about them having to do jobs under unacceptable conditions, while some were not offered the jobs they were promised before leaving for those countries. What’s most disturbing is the fact that this is not the first time Sri Lankans were reported to have been subjected to physical harassments by their employers or at their place of employment.
One of the reasons that increase the number of people going abroad for employment without obtaining any vocational training or adequate experience is the growing destitution. Having less qualification forces them to settle for jobs that do not guarantee their safety, or long-term economic or personal development. Governments that came to power in the past looked into gradually decreasing the number of unskilled labourers including untrained housemaids going to foreign countries, especially Middle Eastern countries, while boosting the number of skilled professionals going abroad for employment. This also involves training unskilled labourers before sending them abroad for employment. However, due to various reasons, these programmes did not bear fruit.
Increasing the work force of skilled professionals can bring about good results in several ways. Most importantly, compared with unskilled labourers, trained/skilled professionals are more likely to be in a position to demand better jobs that pay better salaries and provide better working conditions that ensure their safety. Also, by doing so, Sri Lanka will be able to access fresh, better job markets that recruit professionals, instead of mere labourers. In addition, it will also boost income earned through the foreign employment sector.
That is not to say that Sri Lanka should completely stop sending all unskilled labourers including housemaids abroad for employment. While expanding foreign employment opportunities for skilled professionals, the Government can take steps to provide them with suitable employment opportunities in Sri Lanka, or allow them to go abroad only after completing a mandatory training programme according to a profession of their choice. Also, taking steps to hold diplomatic level discussions on further strengthening Sri Lankans’ safety while in foreign countries, and establishing a support system for Sri Lankan expatriates, will also be beneficial in the long-run.