Outsourcing Sri Lankan Citizens

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island  on July 9, 2011


In a recent article, I wrote about suicide being linked with family breakdown, alcoholism and sexual abuse. In our village a Muslim girl committed suicide after being gang-raped while working in the Middle East. Another Muslim family we know well seems to be heading for major problems because the mother is always in Dubai. In the seven years we have lived here we have rarely seen her and her daughters have grown up without her. She sends money home, but the husband disappears with the cash and the girls are left to run wild. Her son took poison after an argument with the father at one of his rare encounters with him.

In the June 6 issue of the New Yorker there was a report by Sarah Stillman, in which she described how workers were being recruited under false pretences for attractive jobs away from their homeland. We have often read of unscrupulous people-traffickers linked to mafias in Russia, Albania and Kosovo, traffickers who often take large sums of cash from desperate migrants who end up being forced into slavery and prostitution.

Stillman begins the article with the description of a recruitment drive in Fiji. A number of women, who already had jobs and families, were tempted by the prospect of earning much more in a luxury hotel in Dubai. In fact, they were not bound for Dubai but Iraq and Afghanistan. They had been duped into signing on for what Stillman calls the “Pentagon’s invisible army”. The mafia involved in this human trafficking is the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).
Seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries are employed to make sure that U.S. bases are comfortable enclaves providing personnel with “tastes of home”. Accountability is hard to establish because contracting chains in Iraq and Afghanistan involve sometimes as many as five or six tiers of subcontracts. These sub-contractors are financed by the American taxpayer but often operate outside the law.

Foreign workers servicing the US military are called TCNs (third-country nationals). Many of them told Stillman that they had wages stolen or withheld, had been injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses.


Living quarters were often unventilated container trucks. There have been riots in Pentagon subcontractor camps, some involving more than a thousand workers. At a KBR (formerly Halliburton) subcontractor camp in Baghdad, Ziad Al Karawi, described how a thousand Indian and Sri Lankan men under his supervision slept on crowded floors: “rats and flies attacked us. . . . We had no beds to sleep at or tables to eat at. . . . No communication, no TV, no soap to wash or bathe, no visits from anyone from the company or KBR.” “We thought the journalists would come,” Imtiyas Sheriff, a thirty-eight-year-old bus driver from Sri Lanka, said. “They call this Operation Iraqi Freedom, but where is our freedom?”

In a question and answer session with Stillman about her article Mark Ratledge remarked that what she described reminded him of British Navy press gangs in the eighteenth century.

Travelling by air to and from Sri Lanka, via Dubai, one often shares the aircraft with armies of Sri Lankan women migrant workers. Sometimes, one notices a disdainful attitude towards them from middleclass Sri Lankan travellers. Nevertheless, the nation glories in the money that these women earn – and remit to their homeland.

It is now the norm for remittances from migrant workers to bear the main burden of containing Sri Lanka’s fiscal deficit. Remittances from migrant workers represent more than nine per cent of GDP. Sri Lanka receives US$ 526 million more in remittances than it does from foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined. These remittances are now a greater source of revenue than tea exports.

Migrant women workers are treated as an export commodity that is marketed to wealthy, oil-producing countries where demand is high and human-rights protection is virtually non-existent. A former Finance Minister, said on the BENCHMARK TV program: “There is no way that we can go on relying on the hard-earned money of three categories of women: the poor women working in the Middle East as well as other countries and remitting their funds, women who work in garment factories and women working on tea estates. The Sri Lankan economy is run by women: they are the money earners for Sri Lanka – the men are just gobbling it up!” The minister has been promoted to a position where he has no influence.

An academic paper (written by a woman) which I had the job of editing, pushed a very positive view of the empowering nature of migration for women. It was a good example of how one can spin statistics to back up an argument. More than one-third of women sampled wanted to work overseas again, which was cited as supporting a positive view of migration. The numbers who suffered ill-treatment were played down; but of those sampled, physical ill-treatment led over 17% to return home, while 6% returned because of excessive workloads and underpayment of wages.
You could say two-thirds (a majority) did not want to work overseas again and almost a quarter suffered ill-treatment or exploitation. The paper did acknowledge the downside of migration – such as higher divorce rates, disruptions to family life, lasting repercussions for children’s personality development (there is evidence of sexual abuse of children who are left without a mother), increased alcoholism and gambling among the men folk.
Where is the female empowerment here?

There is an abundance of evidence provided by organisations such as Caritas’s Mental Health Clinic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Lebanese NGO Forum, that rape and suicide are serious issues among migrant female workers. The Sri Lankan Government reports that 50 migrant domestic workers return to Sri Lanka “in distress” each day and embassies abroad are flooded with workers complaining of unpaid wages, sexual harassment and overwork.

The number of suicides is increasing. Over a four-year period, 45 Filipinas, 50 Sri Lankans and 105 Ethiopians killed themselves. A pathologist says that in many cases, the corpses were covered in bruises, bites or burns.
HRW says that the Government of Sri Lanka “deserves credit for initiating important steps to manage the outflow of migrant workers and to start providing protections”. The Government set up an institutional structure, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, in 1985, to help workers migrate through legal channels, and to minimise corruption and exploitation by recruitment agencies.

Is this enough? Is it working? Should a nation’s livelihood depend on the sufferings of a group of its citizens? Should a state manage its finances by depending on poor women who are being exploited and their family lives disrupted? If the state is to benefit, it should ensure that its benefactors are well -protected from abuse- and also respected for their contribution.
In the question and answer session with Sarah Stillman, Mark Ratledge commented: “Wars are now commodities, fought and supplied with outsourced labor.” Is Sri Lanka outsourcing its women to pay off its debts?