Stop Exporting our Women

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article appeared in the May 2008 edition of LMD (Lanka Monthly Digest).

The strapline was: Should a state depend on poor female migrant workers who are being exploited and abused overseas? Michael O’Leary’s answer is crystal clear.

Travelling by air to and from Sri Lanka, particularly via Dubai, one often shares the aircraft with armies of 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. LMD‘s December 2007 issue noted that it is now the norm for remittances from migrant workers to bear the main burden of containing Sri Lanka’s fiscal deficit. For the eight months ending August 2007, these remittances surged 17 per cent to over US$ 1.75 billion. In fact, 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 our tea exports.


The Chairman of the Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies boasted to a Sunday newspaper that Sri Lanka would be able to increase the current annual remittances of migrant workers to Rs 300 billion in 2008. 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.


LMD’s January 2008 issue quoted a former Finance Minister, in its BENCHMARK TV Supplement: “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!”


To say that women run the Sri Lankan economy suggests that they have some power and control. Some academics have argued that female bargaining power increases with migration, because many women become income-earning members of households. However, the males continue to rule the roost, even while they vegetate with their cronies and send their wives to work overseas.


Some research suggests that remittances facilitate investments back home in housing and education, which increases productivity in the long run and results in higher living standards and improvements in family nutrition. One academic paper found that 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 per cent to return home, while almost six per cent returned because of excessive workloads and underpayment of wages.


Much depends on how you interpret the statistics. 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 on children’s personality development (there is evidence of sexual abuse of children who are left without a mother), increased alcoholism and gambling. 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 Sri Lankan embassies and consulates abroad are flooded with workers complaining of unpaid wages, sexual harassment and overwork.


A survey of 70 interviews with Sri Lankan women in Lebanon reveals how the host country’s legal and social arrangements lead to migrants being trapped in abysmal living and working conditions. When the maids arrive at Beirut airport, immigration officers take their passports and hand them over to their respective employers, who take them to the agency, where a contract in Arabic – often bearing no resemblance to what they agreed to back home – is signed. With no money and no passport, they cannot choose not to sign these papers.


The number of suicides is increasing. In the past four years, 45 Filipinas, 50 Sri Lankans and 105 Ethiopians have 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 ensure that workers migrate through legal channels, and that corruption and exploitation by recruitment agencies are minimised, and that the flow of workers’ remittances is facilitated.


Perhaps, a more important issue is “right livelihood”, the fourth category in the noble eightfold path of Buddhism. 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 respected and well-protected from abuse.