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Fighting for migrant workers
Published Date: 11/02/2018 (Sunday)

By Feizal Samath

Missing, or rather, not enough attention has been given to the rights of female migrant workers and their status in society in the just-concluded election campaign for local authorities.

Our attention was drawn to this one morning when Kussi Amma Sera, preparing the morning cup of tea, said: “Mahattaya, apey pitarata rassawata yana lamei gena kisi kathawak nehe me chande kaale?”

“Eh,” I asked but before waiting for a long, drawn response during a busy week, moved to my computer since this thought, in fact, had occurred to me, too.

The election which concluded yesterday has many changes and is seen as a test for future polls. For instance, representatives will be elected on the basis of 60 per cent first-past-the-post and 40 per cent through PR. Also 25 per cent of the representatives must be women.

The struggle for women’s rights across the island particularly in marginalised communities at the election may have, unfortunately, been eclipsed by an ongoing battle for the rights of women to buy, be served or drink liquor in public spaces.

While no doubt the denial of this right owing to archaic, societal and cultural norms must be removed for good from the country’s laws and regulations; the attention it drew during the election campaign (maybe mostly in the English-speaking media and media platforms), relegated for another day, the discussion of the perennial problem of the right to vote for migrant workers, particularly thousands of women working in modern-day, slavery-like conditions overseas. And at local government level, these are very important issues

While government authorities assert that the number of female domestic workers working in difficult conditions abroad – sexual and physical harassment, long working hours, sometimes forced to skip a meal and taking care of large families – is not as bad as reported in the media, extensive studies have shown that the number of complaints doesn’t reflect the actual situation.

Large voting bases, like the plantation workers for instance, draw politicians like magnets, eagerly offering the sun and the moon in return for their votes. The plantation bloc vote is a good example of how politicians help these workers with their “largesse” while showing or rather pretending to workers they care. However workers, it must be said, have benefited given the collective agreements between unions and plantation companies on a decent wage.

Similar protection and rights for migrant workers, many of those working in support of these rights believe, could be secured if the workers are able to vote abroad through electronic or some other mechanism.

Voting by expatriate workers is not new. More than 90 countries allow their nationals working abroad to vote. The Philippines is the best example, since it has a large army of female domestic workers abroad, of allowing these nationals to vote from overseas locations.

The Overseas Absentee Voting Act, officially known as Republic Act No. 9189, is a law in the Philippines approved in 2003 which provides for citizens of that country residing or working abroad to vote at a local election. Supporters have often urged workers abroad to make use of the vote to gain national attention on human trafficking, illegal recruitment and good governance. “People running for office cannot ignore your huge number as a sector. Your sheer number will force policies in your favour,” said one migrant worker-support group, there, in one of its right-to-vote campaigns.

The right-to-vote campaign for thousands of Sri Lankan migrant workers was initiated in the 1990s by David Soysa, a retired Labour Department officer, whose work led to the creation of several NGOs working in this field. He died a few years ago, unable to see his pet project – voting rights for MWs – to its successful conclusion. His persistence on this issue resulted in the Human Rights Commission endorsing the right to vote for migrant workers, 16 years ago in October 2001. However, it didn’t move beyond a recommendation sent to the Foreign Ministry.

That was it. Soysa’s campaign for voting rights for domestic workers lost its momentum after he died.

In fact, while many Colombo-centric women’s rights activists lent their name to the petitions before the Supreme Court challenging new gender-bias regulations (or those that were re-introduced after being removed) and social media has been buzzing with the unfairness of the government ruling that women don’t have the same right as men in liquor consumption and sale, there is not even a murmur of protest in the hallowed walls of the Hulftsdorp courts complex against the rights of female migrant workers.

Where were these activists when one courageous woman from a village filed a fundamental rights plea in 2013, challenging the Government’s right to stop her working overseas without the permission of her husband? That petition was dismissed during a preliminary “seeking leave to proceed” hearing by the Supreme Court on the grounds that the rule was neither gender discriminatory nor violated an individual’s human rights.

In this case, even more ironical was the fact that the appellant-worker was separated from her husband and looking after the children on her own but still had to seek his permission.

This ‘permission-seeking’ rule is a provision in the under-fire Family Background Report (FBR). While the FBR is meant to ensure people going abroad leave their children in ‘safe’ hands and a protected environment with a spouse, grandparents or a proper guardian, it has led to abuse and corruption by village-level officers.

Many women have got FBRs approved after being forced to pay a bribe.

While the FBR is under review to minimise corruption, a recent issue raised by employment agents is the FBR being imposed on female professionals seeking to work overseas. “We are losing a lot of job orders in West Asia in professional categories for women because of the FBR,” one agent said, advocating a different FBR approach to professional women workers as against unskilled female workers.

This, however, is a discriminatory approach that should be strongly discouraged and vigorously challenged.

In neighbouring India, discrimination on almost similar grounds is being challenged by activists. Indian parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor, also an author and former international civil servant, has lent his voice to protests against a government move to introduce orange passports for Indian migrants.

Activists say a decision to change the colour of the passport for Indian migrants depending on their educational and economic status is like treating them as second-class citizens. Dr. Tharoor was quoted in local media as saying that “the very premise of this decision – discriminating against the citizens of a country based on their economic status and educational qualifications – makes it inherently unfair”.

In Sri Lanka, thousands of women work in the plantations, garment industry and as domestic workers ensuring the wheels of the country’s economy run smoothly. It is this largely, female-driven workforce that accounted for a total of over US$13 billion in foreign exchange in 2016.

Worker remittances have slowed down considerably in recent months owing to lower oil prices and unrest in West Asia and are unlikely to reach the $7.2 billion achieved in 2016. Lower earnings from this source and less attention from the authorities could further alienate female domestic workers from state protection and national attention. For these reasons, it is imperative that movements fighting against gender-bias must campaign vigorously for the rights of female domestic workers as much as they do in the current “right to drink” discourse.

Source: Sunday Times


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