ECONOMYNEXT – The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment has denied reports that Saudi Arabia has arbitrarily detained 41 migrant workers in a deportation centre, assuring instead that the workers are housed at a welfare centre run by the Saudi government.
A report published by Amnesty International on April 15 claimed at least 41 Sri Lankan women, a majority of whom are workers who have overstayed their visas or have run away from their employers without an exit permit, have been arbitrarily detained at a Deportation Detention (Tarheel) Centre in Riyadh for over eight to 18 months.
However, a top official at the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment told EconomyNext that these Sri Lankan workers are housed at a “Workers Welfare Centre” with citizens of other nations. The Sri Lanka mission in Riyadh are in constant touch with them, the official said.
“This is sort of a welfare centre run by the government of Saudi Arabia. It houses workers and migrants who have violated their laws by overstaying, who have not obtained an exit permit from employers, or were detained by police,” the official said.
“Even today two officers from the embassy visited the centre to provide temporary travel documents to the Sri Lankans there. The officials assure us that the workers aren’t in a bad state and are well looked after.”
According to the official, close to 170 people were housed at this purported welfare centre of only a few now remain. The Sri Lankan mission in Saudi Arabia is working with SriLankan Airlines to bring them back.
“The centre has relocated so that too got delayed.”
Nevertheless, the SLBFE official said, the workers will be brought down as soon as possible as “from next week it seems like the air operations to Saudi will begin”.
The SLBFE is also ready to provide temporary travel documents free of charge and funds for workers who have registered with them upon request, the official added.
“Anyway, the mission can’t interfere with the affairs of the centre but we facilitate the workers by providing free passports, and we are always in contact with the centres.”
“If they want to get temporary passports, SLBFE is ready to facilitate. If the mission seeks permission from Sri Lanka Immigration to waive off the costs, Immigration may consider. If they don’t have funds to return, and if they are registered with us, we may consider facilitating that too.”
However, Amnesty International has a strikingly different account.
According to the report at least three of the detainees have young children with them, and one woman is in urgent need of medical care.
Amnesty International blames the ‘Kafala’ (sponsorship) system practiced mainly in the gulf states as the evil cause behind the abuse migrant workers face in host countries.
“Detaining migrant workers for prolonged periods of up to 18 months when they have done nothing wrong and are victims themselves is cruel and inhumane. These women left their homes and families behind to earn a livelihood in Saudi Arabia only to find themselves locked into an abusive sponsorship system that facilitates exploitation and abuse. Now they are indefinitely detained with no opportunity to challenge their detention and no indication of when they can be reunited with their loved ones,” said Lynn Maalouf, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International.
“Their ordeal clearly illustrates the urgent need for Saudi Arabia to extend labour law protections and reforms to its kafala system to migrant domestic workers. The Saudi Arabian authorities should immediately release all women detained solely for their migration status and work with the Sri Lankan authorities to facilitate their return home.”
Amnesty also claims that none of the women in the centre have been informed of the charges levied against them nor have they been granted access to a lawyer or consular assistance.
The Kafala system
The kafala, or sponsorship, the system defines the relationship between foreign workers and their local sponsor, or kafeel, which is usually their employer.
Under this system, the local individuals or companies are given sponsorship permits to employ foreign laborers. This permit covers travel expenses and accommodations or, in the case of domestic workers, the sponsor’s home.
The system falls under the interior ministries and not the labor ministry therefore the workers are stripped from the protection of the nation’s labor laws and prevents laborer’s from unions or a labor dispute process.
Since the employment and residency visas are also linked, under this system the sponsor has the sole right not the to renew or terminate a worker’s permits.
In most situations, workers need their sponsor’s permission to transfer jobs, end employment, and enter or exit the host country. Leaving the workplace without permission is an offence that results in the termination of the worker’s legal status and potentially imprisonment or deportation, even if the worker is fleeing abuse.
In March 2021, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Labour brought in a few to its kafala system, that allows migrant workers to exit the country and leave jobs without the permission of their employers if they fulfil certain conditions.
Amnesty, while accepting the reform also argues that it does not secure the workers from abuses and exploitations faced by the workers. (Colombo/Apr21/2021)