Sri Lanka housemaids in Gulf ill-treated, depressed: study

ECONOMYNEXT – Women Sri Lanka workers in the Gulf, isolated from their loved ones are forced to work while sick and denied medical care and are suffering mentally and physically, a new study has revealed.

The researchers said that the women knowingly sacrifice their own health in order to send money to their families back home.

"This study has focused on Sri Lanka, but there are many other female migrant workers working as cleaners or as other domestic helpers in the Gulf countries who are probably suffering the same fate," Hiranthi Jayaweera, Research Associate in the School of Anthropology and former senior at the University of Oxford said in a statement.

Women in several countries in Asia go to work in the Middle East where central banks print money and depreciate currencies destroying real wages and savings at home, making women and low skilled workers go in search of higher real wages, analysts say.

Among the worst central banks in the region with permanently depreciating ‘crawling pegs’ are in Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines.

So far in 2015 Sri Lanka’s central bank has busted the rupee from 131 to 142 to the US dollar over by printing money to fund a deficit and manipulate interest rates down.

The researchers said they carried out in-depth interviews with the migrant women, representatives form trade unions, national and local governments, recruitment agencies, medical testing centres, and labour migration and health experts from the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon.

Sri Lankan housemaids also work in Maldives, which also has a better functioning monetary authority than Sri Lanka with a stronger currency and no exchange controls.

A sample of 60 Sri Lankan domestic workers who were employed as housemaids and cleaners were interviewed before and after they worked abroad.

Some of the women interviewed had said they were forced to work when ill, denied rest breaks and food, painful burn were ignored and were given inadequate clothing in cold weather.

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The women interviewed by researchers most often reported injuries from heavy lifting and carrying, as well as respiratory difficulties and eye damage from the use of chemical cleaning agents.

Many also reported symptoms of mental illness, such as depression and insomnia, with the study suggesting this could be due to their living conditions abroad and the fact they missed their families.

The study suggests that the compulsory foreign employment welfare insurance scheme run by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment falls far short of what is required.

Medical expenses were only available after repatriation, as a result of illness or accident, pregnancy due to rape (but not for those escaping from abusive situations in employer households), and compensation for disability arising from accident or injury at work.

The women had no choice but to put up with employer violations of many of the health-related provisions in the standard employment contract, such as adequate food and rest breaks, limitations on working hours, and humane treatment generally, the study said.

The researchers argue that the Sri Lankan government needs to adopt a stronger approach like that of the Philippines, which has employment contracts offering more protections for its workers operating in some Gulf countries.

While Sri Lanka’s government has tried to develop labour migration and health migration policies, the sponsorship system in Gulf countries tied the migrant workers to individual employers.

The labour sending countries also lacked clout with richer Gulf countries resulting in laws designed to protect the workers’ health rights are commonly flouted, the study said.

Other analysts say women domestic workers in Sri Lanka are also not treated well in some households and are paid even less than in the Middle East. For the first time a Supreme Court judge has been charged for sexually harassing a housemaid this year.

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