Protecting our workers abroad
Doctors at the Kamburupitiya
Government Hospital yesterday carried out a landmark operation
which has never been performed on a civilian in Sri Lanka
before. They removed most of the 24 nails cruelly inserted into
L T Ariyawathi's body by her Saudi employers during the last
No one has still got over the shock of hearing about the
brutal manner in which her employers treated her, after she
complained that she was overworked. There is widespread anger
and resentment that she has been subjected to such a cruel
When she left Sri Lanka five months ago, having completed all
legal procedures such as the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau
registration, Ariyawathi had high hopes. She wanted a better
life for her and her family. She hoped to realize that dream
with the funds that she would be saving and sending home.
Alas, it was not to be. Her employer was cruel beyond words.
A harsher punishment is hard to imagine. It is just a miracle
that she survived.
Although this case is particularly shocking, this is not the
first time that such cases of harassment and degrading treatment
have been reported from the Middle East. Many Sri Lankan women
who had left for the Middle East as domestic workers have been
at the receiving end of such 'punishment' meted out by the
employers. In fact, there had been a few cases of mysterious
deaths of our workers. In one particular instance, vital body
organs were missing from the body of a woman flown back to Sri
Lanka, suggesting a sinister link to the illegal trade in body
The authorities must pursue Ariyawathi's case until the Saudi
authorities take action against the perpetrators. She must be
given full legal, medical and psychological support. It is thus
heartening to note that the Sri Lanka Foreign Employment Bureau,
the External Affairs Ministry and our embassy in Saudi Arabia
are actively pursuing all legal angles in this case to ensure
justice for Ariyawathi.
This also reminds us of the case of Sri Lankan teenager
Rizana Nafeek, who was initially sentenced to death in Saudi
Arabia for allegedly smothering her employer's baby. Unlike
Ariyawathi, she has gone abroad more or less illegally, on
documents that falsified her age, through a rogue foreign job
agency. Nevertheless, the Sri Lankan Government and the Asian
Human Rights Commission have taken up her case at the highest
courts in Saudi Arabia and we earnestly hope that her case too
will be resolved favourably.
What this incident brings to the fore is the acute need for a
more pro-active role by our embassies in the Middle East to
protect these innocent workers. There are several Government
departments and agencies that should work together to make it a
reality. Among them are the External Affairs Ministry, the SLBFE
and the Labour Ministry.
Each embassy should have more welfare officers to look after
our workers abroad. More safe houses should be secured for women
workers, so that they have a place to stay for a few days if
they somehow escape the grip of a brutal employer. There should
be a bigger emergency fund for the repatriation of such victims
and to meet their legal or medical costs.
There should be a better follow-up mechanism to check the
welfare especially of women workers in the Middle East. There is
little knowledge of what happens once the domestic worker is
assigned to a household, especially if it is in a remote area.
Our embassies should work closely with the authorities of the
respective countries to ensure the well-being of our workers
every step of the way.
The Government has taken several commendable steps such as
prohibiting mothers with children aged five or under from going
abroad for employment. There should be a long-term view and
strategy on this whole issue. As Sri Lanka progresses rapidly to
become a leading Asian nation, there will be little need to send
our workers for manual labour abroad. Instead, we will be able
to send skilled and professional labour abroad. In the meantime,
the authorities must do everything in their power to ensure the
safety and welfare of our workers overseas.