SLBFE’s Pannipitiya Training centre : Transforming housemaids into skilled ‘domestic housekeeping assistants’ | Daily News

SLBFE’s Pannipitiya Training centre : Transforming housemaids into skilled ‘domestic housekeeping assistants’

Vijaya Kumari making the  perfect bed


Vijaya Kumari is learning how to make the perfect bed. Dressed in black trousers, a white top, an apron and a cap, she is being trained as a domestic housekeeping assistant, at the model Arabian household recreated at the Pannipitiya Training Centre of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE).

Kumari is one the 21 housekeeping assistants being trained by N. Safeeka, for the Middle East sector. Safeeka will work with them for 40 days to teach them 10 modules of basic Arabic language, housekeeping, cooking, grooming skills, Arabian culture, laws and customs, contracts and what they need to when in trouble.

The training which is a residential programme has sought to turn ‘unskilled’ housemaids into skilled ‘domestic housekeeping assistants’. They will receive a National Vocational Training (NVQ) certificate at the end of the course.

Housekeeping assistants in training

“Home stress is one of the biggest complaints, the Bureau receives. Many women who go abroad return because they cannot stay away from home. So this residential programme helps wean them away from their homes and gives them an experience of how it will be,” Assistant Manager of SLBFE, Mangalika Aluthge said.

Lingam Wigneswari, is from Narahenpita, Colombo and is proud of her training. Her own sister has just returned from a stint in the Middle East,

SLBFE Assistant Manager Mangalika Aluthge

“They scolded her there because she did not know her work but if we work well, there will be no issues. With this training, I can do better,” she said.

“We get many women who come here with no basic skills. They have never used an electric appliance in their lives and pay no attention to work. Even if they don’t end up going abroad, I believe we would have helped them acquire some skills in life,” Safeeka said.

The training is also specific on personal grooming and the women are given basic lessons in grooming and hygiene on their first days at the centre. Safeeka said this helped boost their self-confidence.

“We have not received any complaints from those who have been trained by the Pannipitiya training centre. The demand for Sri Lankan women abroad has also increased since we changed the titles from ‘housemaid’ to housekeeping assistants,” she said as she corrected Kumari’s manner of serving tea to guests.

Complaints continue

Despite the training, Sri Lanka still records a significant number of women who have had bad experiences working abroad. The SLBFE this year, as of August has received 4,141 complaints from female migrants who have returned home earlier than the stipulated contract period. The majority are from the Middle East. While complaints can range from not payment of wages to sexual and physical harassment, SLBFE, Media Spokesperson, Upul Deshapriya said that the complaints this year were mostly due to women wanting to return due to ‘home stresses’.

Trainer Safeeka and Mangalika

Since the introduction of the residential training programme in 2011, a report on the breakdown of complaints from 2010-2013 by the SLBFE showed that the number of complaints lodged by women with the SLBFE has reduced by approximately 3,000. From 2011, the numbers have remained static. The majority of the complaints were regarding ‘non-payment of agreed wages’, ‘harassment (sexual and physical)’, ‘sickness’ and ‘lack of communication’.

Statistically, however, these complaints only made up 3.93 percent of the total number of migrants who were employed abroad that year.

“We have addressed the areas where the women are vulnerable. In addition to the vocational training, they are taught to be independent, to demand for their labour rights and to have financial independence. We have 40 days training for the Middle East sector and 30 days for Europe and the Far East. The training includes workplace communication, workplace behaviour, employer relationship, occupational safety and health (reproductive health and sexual health),” explained SLBFE, Deputy General Manager (Training), Mangala Randeniya, the main architect of the training programmes.

“More than 90 percent pass the NVQ test, the first time, others get in the second time. We cannot refuse failures, they need the employment and this is their last alternative,” he said.

His programme, however, is only successful if the women register with the Bureau to receive it. Various regulatory barriers such as the age limit (between 25-55 for Saudi Arabia, between 23-45 for other Middles Eastern countries and between 21-55 for others), the Family Background Report (FBR) and various other bureaucratic procedures have forced women desperate for foreign employment to seek alternative, illegal methods of migrating for work.

According to a study undertaken by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), the SLFBE estimated that close to 27 percent of departures for foreign employment were unregistered. Their research, however, estimated that the real figure may be much larger than the Bureau’s estimate.

“There are times when a 20-year-old woman who has young children, cannot go through the 40 day residential training. She may be trafficked by middlemen and if that happens that woman can get into other problems such as financial, sexual, or labour exploitation,” Randeniya said.

Training poster

“To prevent this, we have a mandatory checking point at the airport to stop unregistered migrations. Daily we come across 10-15 such people. They are then sent back home or kept at the shelter and we ask their families to pick them up,” he said.

According to Randeniya, the majority of those who complain to the Bureau later on have used illegal channels to migrate for employment and those from formal channels complain due to personal workplace issues, they cannot prevent.

The Right workplace

The Association of Licensed Foreign Employment Agencies (ALFEA) was established as an Act of Parliament as a self-regulatory mechanism for foreign employment agents. The agents registered with ALFEA are monitored and if they engage in any malpractices, they are blacklisted by ALFEA. The agencies are also given an annual license to operate by the SLBFE with its renewable time period depending on the level of compliance of the agency.

In 2009, Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment Act No.21 of 1986 was amended to make it not compulsory for agencies to register with ALFEA (Act, No 56 of 2009). ALFEA has an estimated membership of nearly 200 out of the 800 licensed agencies in the country.

Since then ALFEA has protested against the amendment and they state that they can no longer monitor agencies as many have stopped registering with them.

Model Arabian house

Randeniya, however, remarked that he saw no change in the number of unscrupulous agencies being detected before and after the amendment,

“The 2009 Act changed ‘Shall’ to ‘May’ because ALFEA was not really regulating its own members. Many independent businessmen and agencies complained that they needed to carry out their work without unnecessary interference from ALFEA,” he said.

“Despite all these stringent training and procedures, have we seen a reduction in the numbers of complaints made by migrant workers? There is something wrong with the system”, observed ALFEA, Secretary, Wijaya Undupitiya.

“A Saudi resident spends close to Rs. 1 million (Saudi Rial 25,000) to get a maid and there lies the problem,” Undupitiya explained.

“This Rs. 1 million is used by the sponsor (agent in Arabia) and he sends about Rs. 800,000 to the local agent in Sri Lanka to source a maid. The local agent then spends Rs. 600,000 of that money to find a maid. When the money is so good, certain agents convince the maid to leave the first employer and approach the embassy to come back home. She then returns home and receives another Rs. 600,000 to go abroad once again. This scam makes Saudi employers fearful of losing their money and maids, so they treat them badly,” he said.

Undupitiya, however, is also quick to point out that the agent’s job was only to find a place and that they cannot be held responsible for a bad employer. He stressed that it was up to the SLBFE to ensure the safety and welfare of the migrants across borders, as per the law.

Corruption in the system

He also observed that many of the SLBFE regulations simply added to the corruption in the system rather than making it easier for the migrant,

“Each rule is a money-making avenue. The officers know that there is enough money to go around in this business and he puts up various regulations when an agent tries to send a worker abroad. So they bribe the official. You have people paying for a fake passport when they are underage, a fake FBR, a fake NVQ certificate or a bribe to find a suitable training date, to expedite the training or to issue a certificate without having to undergo training at all,” he said.

Despite the corruption that has cropped up due to systems like the FBR, Randeniya whose brainchild is the FBR, still believed that it empowered and not hindered the movement of female migrants.

“Workers leave on a two year binding contract and she is not in a position to violate or break the contract unless the worker is capable of paying back the employer. Mothers thus should think twice or thrice when they leave their children behind for two years, they cannot come back if there is a domestic issue, so we say look at your domestic issues first,” he said.

As he stressed that the presence of the mother during the first five years of development of a child was important, he added that if a woman wanted to leave even with children below the age of five and had valid reasons for doing so, the Bureau would take the request into consideration.

In 2015, the Bureau approved 69,493 FBRs while rejecting 1,834.

“It is not that we don’t ask the men to take any responsibility for the children. Children over the age of five need to have their father take a signed responsibility of them when the mother leaves. Earlier no one took legal responsibility of them. If the father refuses, we have mediation and we convince the individual that he needs to look after the children and let the wife go. If not we used to have at least 600-700 husbands annually who visit the Bureau, demanding that we get their wives back. The FBR was to put a stop to that. No mother or wife came to the Bureau and said ‘please stop my husband from going, because I have small children and I need the husband to look after them’,” Randeniya said.

The profits of sending women abroad as housekeeping assistants has also attracted various sub agents who seek many women in rural areas to be sent abroad,

“Foreign employment has been depicted in such a bad note that villagers are afraid to come to an agency looking for work. And I would say that the majority of agents and sub agents are corrupt.

The agencies thus send a middleman to the village and he convinces the families to send their women abroad. He also gives them an advance to get documents made, with no questions asked. Then they are under obligation and indebted to the sub agent. They have to go and everyone down the line is bribed to ensure that the women goes abroad,” Undupitiya said.

A Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) report in 2010 titled, “Integrity in Foreign Employment An analysis of Corruption Risks in Recruitment” also observed,

“A major shortcoming of the current legislation is the lack of regulation of sub-agents operating in Sri Lanka who act as a link between the job seeker and the licensed agencies”.

Apart from the corruption within agencies, the TISL also noted that, “with members of recruitment agencies sitting on the SLBFE’s Board of Directors, conflict of interest was hampering its effectiveness”.

P. Wijayalakshmi from Batticaloa said she trusted that her agent was genuine because he too was from her village.

When it comes to labour contracts, there have been many allegations that the one signed by the female migrant is different to that agreed to by her employer and that it is often in Arabic.

Randeniya explained that it was the duty of the agent to explain the contract to the female migrant and that they pull up the agent if there is a problem later on. He added that the women are taught their rights during training,

“But it always comes down to how much the employer respects labour rights. We have included these aspects in bilateral agreements signed with the receiving countries but it is the responsibility of the host country to convince their citizens to respect labour laws,” he said.

Deshapriya in the meantime explained that the female migrant signed a general employment contract written up by the Bureau with minor clauses added to suit the particular country they were migrating to.

While countries such as Hong Kong have detailed labour laws for both domestic and foreign labour, Middle Eastern countries are not party to many of the International Labour Organization conventions. Saudi Arabia also does not recognise domestic work under its labour laws. Bilateral agreements in the meantime are not binding and thus sending countries, can do very little to enforce breaches in it. Thus far, Sri Lanka has entered into six bilateral agreements with receiving countries in the Middle East but follow up has been poor. In 2014, Sri Lanka entered into a bilateral agreement with Saudi Arabia for female domestic work. While Sri Lanka appointed a focal point to implement the agreement, Saudi Arabia is yet to do the same.

“The system will work if there is no corruption,” Randeniya said as he proudly shows the various programmes offered to female migrants, and he admitted that this was often not the case. 



There is 1 Comment

I’m so happy to read the article about the SLBFE training school in Pannipitiya. Poverty doesn’t mean we should ill-treat another human being. I always disagreed having poor people as our servants. Unless you are born with a disability and need caring and looking after, I do not see the reason why we need baby sitters and kitchen staff and cleaners. Why have children if you can’t look after them? Laziness and attitude of some people. Get the work done and refuse to pay. Thank you for this school. May God Bless the Founder of such a worthy cause.


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