Music blares from the house while paddy is strewn about to dry on the veranda. Seetha Kumarihamy, 45, is in the process of painting her house. She’s preparing for her daughter’s wedding. For the last 18 years, she has been the sole breadwinner in her family; she had not only to support her only child but also a host of other extended family members.
All expenses for the wedding of course are covered by her. The time she put in as a domestic worker in Cyprus for the last 14 years helped pay for this day.
Kumarihamy is from Ibbagamuwa, a semi-urban area in the Kurunegala District which is known to have a high number of women migrating out of the country in search of employment. In 2012, 15,821 women of the Kurunegala District departed for employment in the ‘Housemaid’ category making it one of the most popular districts for female migrants. In the same year, 9,635 men from the district went abroad to look for employment under various other categories.
In total, however, more men than women migrated in that year; 51 percent of migrants were men.
Migrants make up 24 percent of the total labour force. Their remittances form 33 percent of the country’s foreign exchange. Foreign employment in total contributes 8.3 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP).
The majority of them, close to 93 percent leave for the Middle East and within the region; Saudi Arabia attracted 27 percent of the total migrants.
Kurunegala’s thriving female foreign employment business has spawned the highest number of foreign employment recruitment agencies in the country. The agencies make use of Saudi Arabia’s ‘sponsorship system’ or ‘Kafala’ system that makes it easier for women rather than men to migrate. Recruitment agencies at times pay up to Rs. 400-500,000 as sponsorship fees for women who work as housemaids in Saudi Arabia.
“I was in an abusive marriage and at that time, going abroad was a good opportunity to escape my husband," said Kumarihamy who had initially left for Saudi Arabia to work as a housemaid at the age of 27.
As a single parent, foreign employment, she said, provided her with an income to buy a plot of land, build a house and also buy half an acre of paddy to cultivate when she eventually returned home.
Most women who migrate, according to the Bureau of Foreign Employment, are in their late 20s and early 30s and are married and are driven by a desire to build a house, educate children, to overcome poverty or to escape an abusive marriage.
The majority of migrant women, according to research by the Women and Media Collective, have a primary education and have limited marketable job skills. Hence, work as a housemaid abroad is an attractive employment opportunity to many of these women.
President Maithripala Sirisena, however, has instructed the government to reduce the number of women migrant workers seeking employment in the Middle East and eventually to put a full stop to it. His concerns mainly revolve around social implications of women leaving their homes.
The problem, however, is that, while the concerns are admirable, the government is yet to provide an alternative source of income and employment opportunities for the women who cannot find work within the borders of Sri Lanka.
Prospects at home
The Kurunegala District, located in the North Western Province is an agrarian stronghold with the highest number of smallholder farms in the country. The country’s economy, like that of many other developing countries, however, has chosen to break away from its dependence on agriculture and move towards the service sector. The Central Bank in 2012 reported that the contribution of agriculture to the country’s GDP had fallen from 12.1 percent in 2008 to 11.2 percent in 2011. This shift, thus, had a strong impact on rural families in Kurunegala which at 97 percent, make up the majority in the district. Women, rather than men were hardest hit from this shift as more women are dependent on agricultural work than men given its proximity to their homes and easier access.
Women from both Muslim and Sinhalese communities in Ibbagamuwa were also victims of the district’s failing agricultural industry. With a few jobs in the area and bleak economic prospects, foreign employment has, over the years, become the best option to find work for many of them.
“There are only a few jobs around. We have a Nippon plastic factory, an oil mill, a few garment factories, the Bathalagoda farm and cigar manufacturing. They are all what we have. You have to slave away day and night in these places to get a measly sum for a month," complained Srimathi Dassanayake, 52, who left for Kuwait at the age of 28 when she could no longer find work in her husband’s village in Polpithigama. Her husband, a day labourer, simply could not earn enough money to support their family of four, including two children.
Having worked in the Middle East under both good and bad conditions, today, she has managed to move to a more prosperous neighbourhood in Ibbagamuwa, build a house and set her two children up in various businesses.
Family and economic security
Swarnalatha Ukwatta in her research paper “Economic and social impacts of the migration of Sri Lankan transnational domestic workers on families and children left behind”, estimated that close to 22 percent of total households in Sri Lanka were recipients of remittances. Ukwatte also noted that these remittances had served as a means to alleviate poverty for an estimated one fifth of the population living in poverty.
She pointed out that “women migrant domestic workers come from families where the average monthly household income was lower than the national average monthly household income”.
This observation has held true in the North Western Province which, according to the Department of Census and Statistics in 2012, noted that the mean household income was Rs. 20,900 while the mean household expenditure was Rs 32, 497.
The Women and Media Collective research paper, “Transforming Lives: Listening to Sri Lankan Returnee Women Migrant Workers” based on the Kurunegala District highlighted that, “Most women were not employed prior to migration. They complained that the husbands’ earnings were not sufficient to ‘even feed the children’. Lack of employment opportunities are also cited by those who have tried to earn an income through employment in the country, or by being involved in small scale income generating projects.
Bathur Nisa and her family lived in a wattle and daub hut before she made the decision to go abroad in the late 1980s.
“We had nothing here. My husband had no work and we had four children to look after. My husband looked after children while I worked in Saudi Arabia for eight years," she said.
Access to employment
The United Nations in its 2015 study, ‘Sri Lankan Migrant Domestic Workers: The impact of Sri Lankan policies on workers’ right to freely access employment”, stated that there was more equal participation of women in the migrant labour force than in the national labour force where the women participation rate stood at a dismal 35 percent.
The women unemployment rate, the UN report observed, was also double that of men nationally, but became less unbalanced in migrant labour.
Over the years, however, the government has followed a policy of promoting male rather than female migration due to social and cultural issues.
“In the late 1990s, 75 percent of the country’s migrant labour force was women. By 2008, the number began to fall below 50 percent due to policies and procedures that promoted male migration over female, and skilled migration over low-skilled work," the UN report stated.
The main social and cultural issue is the role of the woman in the family unit. In a country where children are deemed to be the main responsibility of the mother, there have been concerns that families are falling apart as a result of wives and mothers seeking foreign employment.
T.M. Wimalawathi, 53, to this day regrets that she was not there to push for her son to study more.
“He passed his O/Ls well, but after that I had to go abroad again. I had great expectations for him. I thought he would go to university and get a good job. I was not there to see to that, he failed his A/L," she said.
For Noor Jahan, 54), who grew up in a conservative Muslim family, foreign employment allowed her to free herself from tradition as well as poverty at 22,
“The men in my family were not making enough money for us to survive. So I told them that I had decided to go abroad. My father opposed it, but I went anyway," she said.
“I couldn’t have earned as much money here as I did there, especially, since I don’t really travel much here and can only work from home," she added.
Whilst working abroad is financially attractive for many, returning home has proven to be both a challenge as well as a blessing - the biggest issue being finding work once they return.
Wimalawathi worked in Saudi Arabia for 15 years and sent all her money to her only son who simply spent it all.
“There was no one to manage the money I earned. I left after my husband died. We had no money, my son was only 6 years when I left," she said.
Having spent all the money, Wimalawathi’s economic condition has only slightly improved from what it was 15 years ago.
Ukwatte’s study highlighted that, “the majority of returnee migrant workers were indecisive on what they would do upon returning in terms of economic issues”.
Once they did find work, “The majority was satisfied with their new jobs. However, their salary scales and the nature of jobs performed do not show major changes, indicating either that they have not acquired skills or the skills that they have acquired are not marketable. Most of the women who migrated as domestic workers had mentioned that their Arabic language knowledge had improved and that their cooking skills and kitchen maintenance skills had improved. However, none of these skills are economically marketable”.
It has just been a few weeks since J.A. Haajiumma, 46, returned from her last stint in the Middle East, but she is planning her next trip.
“I have been to the Middle East since I was 17. I only studied up to Grade five. I used to make cigars, but I could not continue with that as I got asthmatic due to it," she said.
She is separated from her husband and has two children to provide for and educate.
“I don’t know where the money goes. I still have not bought a piece of land or a house for the family," she remarked. She earned Rs. 40,000 per month.
“When I come back, I spend all the money and then go back to earn more," she added.
“The government needs to seriously think about training these women in savings and how to manage their money before they go abroad. Most training sessions are to do with basic Arabic skills and how to use household appliances which are fine, but don’t help much in the long term. Reintegration is a major concern," said Sumika Perera, the Coordinator of the Women’s Resource Centre, based in Kurunegala.
Reintegration has become a major concern for the government as it aims to cut back on female migration as housemaids to the Middle East. Stories of women suffering abroad at the hands of their Arab employers have become commonplace. There has been increasing public pressure on the government to cut back on sending women to the Middle East.
In 2007, the Bureau of Foreign Employment reported that 85 percent of the complaints of harassment received from workers abroad were from women, but this was only 0.7 percent of the women migrant workers in 2007.
“We have just set up a unit at the Bureau of Foreign Employment to look into issues of reintegration. It would cover both the migrant worker as well as her family.
"We start by giving them Rs. 25,000 to set up a business, train them in vocational training and other employment opportunities," bureau sources said.
The special unit is a result of the ‘Sub Policy and National Action Plan on Return and Reintegration of Migrant Workers’, launched by the government in December 2015.
The sources said bureau officials were currently conducting a survey on all migrant workers. The programme would initially be set up in the districts of Polonnaruwa, Kurunegala and Hambantota. They were also speaking to banks about a possible loan scheme for returnee migrant workers.
Both Helen Abeynayake, 43, and her husband have been working abroad for the last 15 years, they are now trying to go back with their son-in-law.
“I initially went abroad because I had to retrieve our land that was mortgaged. There was no way we could have earned money working here," she said.
When asked why she preferred to work abroad than here, she said,
“If we are here, we have to go to work and then come back to our housework. There, you just have one house to look after. You can send your salary home. It is better to just do that," she said.