The Sunday Leader

The Unknown Rizanas

Ariyawathie, the housemaid who returned to Sri Lanka with nails embedded in her body

Sri Lanka expressed outrage at the tragic death of young Rizana Nafeek. Her story was highlighted as if it were uniquely unjust.
Yet the truth is that there are many Rizana Nafeeks out there – young men and women who go overseas in the hope of a better future, only to find themselves trapped in a nightmare and unable to return. These people get little publicity, but they languish in prisons and embassies, longing to return home.
An earlier article by The Sunday Leader found that young girls who were looking to go overseas as domestic workers often did not have to pay any fees to the agents, other than covering the cost of their medical tests. Hundreds of girls go overseas every year – Sri Lanka’s largest source of income is from remittances by Sri Lankans working overseas.

And what do these girls find?

Take Seelawathi’s story. Seelawathi lives in Galle and is anxiously awaiting the return of her daughter. At just 17 years old, she went overseas to Jordan, seeking employment. She received a 2-year contract, which ended in March last year. However, instead of letting her return, the girl’s employers refused to let her go. They held her against her will, beat her and expected her to work without a salary.
The anxious mother then contacted the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) but she received no assistance. Having heard of UNP MP Ranjan Ramanayake’s involvement in the migrant worker issue, Seelawathi then reached out to him. They found that the girl’s phone had been taken away from her. Somehow, they managed to get in touch with the terrified girl and told her to run away.
In July last year, the girl fled to the embassy in Jordan. Her employers promptly filed a police complaint, claiming she had stolen some items when she left. After this, the girl’s travel agent in Battaramulla called and threatened Seelawathi, asking her to withdraw the complaint she had filed with the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment. “Withdraw your complaint, or you will never see your daughter again,” the agent is supposed to have said. So she promptly withdrew the complaint in fear for her daughter’s life.
Since then, nothing has happened, although Seelawathi says she is determined to get her daughter back, and is relying on Ramanayake to assist her. Her daughter is 21 years old now.

The Lucky Ones

Some others are luckier. A woman who recently returned safely after being detained told her story- she had been cheated by her recruitment agency, and had been unaware that she was working illegally when she was detained by police. She stayed in a detention camp in Al Alayah, Riyadh, for about a month in June 2012, with about 700 other Sri Lankan workers. Each day, embassy officials visited different lots of workers, she said. The woman added that she was well looked after in the camp. Conditions were hygienic, and the authorities even took the precaution of having female officers to oversee the women detainees. Yet what is disturbing is that she had no idea that she was working illegally or doing anything wrong. Another woman detained in September 2012 said that she, too, had not filed any documents when she arrived. She had run away from her employers, who had turned her over to the police. She spent five days in prison and 19 days at the embassy while her papers were processed. She, too, said that she was treated well while in prison.

Money Minded

Ramanayake meanwhile says that the Government is not doing enough to look out for vulnerable migrant workers like Seelawathi’s daughter. “They are always thinking of income,” Ramanayake said, adding that the President had undertaken to aim for 6 to 10 billion rupees through remittances; in short, to encourage more people to work overseas in countries like those in the Middle East.
However around 600 people were camping under the Kandara bridge in Jeddah, hoping to return home, but with no money and no passports to do so. Each Hajj festival, three tickets are given out to three lucky migrant workers, and so they camp here, hoping to get a ticket home.
Many migrant workers are forced into brothel houses and made to work as sex workers and then wind up in jail. Yet people continue to flock to the Middle East – mainly because the region offers attractive cash advances, as much as Rs. 200,000, according to Ramanayake. “Poor people are happy with the advance… but they don’t know what they will face when they go there,” he said.  Just like Rizana, underage girls travel overseas with fake passports and IDs. Many of these vulnerable girls are raped or even gang-raped, Ramanayake said.  However if the victim was to escape from her employer’s house and run to the embassy, she would often be caught by the police and wind up in prison, especially if she had no identification documents or her passport.
Ramanayake alleged that many countries had stopped sending migrant workers, especially females, to Saudi Arabia in particular (for example, Sudan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh) mainly because the law is such that if a housemaid is raped, the embassy officials cannot enter the house to help the girl.
As to the number of housemaids currently incarcerated in prisons in the Middle East, Ramanayake said that no one seemed to know an exact number as it is a closely guarded secret.
Francis Solomontine of the Centre for Human Rights Development confirmed that the figures were unknown to many, as the numbers of the detained remained with the embassy, without it being released. However, he cited a BBC Sandeshaya article, which said there were nearly 350 Sri Lankans in Saudi prisons two years ago. A contact of Solomontine’s had told him that last year there were around 200 Sri Lankan women detained in the Middle East, but those figures could, and do, change fast.
Solomontine explained a little further about the procedure, which comes into play when a migrant worker goes abroad. The moment he or she enters another country, their mobility is controlled by his/her employer. Unless the employer releases what is known as a ‘No Objection certificate’ the worker cannot leave the country, even if the employer breached the worker’s contract. Running away would amount to a violation under Sharia law, and so the workers who turn up at the embassy, seeking redress, are often turned over to the police. The police would then conduct an inquiry and examine the worker’s records. If the inquiry ends satisfactorily, the worker can leave. If not, the worker must stay in the Middle East until the employer releases the No Objection certificate.
One of the Sri Lankan embassy’s duties is to visit the women in prison, but they do not take the time to hear individual cases, even if, as in some instances, the woman is innocent. They do concern themselves with the general sanitary conditions, but do not look too closely, Solomontine said.

Government Responds

What does the Government say to these allegations of neglect? Mangala Randeniya, the Deputy General Manager of Social Development at the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment said that it was a common misconception that the SLBFE was responsible for imprisoned migrant workers who were accused of committing crimes. Such cases fell under the purview of the Ministry of External Affairs, he said. The SLBFE would get involved only with regard to workplace issues.
While the SLBFE provided support in criminal cases, cases like Rizana Nafeek’s and Ariyawathie’s, the housemaid who was returned with nails embedded in her body, fell outside their purview. Yet the Bureau did provide assistance when migrant workers died overseas – assisting with transportation and funeral expenses, for instance, he said.
Secretary to the Ministry of External Affairs, Karunatilaka Amunugama, confirmed that Minister Dilan Perera had spoken about raising the age limit for women migrating for work to the Middle East to 25 years. He also said he was unsure of the number of Sri Lankans incarcerated in the Middle East. He added that both the SLBFE and the Ministry of External Affairs worked together to resolve migrant worker issues.
Responding to allegations of Government negligence as to migrant worker welfare, Amunugama said that the Government was presently doing better than they had in the past. The welfare package offered to migrant workers had increased, and there were better opportunities and facilities provided for Sri Lankans compared to last year. Amunugama said that the Government had increased its involvement in migrant worker welfare and was paying more attention to the issue. However, he conceded, there was still more room for improvement in terms of Government involvement.
This is cold comfort to the women who leave to the Middle East every year, hoping for a brighter future. Many are cheated by unscrupulous agents. Many fall victim to brothel houses. Many are detained in the Middle East – with the Government authorities having little or no idea of how large the problem actually is. While these women’s situations might not be deemed as dire as Rizana’s, it truly is a sad state of affairs in which girls like Seelawathi’s daughter are trapped, not knowing when, or if, they can return home.

One Woman’s Nightmare
Tehani* (name changed to protect privacy) has been out of a job for a year, and says she has been through a living nightmare.
When she signed a contract on January 24, 2012, with an employment agency based in Dehiwala (SLBFE Reg no: 2036) she expected to travel to Dubai as a store supervisor. That was the context in which she signed her agreement. Yet she had no inkling of what was to follow after she signed that first contract. The first red flag came when she was asked to pay the agency fees. She was first asked to pay Rs. 20,000, and then asked to pay a further Rs. 52,000. Yet, when she asked for a receipt for the fees, the agency asked her “Don’t you trust us?”
Yet, desperate for a job, she continued with her idea of settling overseas. When she arrived in Dubai, on January 29, 2012, she found things were very different to what she had expected. The original contract Tehani signed with the local recruitment agency had specified that she would have a basic salary of AED 2100 a month, with a cost of living allowance of AED 1400, monthly. This meant that she should be receiving AED 3500 a month, with her employer providing transport from Deira.
Yet, the contract that she was asked to sign on entering Dubai with Circle K, a supermarket, entitled her to a basic salary of just AED 1200 a month, with just AED 800 for other expenses – amounting to less than her basic salary as had been earlier agreed.
What is more, although her employment contract in Dubai specified that she only had to work 8 hours a day, she in fact had to work 10 hours, with just a 20-minute break.
Worst of all, Tehani, who had 17 years of experience in the sales field, holding team leader and supervisory positions in such companies as Atlantis and Ceylon Biscuits Ltd, was expected to work as a labourer, washing and cleaning toilets, mopping floors and cleaning desks. She found this out later, because the local agents neglected to ask her to attend orientation, claiming they had tried to reach her on her mobile, with no success, while the other women recruited had all attended the orientation and were briefed of their duties.  “If I had known these were supposed to be my duties, I would have not taken up the job,” Tehani explained.
All this amounted to a clear breach of contract, with the contract details being totally different to the one Tehani had originally signed.  Tehani was expected to stay in a tiny room (8’ x 6’ x 7’) shared by three women. There was no attached toilet. Walking towards the toilet, a gaping hole in the roof could be seen. There was not even a locker in which the women could safeguard their belongings. “It was like a place in Thotalanga… not a place suitable for ladies. I was afraid,” Tehani said.
Horrified, Tehani rented out her own accommodation, which cost her around AED 2700 out of her own pocket.
She worked from January 30 to February 16, while her visa application was going through, but worked only according to her original contract, completing basic supervisory tasks.  Every 2 months, the workers would have to have their passports stamped, after which, Tehani knew, she would be unable to leave – and if she did try, there would be a huge process involved in canceling her contract. She might even be subject to a 6 month ban from the Middle East. While on the way to get her passport stamped, she demanded that the office driver take her to the recruitment agency partner in Dubai to sort the matter out. The driver at first resisted, and asked Tehani to hand over her passport, which she refused to do.
Yet when she complained at the office, she was told that she could leave if she wanted, but she would not be repaid for the expense she had incurred in traveling to the Middle East. This came up to around Rs. 80,000, including travel to the hospital and the agency and medical fees. This was not counting the rent she had had to pay for private accommodation.
She was eager to prove that she did not want to run away and was willing to work according to the contract that she had signed. Yet the salary she was supposed to receive for the two weeks she had worked was withheld, and it was only when Tehani in desperation went to the Dubai Labour authorities that she received her salary and some assistance.
In addition to which Tehani said, she had travelled numerous times, including to the company head office based in Sharjah, to try and sort the matter out. She also appealed to the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, the Human Rights Commission, the National Child Development and Women’s Authority and the Sri Lankan embassy. The SLBFE Chairman and the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs promised to look into the matter – but with little result.
Tehani was eventually awarded compensation to the amount of Rs. 100,000, which she says is insufficient to cover the loss of job opportunities, the expenses she incurred (including dozens of visits to the SLBFE and other offices to plead her case) and her pain of mind.
Now, she is back in Sri Lanka, but her passport has been with the local agent, and she has since missed lucrative job opportunities. What is more; she found that the normal practice was to award a migrant worker 24 months of his/her gross salary. Tehani is claiming over Rs. 300,000 in compensation, but says she has little hope of getting the money. Her only hope, she says, is that other women do not end up like her. “There are so many women… who signed their contracts. They felt they have no other choice,” Tehani said, explaining how some had pawned jewellery and sold land to go overseas, while others had families and young children to support. “I don’t want this to happen to anyone else,” she said.
Tehani provided The Sunday Leader with copies of both the contract she signed with the employment agency in Dehiwala and the contract she received on arrival in Dubai. She even provided the SLBFE and other agencies with video evidence of the state of her accommodation and workplace.
The SLBFE for its part said that there are 750 agreements signed daily with foreign countries. According to Randeniya just 0.5% of these agreements reported violations of their employment contract. “When a violation is reported… we take immediate action to rectify it,” he claimed adding that the contract violations reported overseas were even fewer than contract violations reported within Sri Lanka. “We always take action in these cases. There are very few which are pending,” Randeniya said.

6 Comments for “The Unknown Rizanas”

  1. Ramzeen Azeez

    I have been working in Habarana for about 2 years now, teaching English for staff, in a well-known star-class hotel. Some of my students are gardeners who are recruited from outlying villages. Most of the women have either been deserted by their wayward husbands (after a couple of kids) or dead due to kidney diseases. But their courage and positive demeanor is heartwarming. The salaries they earn ensure a better future for their kids. One if my female students (a widow) has an accountant son in Dubai, while she defiantly continues to maintain her freedom and independence, sweeping the hotel gardens and roads. This group, are by far the most interested and without a doubt possess the best inquiring minds.
    The hotel’s wide reaching CSR program has improved the lives of the villagers, farmers and schools in the vicinity. Some of the women are in the Middle East and in most cases, doing very well. One or two have returned after a short stint mainly due to overwork. Nobody has any horror stories that we often hear and read about.
    If the government could moot similar CSR projects in poverty stricken areas, poverty alleviation will ultimately become a thing of the past. Our entrepreneurs are second to none and Sri Lankan hearts are are in the right place. This is a viable suggestion and it only needs the blessings and the encouragement of the administration.

  2. manel fonseka

    You assert that “the fact remains, the Government did its utmost” to obtain Rizana’s release. Please back up this claim by a proper account of what this “utmost” consisted of, apart from frequent jaunts by government ministers, a couple of Presidential appeals and half hearted belated assistance for an appeal, only after Rizana had already been condemned to death– an appeal, moreover, that would very likely never have been lodged had it not been for one of those oft-pilloried NGOs. Yes, the execution was postponed, but can you attribute that simply to our government’s “intervention” and not also to the huge efforts made by people and organisations around the world in Rizana’s cause. I think we need to know the real content of our official intervention. Why, for instance, was it not possible to establish Rizana’s real age? And why were our Ambassadors in Riyadh changed so frequently in this period. And why was a stone wall erected between our Embassy there and any concerned wellwishers who wanted to send letters and other things to Rizana in prison, even via the Embassy? What really was the extent of consular aid and comfort to her in those terrible years? Apart from the visits of that devoted lady dentist Kifaya, who else among the Embassy community or the upper echelons of the Sri Lankan expatriates, extended any comfort to that suffering child?

  3. Audrey

    I personally know the lady called Tehani, I know her real name and Identity, YES What she says is absolutely true I vouch for her as I did work at the Atlantis too I personally did take a great interest in this lady by assisting her, she was as she she claims a “Team Leader”, too many injustices have been made on her, it is a shame as this lady is very affluent and very capable, her English knowledge is absolutely amazing, Unfortunately she lost her job at the Atlantis due to the Recession that took place in 2000. I had by the moved on myself and I know of this case as she did write to me. I was shocked still shocked as how come Recruitment agencies are not been scrutinized the rackets that go on is alarming while poor females are taken for a good ride not only are the raped and abused by their sadistic employers they are also raped by these very job agencies of their monies.

    I have been working in the middle east for over 17 years, and currently I volunteer to a certain women’s group where we assist those fallen, those abused, raped and tortured and many are the stories i can relate. but what is the use we have been writing, pleading begging our politicians to open their eyes and see the injustices and atrocities that are been made on our women on a daily basis but nothing has ever happened no response., No even do any of these politicians visit, thankfully lately we hear about Ranjan Ramanayake’ s involvement in assisting such cases but he alone does not hold the power, it is those who have the power that should be using their powers for worthy causes.

    Certain Middle East countries do not have any counsul or Embassy representation for our women to run for aid, But every middle east country has their representative offices in Sri Lanka!,

    Alas when will there be a change A change for the better…….

  4. harry

    This is just unbeliavable. How is it possible that these barbarians, seems like mostly in the Middle East, are able to carry on with these activities, and there are others, Singapore too, even though it is considered a quality country. What surprises me the most, the embassies, that are supposed to protect their own citizens in far away countries, and particularly Sri Lanka government, actually can not help or won’t help, so the only thing I can figure is, these people are corrupted. Middle East countries are famous for corruption, they will pretty much anything as long they get paid for it. And another thing, Koran does not allow that, so these people are total hypocrites, their religion is just a means of convenience. they use it if it helps them to gain something, and they drop it just as fast if it does not help. Why do we even talk to these monsters and idiots.

  5. Haasya

    Our embassy staff as usual do not care any interest in these things. For them these people are not important at all. Embassy staff thinks that they were appointed as a thank you for services rendered and that they are there to have a long holiday and enjoy themselves. They do how ever take the trouble to treat visiting govt big wigs very well. this is normally the case with SL enbasiies in many countries. When you look at the people we have been appointing (former glamor women , retired people, house wives of ailing film producers, darlings of ministry heads) we cannot expect better.

  6. sena

    shame. we cannot go any lower when we send women to earn dollars and worse the powerful spend those dollars for dutyree luxuries without any hesitation

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