Nishanthini’s ordeal

Daily News Editorial

The ordeal of a Sri Lankan housemaid who had gone 15 years without being paid her wages by her Saudhi employer is just one of the many cases of trauma and anguish forced to be endured by our women who leave our shores to seek the proverbial pot of gold in the West Asian countries.

According to our front page news item in yesterday’s edition Gnanapragasam Nishanthini of Eravur who had left for Saudhi Arabia in 2000 had been slaving at a house in Saudhi Arabia till 2015 in return for nothing. In desperation she had fled the home and sought refuge in a Welfare Centre maintained by the Sri Lanka’s Saudhi Embassy whereupon her plight was brought to the attention of Foreign Employment Minister Thalatha Athukorale who succeeded is securing for her, her back wages amounting to Rs. 4.9 million (said to be the highest salary arrears received by an expatriate worker in the history of the foreign employment sector).

The Minister indeed should be commended for her endeavour in ensuring justice was done to Nashanthini, who, being a native of the North (No, it’s East -TW), would have sought employment abroad to escape the war, with the hope of collecting enough money to build a new home and provide for her family some day when peace dawns in the country. As mentioned, Nishanthini’s is just one instance of what Sri Lankan women who seek menial jobs in the Middle East, driven by poverty, have to prepare against. Not that all our housemaids have been so unlucky. In a majority of cases they have struck it rich and have returned to the country to build new homes, equipped with brand new household goods and other semi luxury items which they only could have dreamed of when they left behind their humble abodes and pitiable belonging to seek greener pastures.

In this connection the late Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike should be commended for initially opening the doors of the West Asian job market for our women, following the Non-Aligned Summit, hosted by her government in 1976. The outflow of Sri Lanakan labour that began with the trickle transformed into a virtual exodus with advent of the liberal economy of the new UNP government which lent more opportunities for foreign employment. At the time it was a common sight to see returning Lankan women from their stints in the Middle East being conveyed in lines of cars or taxies from the airport to their destinations in the villages donned in imported outfits and other finery.

However on the other side of the coin there were also reports of our women being ill treated and even subjected to torture by their employers, with some even taking the drastic step of committing suicide unable to endure their grueling ordeals. There was a time when it was common to read of women who left for the Middle East returning in coffins at the airport. It is a matter for comfort that such incidents are rare today perhaps due to the fact that the “export” of housemaids are no longer encouraged by the government which has commenced programmes to offer skills and vocational training to those seeking jobs abroad, equipping them to be gainfully employed, earning a decent wage, but also keeping them out of harm’s way of predatory, sadistic employers to whom they would have been exposed to had they been sent as housemaids.

Considering that the government depends on our housemaids as the main source of its foreign exchange earnings, steps should be taken to look into their welfare and the future of their families. True, all budgets spell out such welfare programmes and subsidized schemes for our housemaids, but whether these are being implemented is extremely doubtful. Adequate measures should also be taken for the protection of our women employed in the Middle East. A special unit should be created in our Embassies to monitor the working conditions and to ensure a harassment free environment for them. The practise all along has been to come to their rescue after the damage is done, so to speak, by which time the employee concerned would have undergone much trauma and privations.

The dengue spectre

Dengue is on the march once again with nearly 60,000 cases reported island-wide and 150 deaths so far this year. As usual, the worst affected is the Western Province (25,279 cases) with 13,111 dengue afflicted reported from the Colombo district alone. The recent floods will no doubt exacerbate the situation and unless adequate preventive measures are taken, the outbreak of dengue in the affected areas will be of very serious proportions although Minister Dr. Rajitha Senaratne has stated that so far no dengue epidemic had been reported in the flood hit areas. The Minister has also taken prompt action to rush in a vital drug in the treatment of dengue for which he was even commended by the GMOA. However the authorities should be prepared for any emergency given high risk nature associated with the areas that went under floods.