By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
As people in Sri Lanka and beyond pray for the stay of execution of Rizana Nafeek convicted of killing an infant in Saudi Arabia while working as a housemaid in 2005, we can only be appalled at the cruelty of a world that permits such outrages. Rizana’s execution has been ordered even though the circumstances are unequivocally to the effect that this was an unintentional mistake by an untrained teenager who should never have been given the task of baby sitting in the first instance. Undoubtedly this case should serve as a wake-up call for the Sri Lankan government.
This is not all that the government should do
Caught in the iron grip of the Saudi Arabian legal system, the death sentence passed on her by a lower court in 2007 was appealed from to a higher court due to the speedy interventions of activists, rather than any interest displayed by the government at that time. This sentence has now been confirmed in appeal. The core of the court’s sentencing remains a confession obtained by Rizana but which she had retracted from later on the basis that it had been taken under duress.
President Rajapaksa has appealed to the King of Saudi Arabia to consider granting clemency. However laudable the presidential appeal may be, this cannot be all that the government should do or could do. It cannot be thought that a presidential appeal for clemency will absolve the government of its duty towards migrant workers like Rizana who bring in a great part of the foreign exchange gains for the government but are treated like as if they are mere fodder in the process. On previous occasions where we had witnessed pending executions of like nature, all that we heard were lukewarm expressions of concern that only served inadequately to mask the real disinterest shown by the government for the plight of these people.
For this is not the first time that executions of Sri Lankans have been announced in Saudi Arabia though Rizana’s case is marked for the immediate and horrified empathy that it evokes. In 2005 for example, three Sri Lankan migrant workers in Saudi Arabia were executed after being charged and found guilty of theft. One of those executed had been only given a sentence of fifteen years and his execution was, in any event, not in accordance with the domestic processes of justice in Saudi Arabia, even granted the fact that these processes are highly inadequate in themselves. Yet government ministers only said that compensation would be given to the family but that Sri Lankans must abide by the domestic laws of Saudi Arabia. Such statements are to shrug off the definitive responsibility that attaches to a government to look after the interests of its citizens when they work as migrant labour overseas.
Wholesale overhauling of employment law
Under the relevant statute which is the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment Act, No. 21 of 1985, the government is not required to adequately protect the migrant worker. The objectives of this law are governed more by profit motives rather than a desire to protect migrant workers or safeguard their interests. Given Rizana’s case and many others like it in the past ten years and more, it is important that this law is amended to impose specific standards for the protection and promotion of the welfare of migrant workers, their families, and overseas Sri Lankan migrant workers. The Bureau should be put under a duty to provide adequate and timely social, economic and legal services to migrant workers and to make employment contingent on their fair treatment.
Importantly, redress procedures relating to the complaints of migrant workers in reference to the terms or the conditions of employment must be strengthened. Currently it is only stated that the complaint will be investigated by an officer authorized by the Bureau. After the inquiry, the officer may make an award he/she deems necessary with regard to the violation. But numerous instances have been documented where such an investigating process has been weak and has resulted in no redress to the worker. An independent and non-partisan body (consisting also of representatives of trade unions and migrant worker bodies as recommended above) should examine such complaints rather than a government influenced body.
In addition, the appointment of officers of the Bureau in any foreign country in which Sri Lankans are migrant workers should be on requisite qualifications or experience. Politicised appointments have resulted in these persons being totally unable to safeguard migrant workers in receiving countries. These officers should be given resources to establish centres in receiving countries and should provide for legal and social help and advice.
Abusive working conditions
Meanwhile, ministerial authority in the appointments to the Board of Directors should be reduced. The appointments of representatives of foreign employment agencies should be strictly regulated and members of any government agencies involved in the implementation of the law or their relatives should be prohibited from engaging, directly or indirectly, in the business of recruiting migrant workers as defined by the law.
In the light of abusive and exploitative working conditions experienced by Sri Lankan migrant workers without any redress from their home country, the definition of trafficking in this law which is limited in its scope to the method of recruitment should be expanded. The importance of this expansion is made clear in the United Nations Trafficking Protocol, which in Article 3, defines trafficking as the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat or the use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Above all Sri Lanka should adopt a government policy that restricts migrant workers to work in countries where their rights are protected. The Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 which imposes a number of these prescriptions for Filipino migrant workers is an instructive case in point.
Going into a hellhole of labour migration
But do we have the courage to do all this and not merely thumb our noses at Western governments for (as is commonly and quite wearily alleged) resorting to post colonial imperialism in relation to human rights abuses? Recently, the Sri Lankan newspapers were chock-full of stories regarding a housemaid who was found to have had nails driven through her body on her return. As abruptly, interest in the story died and we were merely informed that the Saudi Arabian government may ban Sri Lankan maids arriving to work there.
Until these issues in regard to the protection of migrant workers are resolved, it may indeed be best if this ban is, in fact, implemented. But Sri Lankans should call for the ban and not Saudi Arabia. In the alternative, prayers for Rizana and for all hr sisters who would follow her into this hellhole of migrant work may indeed be the only salvation left. - courtesy: Sunday Times -