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Sri Lanka: Female domestic workers are ‘Kaeli’ or pieces for labour attachés in Sri Lanka’s West Asian missions

Saturday 3 December 2022, by siawi3

Source: https://www.sundaytimes.lk/221127/news/female-domestic-workers-are-kaeli-or-pieces-for-labour-attaches-in-lankas-west-asian-missions-503427.html

Female domestic workers are ‘Kaeli’ or pieces for labour attachés in Sri Lanka’s West Asian missions

Sunday 27 November 2022,

by Namini Wijedasa

Sri Lanka’s embassies have repeatedly warned the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and other authorities of glaring shortcomings in the handling of local labour in West Asia–including an urgent need for Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) attachés in these missions to have minimum qualifications.

Written recommendations were routinely made by missions in the labour-receiving countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman, authoritative diplomatic sources said, citing reports. The recommendations were taken up at meetings but went largely unimplemented.

In these embassies, the labour sections are staffed by SLBFE employees tasked with handling Sri Lankan worker issues. But allegations of collusion with traffickers, smugglers and unscrupulous agents–among other complaints–have remained constant and unaddressed for years. The attachés are diplomatic passport holders and enjoy all the privileges and immunities of diplomats, including qualified Sri Lanka Foreign Service officers.

E.K. Kushan, the Third Secretary of Sri Lanka’s Embassy in Oman, was last week suspended from duty on allegations of human trafficking. He is a longtime employee of SLBFE and obtained the posting to Oman on political patronage, the Sunday Times learns. Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara vowed in Parliament that Mr. Kushan would be arrested.

The Minister also revealed that the Cabinet had approved the addition of another 50 SLBFE attachés to foreign missions, on top of the 40 already posted abroad.

But unless a scheme is introduced whereby qualified officers are appointed, increasing numbers will not prove beneficial to workers, Sri Lankan diplomatic sources unanimously said. They did not wish to be named.

“There is no minimum qualification of a degree, training, or education of any sort at present,” one of the sources said. “As a result, nearly all of these attachés are now appointed based on political links and other affiliations.” This was a strong complaint in all labour-receiving West Asian missions.

It was also revealed that SLBFE officials commonly referred to domestic workers as “kaeli” (pieces) and their industry as a “market”.

“They would say things like, ‘How many pieces are coming this month?’” another source explained. “That is the language they use to refer to female domestic labour.”

Reports sent to the MFA show

Sri Lankan mission heads and other diplomats have regularly warned that labour section attachés were insufficiently trained to handle disputes and were incapable of negotiating compensation for victimised migrant workers. They were deemed “not proactive” and lacking in commitment.

In Kuwait, attachés were found to be reluctant to refer worker grievances to the local authorities for action. There was evidence that, when disputes arose, preferential treatment was given to agencies over migrant workers.

Attachés in Kuwait turned a blind eye to an illegal system called “muhakkath” whereby agencies hold domestic workers in their custody for extended periods and hire them out on a temporary basis. There was indication that some officers even encouraged it.

Diplomats warn that SLBFE attachés have “no control” over agencies. They lack a mechanism to blacklist errant agents and their Sri Lankan assistants, who are known as “secretaries”. They do not even know the total number of complaints against individual agencies.

“You only need to look at how many complaints in the SLBFE database are resolved to determine their efficiency and commitment,” one senior diplomat said.

Separately, the head of each diplomatic mission has no formal control over the finances of the labour section. It has been recommended that labour-section accounts be brought under the supervision of the Head of Mission.