Sri Lankan Migrant Workers & The Case Of The 45-Year-Old Married Mother

By Imtiyaz Razak –

Sri Lanka Experiences: Neo-liberalism, the rise of migrant workers and the case of the 45-year-old married mother

Sources suggest that a Saudi court has decided to reopen the case of a Sri Lankan woman who was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. The 45-year-old married mother of two was convicted in August because she was allegedly participated in the adultery with the man, also from Sri Lanka. The fact is that “the man was sentenced to only 100 lashes while the woman was sentenced to death by stoning.” The latest development related to the 45-year-old married mother of two is rather positive. “Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva told parliament that an appeals court in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia’s capital, has decided to hear the case again following pleas by Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry. “Based on the advice of the lawyers and our (foreign ministry’s) intervention on the matter, a decision has been reached to reopen the case,” de Silva told lawmakers.”

Now it is the time to discuss the question why do those people go to countries such as Saudi Arabia in the Gulf? The answers are not so complicated. We know some answers. One answer is associated with poverty, and countries like Sri Lanka’s inability to create equal conditions for all people to seek equal economic opportunities. Some blamed Saudi wahabbism. Actually, it is not Wahabi barbarism, as alleged by Dr. Ameer Ali, killed 45-year-old married mother of two, but the very neo-liberal economic system that Sri Lanka has been practicing contributed to econonomic marginalization and polarization.

When sufferings occur, when killing hit our society, when inhumanity dominate our polity, we rather than targeting the roots of all evils, tend to blame the results and actors associated with the results. The fact is that if Sri Lanka is able to provide safer economic security and conditions for all to seek upward economic mobility, it is very unlikely Sri Lanka’s economically marginalized would choose to go out of Sri Lanka to win their bread and butter. In plain words, it is Sri Lanka’s neo-liberal economic system contribute to the sufferings. Sri Lanka’s neo-liberal economic system has history of discriminating it’s own people. Rebellion by the JVP mainly from the south both in 1971 and 1987 rooted in economic marginalization of Sinhalese. The rise of Sri Lanka’s brutal ethnic conflict, which killed more100, 000 since it’s inception, had been rooted in Sri Lanka’s economic modernization program engineered by Sinhala elites and politicians from 1956. Now the LTTE, which challenged the state violently, either silenced their guns by themselves or they were forced to silence their guns, but the fact is that there was and is economic origin to Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict.

Sri Lanka needs to seek better economic choices to help all Sri Lankans. Poverty is one of major issues in the island. Poverty in rural Sri Lanka is one of pressing challenges, and become sources of frustrations and alienations. As pointed elsewhere “nine out of ten poor people in Sri Lanka live in rural areas. The 20-year civil conflict in the north and east of the country had a major impact on poverty, leading to the displacement of about 800,000 people from their homes and sources of livelihood. Thousands of children lost one or both parents, and there was an increase in the number of households headed by women, which are more likely to be exposed to economic hardship. More than 40 per cent of rural poor people are small farmers. Apart from poor people in areas affected by conflict, most of the rural poor are concentrated in the Central, Uva, Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces. Agricultural growth in those provinces has been sluggish. A significant lack of infrastructure such as roads, electricity, and irrigation and communication facilities limits people’s opportunities to earn income through off-farm activities. Malnutrition among children is common. In some areas in six of the seven provinces, seven out of ten people have no access to electricity, and almost half of the population does not have access to safe drinking water.” (For more information click here.)

This is Sri Lanka’s problem. Evidences suggest that Sri Lanka’s poor often do not have high skill and thus they find difficulties to seek decent jobs and opportunities in Sri Lanka. But those poor do have stomach. It means that they need to eat. Apart from winning bread, they need to live. If Sri Lanka fails to provide economic security and opportunities for all, poor have to find new markets and opportunities beyond Sri Lanka. The Middle East has been that home for many poor since 1978. Studies suggest that neo-liberal economic model implemented by former President Mr. Jayewardene while helping a few to be rich, actively polarized the society. That polarization took form of migrant workers. The migrant workers from Sri Lanka did not start from 1978, but a kind of migrant workers in the post 1978 period largely is poor and unskilled, and their leading destination is the Gulf. One key trend as far as migrant workers concern is that the majority of whom are women—women breadwinners.

As pointed, “In 2003, the Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), the main administrative body regulating labor migration, estimated that 1,003,600 Sri Lankans worked abroad. By 2008, this number had increased to 1,792,368, or 9% of the island’s 20 million people. From the late 1980s until as recently as 2007, women made up the majority of these labor migrants. They accounted for 75% of the migrant flow in the mid-1990s, and by 2008 declined to a little under 50%. Of the migrant women, 88% went to work as housemaids. In much of the global North, such migrant transnational domestic workers meet the needs of the global “care deficit,” reflecting a global trend in outsourcing domestic labor to women from less developed countries. In contrast, transnational domestic servants in the Middle East free their sponsors for leisure, supporting a socially significant lifestyle. “

Evidence suggest that “most Sri Lankan migrants (92%), both male and female, journey to the Gulf, with four countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar) absorbing over 80% of Sri Lanka’s workers. In the Gulf, Sri Lankan women share the market for migrant domestic workers with women from Indonesia, the Philippines, and several other countries. Racial, ethnic, religious, and national stereotypes predetermine wages. For example, in the UAE in 2004, housemaids from the Philippines were paid more than those from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, in that order”

So the point is clear. It is materially poor people who would migrant workers seeking opportunities in the Muslim majority Gulf. That is to say that there is economic crisis in Sri Lanka, and that crisis is not caused by Saudi Arabia’s so-called Wahabbi barbarism. It is caused by neo-liberal barbarism. Sadly, Saudi Arabia along with other countries, as mentioned above, become home to poor from Sri Lanka to seek shelter to win their bread.

Note that each and every country has it’s own law and regulations so is Saudi Arabia. In the US, capital punishments are still on the book, and “31 states still retain the death penalty” Some states use the electric chair to carry out death sentences. One may say it is better than the death sentence performed by Saudi Arabia or other Muslim majority societies where Islamic ethics on law have been implemented.

The point is any functioning societies have rules and regulations. They function along those laws, rules and regulations. Different societies have different laws and regulations. It is practically impossible for a particular nation/society to embrace the experiences and practices of others for many socio-political as well as historical reasons, but it is progressively possible to make laws or humane punishment models. Those negotiations have a lot to do with relations between states and society both at popular and masses level.

But question remain is why countries such as Sri Lanka still send their own people [migrant workers] to work there. The latest development with regard to 45-year-old married mother of two is not the very first case as far as deaths occurred for housemaids in Saudi Arabia is concerned. As we might remember in 2013, “a Sri Lankan maid was beheaded after being convicted for murdering a child in her care when she was 17 years old. Sri Lankan authorities protested the death, saying that she did not receive a fair trial and their calls for clemency were rejected.”

So it is very likely the tragic story of 45-year-old married mother might not be an end of history related to the sufferings of housemaids in Saudi Arabia. Sri Lanka’s ruling political class and politicians have responsibility to create better conditions for all so both inequality and poverty eventually can be defeated. Creating better economic infrastructure and condition can boost both hope and peace. That’s the way we would prevent our own people from entering to unfamiliar territories to face unfamiliar laws.

*Dr. A.R.M. Imtiyaz attached to Asian Studies/Political Science, Temple University, USA. His teaching and research mainly focus on ethic conflict, China and Islamic movements in the Middle East.

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