I discussed recently three of the four problems with regard to women raised in the last round of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings. The fourth I thought had to be looked at separately, because it seemed extremely serious.
This was an issue raised by one of the Women Development Officers, about a complaint made to her by a man whose wife had been offered an overseas job by an employment agency. It seemed that she had been taken to Colombo, after which he had lost contact with her. However he had heard that she was being kept there, the implication being that this was for prostitution.
Similar stories abound, such as of girls from the estate sector being brought to Colombo and moved from one house to another, and then being lost sight of. This however was the first time I had been told such a story from ground level as it were, and I have asked for further details. The Minister of Foreign Employment, to whom I mentioned the matter, has promised to look into the matter carefully if details are supplied.
I suspect such problems existed previously, but they seem to have increased in frequency since the conclusion of the conflict. Apart from there being more places full of women in need of employment being opened up for exploitation, Colombo is seen as more secure now, so tourism of all sorts is thriving. I hasten to add that I do not subscribe to the view that sexual problems spring entirely from the wickedness of foreigners, since we know perfectly well that Sri Lankans are as capable as anyone else of taking advantage of the vulnerable. But with a host of potential wealthy customers also available, the temptation to build up businesses through exploiting our unfortunate national passion for foreign employment has increased substantially.
I will look later at the whole question of prostitution, about which our laws continue coy so that it is the helpless who are remanded or prosecuted. My focus here is the exploitation of those seeking other work who end up being trafficked for immoral purposes – with some, it should be noted, being used for sex as well as the employment they expected, when domestic labour takes on additional meaning, both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
Dealing with this is difficult, but I have no doubt that the introduction, and enforcement, of systematic registration and information sharing will help. In drafting the Human Rights Action Plan we suggested that all workers going to other countries should be registered there on arrival with our embassies, with a mandatory requirement to contact them at intervals. We were told that this might be difficult, given the need for the cooperation of those countries, but I do not see why the onus should not be placed on the employment agencies within Sri Lanka who have prepared the contracts. Checking could be done by better liaison between our emigration desks at the airport, after collation of schedules of those proceeding abroad for employment, and our missions abroad.
It is possible that some names may slip through the net, but the agencies should be made responsible for such lapses. In addition, they should be required to ensure that those they send are given training to be able to deal with untoward situations. I know that the Ministry has made considerable advances in this field, with much better training now for migrant workers, but this should be made mandatory, with the obligation to ensure this vested in the agencies.
Such systems could be developed also with regard to the transport of labour within the country. Before the recent complaint in Vavuniya, I was told in Mannar of women arriving there at night, to a bus station that had an infamous reputation. Some of these it seemed had assumed they were being sent into domestic employment, but they found themselves being dragooned into prostitution. Deprived of the possibility of communicating with their families, they ended up having to accept the situation into which they were thrust.
Registration at local level of those going away for employment should also therefore be arranged, with those arranging positions made responsible for ensuring continuing communication. I do not think this should be made mandatory, since that would be unwarranted interference in general freedom of mobility, but the Protection Committees we have suggested in each Grama Niladhari Division could advise all those thinking of domestic employment, either within Sri Lanka or abroad, of precautions to ensure that lines of communication are kept open. Counselling could also be arranged as to how to deal with problems that might arise.
The Protection Committees could also help to keep an eye on the families of those going away for work, and also help with readjustment when migrant workers return. I am aware that the Ministry has arranged for an excellent facility near the airport to support those coming back, but often problems emerge only later, and it would be useful if a monitoring mechanism was in place locally to check if psycho-social or other counseling were needed subsequent to return. This cannot be arranged through a central agency, which is why local support groups are vital.
Increasingly, listening to the problems raised at our Reconciliation Committee meetings, I am convinced of the need to promote local structures and responsibilities, with central or provincial governments providing the services that are identified as necessary, whether through the police or through social interventions. The evils of trafficking are best dealt with through constant vigilance, which requires a system of personal connections and clear responsibilities. While legal provision should be made to hold those arranging employment responsible for safety, community support to monitor this will be invaluable.