Family Background Report for Foreign Employed Housemaids



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by Jolly Somasundram


A Family Background Report (FBR) is an administrative necessity before housemaids are permitted to be employed abroad. Under it, no mother having children less than five years of age, is approved for foreign employment. There had been pressure for its cancellation because of a tight housemaid supply market and a claimed infringement on freedom to engage in a chosen field of work. Therefore, there is a frenzied call to widen bandwidth, to mine this supply market. The FBR is not a mere administrative document: it has profound legal, humanitarian, political and economic implications.


The employment of housemaids abroad is one component of the world-wide trade in human flesh. This trade is given a number of names, one is called slavery (where the human body is violently captured and sold as a tradeable asset, to be disposed at the discretion of the owner); another is called indentured labourers (where these labourers, enticed by inducements, are placed on life contracts by the owner but receive a few extra rights denied to a slave), the third is called migrant worker (short-term contracts to return home at the end of the contract period), and a fourth called sex workers (either violently trafficked or enticed, to deploy sexual assets for work in brothels and Karoake bars). Foreign employed housemaids are a sub-set of the migrant worker segment, enticed for overseas employment on short-term contracts. This flesh trade is a cottage level industry, where the product - the female human body- is sourced from her home, by commission agents who manage this supply chain- from local domicile to foreign home labour market.


Commission agents suffer no barriers to entry. Since there are no minimum educational qualifications, enterprising school drop-outs are not averse to taking a chance as commission agents. These commission agents are labeled with a variety of names specific to their trade, slave traffickers or slave traders, kanganies for those who brought workers to work on the tea plantations in Sri Lanka, snake-heads who are illegal Chinese labour agents, pimps for those in the sex trade and Agency Karayas for those, in Sri Lanka, who prise out house maids from their homes for foreign employment. Agency Karayas do not need production technology to ply their trade, only office information technology in the form of fax machines, telephones and computers with e-mail facilities, all cooped together in warrens located mostly in Maradana.


Agency Karayas get a sizeable commission for each housemaid sent abroad- in the region of US $5,000-US$7,000. The cost and freight of sending a housemaid to the designated market (mostly Middle-East), is a maximum of US$2,000 which include payments at embedded points of the corruption trail (insurance is paid by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment). Thus, the nett profit to the Agency Karaya is a minimum of US$3,000 per housemaid sent abroad. The housemaid is paid about US$250 per month, her total income for her two year contract being US$6,000. The minimum nett commission of US$3,000 received by Agency Karayas is, therefore, 50% of the total earnings of the housemaid, an extremely high margin for an enterprise that is neither in production nor trade but serving a supply function.


In 2015, about 30,000 housemaids went abroad. The total commissions received by Agency Karayas would be a minimum of US$90 Million (Rs 12 Billion). Some of the richest in Sri Lanka are Agency Karayas. With this type of annual income, Agency Karayas wield significant political clout. When Dilan Perera, the then Minister of Foreign Employment operationalized the FBR - in the teeth of opposition- Agency Karayas mounted a vociferous public picketing campaign against him, the main poster reading "Dilan Go Home". Dilan Perera had to go home! Machiavelli said that a man will forgive the one who had seduced his wife but never the one who deprived him of his assets, in which instance, his hate is implacable.


Agency Karayas, the shakers and movers in housemaid flesh trade, are in the lowest stage of economic activity, that of hunter-gatherer. They do not produce housemaids but enjoy a free ride, gathering them from the catchment of skills produced by the public education system. Product development of house maids is externalized to society, Agency Karayas getting a free lunch to reap the benefits. Unlike what economists blare out, there is a free lunch and sometimes, free bedding!


Cabinet approval for the FBR was given in 2007 but its implementation was kept in abeyance. In 2013, a number of incidents were reported, where nursing mothers had abandoned their babies (two were less than three months of age) and taken flight to work as housemaids. These mothers had subcontracted care arrangements of their mother-bereft babies, to their aged grandmothers. Minister Dilan Perera decided that it was time to activate the FBR. The minister who succeeded him- Thalatha Athukorale - continued to implement the FBR, an excellent but rare example of good sense trumping petty, competitive politics. She has even been talking of extending the age restriction to cover mothers having children less than nine years.


Karl Marx remarked that the only imperialist in the world is a baby in the house, the rock star of the family. The first five years of the baby’s life, where the baby’s brain development is at its maximum, is the critical bonding period in the child’s socialization to the world, an act of sacrificial joy delighted in by the mother, who is the primary bonder. This bonding contributes substantially to the child’s brain development. No doctor or religion (all four of them in Sri Lanka) had recommended that this responsibility be subcontracted by the mother, unless there were imperative force majeure considerations. The constitutional right of unhindered travel is not one of these conditions. As much as a bachelor, whose rights of playing the field, get abbreviated on his marriage, a woman- on becoming a mother- loses rights if they are asserted to the detriment of the baby. Both modern Roman Dutch law and English law are agreed on the principle that the predominant interests of the child were paramount. A collection of women NGO’s, in association with a group of Agency Karayas, through a class action, attempted to overturn the FBR, at the Appeal Court on the grounds that, since the right of free movement is entrenched in the Constitution and a woman is a worker first and a mother only second, the FBR is an abridgement of a mother’s constitutional right of unhindered travel and work. The Appeal Court rejected this faux liberalism, rejecting the neo-cons’ assertion that a human being is an economic person. Home is not a house a remittance away, but a location for feelings of warm emotional inclusion. The Appeal Court saw no cogent and substantial need to change the mother-bonded life of the child: a baby’s welfare supersedes all other considerations. Failing recourse to the Courts, which endorsed the FBR, these Agency Karayas and collaborating women NGO’s are now trying to get the FBR repealed through administrative means.


Agency Karayas (the functional successors of the slave traders of the 18th and 19th centuries, who sent slaves from Africa to the Americas) have much to gain financially if the catchment of housemaids is widened. Next to Filipinas, Sri Lankan housemaids have the best brand recognition. In the Middle East, dowries are paid by men. No Middle Eastern bride would consider a marriage proposal worthwhile, unless the bridegroom sweetens it with a Sri Lankan housemaid. But Sri Lankan housemaids are in severe short supply. Therefore the pressure, with the support of women NGO’s, to widen the market allowing sourcing from FBR prohibited mothers, having children less than five years old! Neither the Agency Karayas, like the slave traders nor the women NGO’s care a whit about the severe familial dislocation or the unimaginable emotional trauma of the children left behind, caused by this disruption, leading one to wonder whether those in women’s NGO’s are married, and, if so, whether they had experienced the blessed state of motherhood.


The devious modus operandi of Agency Karayas, optimizing on a woman’s fluttering sensibilities, are to use honeyed words offering a passport to an employment paradise that is the Middle East, to liberate herself from the dull village life she was now enduring, earn more money than she could here and, thereby, gain everything she had dreamt of. Their strategy is explained in the play, Rizana: The Tragedy of an Underaged Housemaid. Agency Karayas spiced their words with a hard cash offer of at least Rs 1.5 lakhs, given as a donation, a princely sum to impoverished villagers. What is being revealed today is an irony. Slavery was abolished because of campaigns conducted against it by well-intentioned civil society organizations of that time. Women civil society organizations of today, however, are on the reverse mode, collaborating with Agency Karayas, to widen this human flesh trade, the catchment to include mothers with children less than five years of age. In the 1848 publication The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx drew pointed attention to the insidious effect of money in corroding values and corrupting individuals. In the mad pursuit for commissions, Agency Karayas show that nothing is sacred, even the welfare of children less than five years of age. How vindicated Marx would be!


Women NGO organizations, who are self-appointed, have no accountability to anyone and represent only themselves, claim that international humanitarian organizations are supportive of their efforts to abolish the FBR. Nothing could be further from the truth. The apex humanitarian organization in the world is the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). There is, on the UNHRC, Saudi Arabia – with a sad record of human rights, which practices primitive and barbarous lapidation (stoning to death) and decapitation. In the recent case of a Sri Lankan housemaid sentenced to lapidation, the UNHCR did not move a finger, neither did these vociferous women NGO’s. Saudi Arabia, on the UNHCR Council, is even chairing one of its panels! It is like Dracula being on the panel supervising the Blood Bank.


In summary, Agency Karayas, in a fluid and complicated coupling with women NGO’s, are urging the widening of the catchment base of foreign employed housemaids by enabling mothers with children less than five years to be recruited as housemaids. If this were approved, Agency Karayas would drool at the commission bonanza now on offer, specially since the labour market for housemaids is tight, particularly in Saudi Arabia. Agency Karayas and women NGO’s are the warp and the woof of this human flesh trade. It is best that their pretentious, unethical representations be ignored. If the FBR were to be abolished, since in policy formulation, every success leads to a new campaign, the next argument of these two lobbies would be to widen bandwidth further, to rescind the age limit on housemaids - which is now 21 years (for Saudi Arabia it is 23 years with an NVQ3 qualification). These limits were imposed by Dilan Perera following on the decapitation of the trafficked, underaged Rizana. Women NGO’s are sure to rekindle the argument that any woman, like any citizen above the age of 18, should be free to travel in search of whatever legal job opportunities are available. This is the neo-cons position, that of considering a human being a mere income generating asset, irrespective of responsibilities as mothers. For the neo-cons, a baby’s human rights, those of being with the mother, are a non-issue. Women NGO’s feel that the profound yearning of a baby for tactile connections with the mother, could be transmuted, by a remittance from afar. The abolition of the FBR would benefit Agency Karayas with additional commissions and women NGO’s with more donor funding. Left behind children don’t enter their equations.


The FBR, enjoying judicial entrenchment, should not be abolished.


 


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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