Sri Lanka’s two million migrant work force has been a blessing for the economy of our war-torn nation. Indeed they are the heroic army battling on the economic frontlines providing significant support to the country’s balance of payments. Although our island nation receives a huge amount of foreign exchange from agricultural and industrial products, garments, tourism, gems and jewellery industries, the foreign exchange directly received from Sri Lankan migrant workers surpasses them all.

Last year alone, their remittances topped a staggering US$7 billion in foreign exchange to the country’s coffers. In essence, the government depends increasingly on resources that come directly and indirectly from migrant workers. But the cost in human terms seems horrific. Women represent roughly 60 per-cent of Sri Lanka’s growing migrant work force. Most of them work in the Middle East as housemaids. Their problems are numerous and linked to their gender. In several host countries they face sexual and physical abuse as well as economic exploitation and in many instances with no access to judicial recourse or proper legal representation.

At home their children may be cared for by relatives or underemployed fathers who often use women’s wages on alcohol and gambling. More and more immigrant women leave children behind in their home country, forcing them to live torn between the need to provide for their family economically or emotionally. True, some striking success stories serve as models. But sadly few women have come back with sufficient resources to buy homes and start businesses. Yet, through migrant labour many women have become the primary wage earners for their families and have been able to lift dependents out of abject poverty.

But their lot is not often a happy one. Growing awareness of abuse of migrants, especially women, has led the Sri Lankan Government to take steps to protect migrant women through its Bureau of Foreign Employment. It seeks to protect women from unscrupulous agents who charge exorbitant ‘finders fees’. The Bureau was specifically established to promote Sri Lankan migration and ensure the welfare and protection of Sri Lankan workers abroad. However, the Sri Lankan Government says it cannot regulate within the host countries the inhumane labour practices and forced drudgery. In many instances housemaids are forced to work like chattel for days without breaks. Their wages are withheld and beatings, psychological and bodily abuse are common. Women who run away from their employers must do so without passports or tickets. For some prostitution can be their only option.

For many the greener pastures they sought turn out to be a living nightmare. They often cannot come to terms with the isolation and cultural shock. Many face discrimination, loneliness and homesickness. They are all too often denied communication with friends and family through the telephone.  And there is also the shadow of sickness and death constantly looming over them. There are now shocking claims that the bodies of around 40 Sri Lankan housemaids are returned each month from Saudi Arabia after they died of unnatural causes. More horrifying, however, are allegations that internal organs were reported to be missing from the majority of these bodies.  It was revealed in Parliament recently that remains of 463 housemaids have been returned to Sri Lanka from Gulf countries, between January and October 2012.

Still, mercifully, beyond official channels and across borders, NGOs are playing key roles in providing support to these groups. There are organisations that run shelters for migrant women in distress. In Lebanon for instance, a staff of Sri Lankan nuns helps over 5,000 women per year find solutions to their legal and domestic issues and raises awareness about rights. Through the shelter women can develop a network between other migrant women and share experiences and develop a community where they participate in religious and cultural traditions. Organisations such as Caritas work to form coalitions to stop the trafficking in persons and collaborates with the Lebanese government to ensure respect for migrant human rights.

Several international NGOs like Human Rights Watch are seeking to raise awareness about migrant women. Educating the international community and lobbying governments of host countries to protect migrant workers’ rights are part of its campaign. But then again they are doing the job the Government of the country of the workers ought to be doing and have not succeeded to the extent expected. After all, it possesses the resources and has a moral obligation to do so. The Ministry of Foreign Employment has time and again been deservedly taken to task for the lack of strong bi-lateral agreements promoting labour rights in many of these countries while ignoring its responsibility to protect Sri Lankan citizens working overseas. After all it the only job it had been established for.

A responsibility to provide committed staff for the employment bureau and its missions in those countries is an absolute necessity.  It behoves the Government to provide a safe, humane workplace environment for Sri Lankan women while facilitating the migration process. Our Government must do more to ensure their rights by entering into dialogue with the host nations. They must talk on a government to government basis to improve the enforcement of laws on labour standards, especially in domestic occupations where there have been frequent violations.

Measures must include bilateral requests for increased salaries and better working conditions. Staff of overseas missions where there are high concentrations of Sri Lankan migrant workers must be more committed in attending to their duties. After all it entails a humane, sociological and economic problem of the highest magnitude.

And the missions must provide dedicated staff to be on hand in those host countries to respond effectively to problems both inside and outside workplaces. Battered and traumatised immigrant women who flee their abusers need access to bilingual support services, financial assistance, shelter, legal advice, food and counselling.  Migrant workers have up to now simply not been on the political agenda.

Current signals indicate that immigration reform is poised to re-emerge as a major concern for lawmakers and the public. The voices of migrant women workers and their advocates must be heard now. They deserve it for the immense service rendered by them to the country. After all, besides being the courageous mothers of the nation’s future generations they are also Sri Lanka’s number-one foreign exchange earner. And the nation owes them at least the basic protection they deserve. They have contributed far more tangibly to this nation than all our flabby ministries lumped together.