EDITORIAL - Saving our girls from modern slavery

The world’s major religions have come together in a sacred mission to curb or end modern human slavery which Pope Francis has described as a crime against humanity. Up to 100 million, mainly girls and young women including mothers have been lured into this international crime and shame. The females, mainly from middle-class or poverty stricken families are attracted by so-called job agents who offer them productive employment where the innocent girls believe they could improve living standards for themselves and their families back home. In a typical case, an Indonesian girl said she had paid more than US$20,000 to an agent who offered a highly paid job in New York. But when she went there, she found her job agent was a glorified pimp and she was forced into prostitution till a civic action group rescued and helped her to restore her human dignity.

In Sri Lanka, the new National Government has committed itself to a mission of good governance, democracy and social justice with a more equitable distribution of wealth and resources, especially in rural areas where the struggle for life drives girls and young women into human slavery overseas.

Civic action movements led by the Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha Nayake Thera – who played a powerful role in guiding Sri Lanka to a greater democracy – have called for tough new laws to end the crisis where up to two million people ignorantly go or are forced to go into some degree of modern human slavery. 

According to figures compiled by the Ministry of Foreign Employment, last year 300,413 went overseas for work. This is the official figure of those who went through legal channels with the real figure being much more because job racketeers are continuing their operations. Of the the total, 88,661 went as housemaids. This year the number has come down with the total number of migrant workers up to May being 97,042 and 29,161 of them being housemaids going mainly to the Middle East. 

Last year, the Daily Mirror in an investigative report quoted an airport official as saying that in the past few years more than 450 bodies, mainly of housemaids from Saudi Arabia have been flown back to Sri Lanka each year. When there is a death of a migrant worker, the host country conducts a postmortem examination. In almost all the cases, the cause of death is stated as heart attack, with no more details. Sometimes the cause of death is reported as suicide, with little or nothing about how or why it happened. Even if there is some suspicion, an additional postmortem examination is conducted in Sri Lanka only on a court order. But, since the families of these workers are poor and helpless, they cannot afford to hire lawyers and get court orders. They are unable to fight for justice and the case is buried there. 

Yesterday, the state channel, Independent Television Network (ITN) reported that more than 20 officials had been sacked or suspended for not abiding by new guidelines relating to migrant workers. In terms of these guidelines, mothers who have girl children less than five years of age are not allowed to go abroad unless there is a grandmother or elder sisters to look after the child. This guideline was imposed not only because of the human slavery and sometimes sexual exploitation of young mothers working abroad but also because of the recent public horror over cases where girl children were raped and killed. Foreign Employment Minister Thalatha Athukolara said the action against the errant officials was only the first step towards ending bribery and corruption in this area and eventually reducing the number of migrant workers. 

This is a complex issue. As promised, the National Government needs to move fast in setting up its rural industrial development zones so that thousands of families struggling for existence could obtain good jobs, hopefully in some high-tech sector where the salaries given help the families to cope with the high cost of living. With social justice, including education and healthcare facilities also being made available, we could hopefully go a long way towards ending modern slavery of Sri Lankans. Then only could we tell struggling parents that the solution they seek – jobs overseas – could often turn out to be worse than the problem. 

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