A tight embrace
Ramachandran Dharshini speaking to the media upon her arrival. Seen on left is her husband M. Nilantha Kumara
- SL maid alleged to have forced into swallowing screw nails, iron ball bolts out of Saudi
- When Dharshini left to Saudi her medical certificate was clear, but she returned a patient
- Even though the swallowing incident had taken place on November 4, Dharshini had informed her husband a week later
- When Kumara requested the agency officials to rescue Dharshini from Saudi they had demanded a sum of Rs. 750,000 if she is to return home
- Kumara said that he will never consider sending his wife overseas again even if he has to beg for money
- A few days later she had accidentally toppled the shampoo bottle and had slipped inside the bathroom. Thereafter she had been in pain and had been unable to work
Awaiting final reports – Hospital source
Hospital sources further confirmed that the medical reports had been sent to the Judicial Medical Officer for further investigations. “At the moment it is difficult to confirm the presence of screw nails and iron ball in her body as claimed by her. But we too are awaiting final reports,” hospital source said.
She had been inside a dark room for three days and it was a Bangladeshi woman at this shelter who had taken a video of my wife and sent it to the local agency here. I didn’t have a proper phone to observe her condition. When she informed me about the incident and asked if she could change the house she’s working in I immediately visited the agency office
- Marimuthu Nilantha Kumara (Dharshini’s husband)
Migrant worker remittances constitute a major component of Sri Lanka’s Gross Domestic Product. Central Bank statistics indicate that Sri Lankan migrant workers remitted close to USD 3.8 billion in 2022. But despite pre-departure trainings and skill improvement programmes for migrant workers, some of them continue to be brutally harassed by their landlords while working overseas. Two months after Ramachandran Dharshini (32), from Neboda, Mathugama left to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker, she returned with more tears than money. This is her story.
From frying pan to the fire
Dharshini, a mother of three, who earned a nominal income as a rubber tapper, had decided to leave for migrant labour due to economic hardships faced by her family. Her husband, Marimuthu Nilantha Kumara who works on a contract basis, plucks coconuts to earn a living. “But during the rainy season I don’t have a mode of income and it’s difficult to look after three children,” he said while speaking to the Daily Mirror. “Because we couldn’t cover up our expenses we were heavily indebted as well. Therefore even though I didn’t like the idea, I had to make up my mind to send my wife abroad as a domestic worker,” said Kumara.
It had taken around three months to arrange the documentation to send Dharshini to Saudi. “We came across an agency in Battaramulla and they promised to pay us Rs. 300,000. But they have deducted Rs. 120,000 for the training even though my wife didn’t attend the training, another sum as the bureau fee and they have charged for the ticket as well. So we were only paid Rs. 100,000, but that too in four installments,” he reminisced.
When Dharshini left to Saudi her medical certificate was clear. “She didn’t have any illness during her departure. But she came back as a patient,” Kumara wept in agony. Kumara said that after she had arrived at the house in Saudi Arabia her landlady had instructed her to use the mobile phone only on Fridays. Dharshini had obliged to her orders and subsequently when she complained that she didn’t have a phone charger the landlady had kept the mobile phone with her. “However landlady’s 10-year old son had been beating her with a broomstick. But she had ignored being beaten up since he was a kid. Then a few days later she had accidentally toppled the shampoo bottle and had slipped inside the bathroom. Thereafter she had been in pain and had been unable to work as required,” said Kumara.
Upon realizing that Dharshini was unfit to work, the landlady had beaten her quite brutally. “She had then taken my wife inside a room which had the washing machine and had threatened her to swallow two screw nails and an iron ball and if she failed to do that she had threatened to frame her for robbing her gold jewellery. In fear, my wife had obeyed orders and one nail had stuck in her throat; resulting in she being unable to breathe. She had vomited blood and had been sick,” he said.
Even though the incident had taken place on November 4, Dharshini had informed her husband a week later. “By then she was sent to a temporary shelter run by the Sri Lankan Embassy in Saudi. She had been inside a dark room for three days and it was a Bangladeshi woman at this shelter who had taken a video of my wife and sent it to the local agency here. I didn’t have a proper phone to observe her condition. When she informed me about the incident and asked if she could change the house she’s working in I immediately visited the agency office. When I told them the story they asked if the landlady had beaten my wife and that it is only in such an instance that they can consider shifting the house,” he said.
When Kumara requested the agency officials to rescue Dharshini from Saudi they had demanded a sum of Rs. 750,000 if she is to return home. “If I had that much money in hand, would I send my wife to work as a maid,” questioned Kumara. Subsequently many individuals in Kumara’s hometown too had intervened to evacuate his wife from Saudi. “I lodged a complaint against the individual who recommended this agency. But later the Police informed me that that individual too had left the country,” he said.
Upon Dharshini’s arrival during the early hours of November 22, she was admitted to the Nagoda General Hospital. “Since it had been over 20 days since she swallowed the pills the hospital authorities are unable to locate the screw nails and iron ball in her system. They will be taking a full body X-ray to determine whether or not the tools remain. But she complains of a rusty taste when burping,” he said.
Kumara said that he will never consider sending his wife overseas again even if he has to beg for money. “This shouldn’t happen to anybody. We all face severe hardships, but that doesn’t mean we should be tortured in order to earn an income,” he said in conclusion.
It had been made mandatory to obtain the pre-departure training as part of the visa process. In its website, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) lists out the criteria for first time migrant workers. A domestic house-keeping assistant leaving to the Middle East should possess the ability to read, write and understand the mother language, should have a minimum height of 4 feet and 6 inches and should posses a good personality and be in good health. A 15-day residential programme will provide the basic foundation for participants to get an understanding of principals and concepts of domestic house-keeping laundry such as cleaning techniques and methods, cleaning equipments, operation and maintenance of them, food preparation and table arrangements and serving of food, handling of domestic appliances, language skills including Arabic and English, caring of elders, patients and children, first aid, personal health and cleanliness, work place behavior, manner and conduct, occupational safety, customs and tradition of host countries and adjustments to foreign environment.
The website further states that one of the initial criteria that the agency (given that it is a licensed foreign employment agent) should check is whether the prospective migrant worker has obtained the aforementioned training provided by the SLFEB. It is only afterwards that the agent could apply for the final approval by the SLFEB by submitting a list of documents including the passport, employment visa for the specified country and employment and so on. The signatures and rubber stamps of the foreign agent, sponsor, embassy official, local agent and migrant worker too should be obtained if the agency is recruiting a house maid to a Middle Eastern country. Once all these documents have been checked and the formalities have been carried out, a valid stamp would be endorsed on the migrant worker’s passport.
The fact that Dharshini didn’t attend the compulsory training raises concerns on how the agency made her a prospective candidate to be sent as a house maid.
Several attempts to contact SLBFE spokesperson Mangala Randeniya and Minister of Labour and Foreign Employment Manusha Nanayakkara to inquire about questionable foreign employment agencies, the process of issuing licences to foreign agencies and actions taken against shady foreign employment agencies proved futile.