Sri Lankan Maids Pay Dearly for Perilous Jobs Overseas

by Amy Waldman

KEGALLA, Sri Lanka - The teacher held up an electric cake mixer and told the class of wide-eyed women before her to clean it properly. If it smells, "Mama," as the aspiring maids were instructed to call their female employers, "will be angry and she will hammer and beat you."

More than a million Sri Lankans - roughly 1 in every 19 citizens - now work abroad, and nearly 600,000 are housemaids.

"This is where you go wrong," the teacher continued. "That is how Mama beats you and burns you - when you do anything wrong."

Eighteen female hands took down every word, as if inscription could ward off ill fortune. Among the women, Rangalle Lalitha Irangame was struggling to keep up, haggard after a sleepless night in the hospital. Her 4-year-old daughter was sick with fever, a worrisome turn for any mother, but a cause for panic for one about to leave for years abroad.

After a year of thinking, 35-year-old Lalitha - who prefers that name - decided to trade her life as a Sri Lankan housewife for one as a Middle Eastern housemaid. After completing their 12-day training, she and her classmates would join a mass migration of women to the Persian Gulf's petro-lubricated economies, trading the fecundity and community of Sri Lankan villages for the aridity and high-walled homes of the Arab world.

Behind those walls the women risk exploitation so extreme that it sometimes approaches "slaverylike" conditions, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report on foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. But while attention has focused on the failure of countries like Saudi Arabia to prevent or prosecute abuses, the de facto complicity of the countries that send their women abroad has largely escaped scrutiny.

For developing countries, migration has become a safety valve, easing the pressure to employ the poor and generating more than $100 billion in remittances in 2003, according to a study by Devesh Kapur, an associate professor of government at Harvard.

More than a million Sri Lankans - roughly 1 in every 19 citizens - now work abroad, and nearly 600,000 are housemaids, according to government estimates. Migrant workers have become Sri Lanka's largest and most consistent earner of foreign exchange, out-doing all major agricultural crops.

In Saudi Arabia, the most common destination, they call Sri Lanka "the country of housemaids." In Sri Lanka they call the maids heroines.

Sri Lanka's government has become an assiduous marketer of its own people. With training programs like Lalitha's, it is helping to prepare what is by now a second generation of housemaids. It even provides a safe haven to shelter, hide and rehabilitate those women who return with broken bodies, lost minds or incipient children.

But it does little to publicize those abuses, protest against them or protect the women for fear of jeopardizing the hundreds of millions of dollars they send home each year.

The women's remittances have built homes, provided capital for businesses, and given the women themselves an enduring confidence. But those gains have come with incalculable hardships.

The women often leave indebted, work virtually indentured and have almost no legal redress against the sexual harassment, confinement or physical abuse they often suffer in the countries they adopt. With no absentee voting rights, they also have no political voice back home.

By one estimate, 15 to 20 percent of the 100,000 Sri Lankan women who leave each year for the gulf return prematurely, face abuse or nonpayment of salary, or get drawn into illicit people trafficking schemes or prostitution.

Thangarasa Jeyanthi, 20, said she was beaten daily while working as a housemaid in Lebanon. She returned with burn marks, cuts and bruises and was put in a government shelter

Many housemaids who run away from their employers are kept in limbo at Sri Lanka's embassies because no one wants to pay their way home. Last year, after their plight was publicized, the government airlifted home 529 maids who had been living for months, packed as tightly as in a slavehold, in the basement of the embassy in Kuwait.

Hundreds of housemaids have become pregnant, often after rapes, producing children who, until Sri Lanka's Constitution was recently amended, were stateless because their fathers were foreigners. More than 100 women come home dead each year, with most deaths labeled "natural" by the host governments, although Sri Lankan officials concede they are powerless to investigate.

Back home, the exodus has reconfigured family life. Women dispense maternal love through letters, cash and cassettes sent home. Divorce, children leaving school, husbands turning to alcohol, and child sexual abuse have become routine byproducts of the women's absence.

There are less tangible tolls as well. "That time will never come back," Roshan Prageeth Kumarasinghe, an 18-year-old neighbor of Lalitha's, said, choking back tears, of his mother's decade-long absence.

Ready to Sacrifice All

In Lalitha's class, nine of the women were mothers, all 40 and under, all prepared to give up everything for their children's future, including, for 2, 4 or 10 years, the company of the children themselves.

By the end of their 12-day course, they would learn how to dismantle a vacuum cleaner and say "toilet cleaner" in Arabic. They would learn, too, not to take the gold chain their employers would leave out as temptation. They would even be taught that in the Muslim countries they were destined for, they should conceal that they were Buddhist or Hindu.

Technically, they were women, all above 18. But in their shy smiles and the innocence of having come of age in a conservative culture, they were girls. Almost all of them, like Lalitha, had at least a 10th grade education, reflective of Sri Lanka's high literacy rates, but that had done nothing to improve their employment prospects.

Two of the girls had failed marriages, and saw going abroad as their only hope for supporting themselves and their children on their own. Three were hoping to secure a better marital match by earning a dowry larger than destitute parents could provide.

Four were newly married, hoping to escape from relatives' homes into their own. Three were the second generation of housemaids in their families - one even planned to take over her aging mother's job.

All were poor. In this hill country district, the poverty rate is 32 percent. Most men find only irregular work tapping rubber, earning at best $50 a month. Their only hope for climbing up, or avoiding slipping further down, is their wives.

The husband of one of Lalitha's classmates drove a rented motorized rickshaw, earning just enough to feed the family. Their house was literally sliding away, with no money to build a retaining wall or repay a bank loan that was well overdue.

His wife, S. M. R. Deepa Ranjanie, a bright-eyed 25-year-old poet, was determined to solve the family's financial crisis, but in leaving she also saw an escape. She had married at 16, had two sons, 9 and 4, then had seen the marriage sour. She was desperate to flee an abusive home.

Lalitha's husband, K. Weeratunghe, 41, worked when he could tapping rubber or felling trees. On some days the family had no money for milk. Their house was so meager that, to improve it, Lalitha decided to leave him behind - along with her daughter, Hiroshika Mihirani, 4, and son, Manoj Sandervan, 8.

With no electricity, the home had a perpetual gloom. The walls were cracking, the windows glassless. In class, the women pored over pictures of the gulf's glossy kitchens, but at home Lalitha cooked on a wood stove in a room made of palm fronds.

The training she and the others attended had in fact been started in part because rustic village women's unfamiliarity with electric appliances and Arabic was exposing them to the wrath of frustrated employers.

The course was conducted by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, a public corporation established by an act of Parliament in 1985 to both promote migration and protect migrants, two sometimes contradictory missions. It runs 22 training centers, including the one in Kegalla.

The traffic at the center was incessant. Mothers brought their daughters. Husbands brought their wives. Brothers brought sisters who had been left by their husbands. One woman came in to register with an 18-month-old baby still sucking at her breast, although she was too thin to give milk.

Many women had been recruited by a network of private agents, not always reputable, who trolled rural villages and town bus stands looking for new prospects. The agents earned commissions for each woman from both the foreign employment bureau and partner agents in the Middle East.

Lalitha's course Lalitha aimed to create competent maids, but also docile ones, who would serve out two-year contracts promising about $120 a month even if the pay almost never came. A maid's greatest asset, teachers taught, was "tolerance."

The reason for that message, analysts and officials say, is the competition from other poor nations, notably the Philippines, which together send hundreds of thousands of women abroad each year. Too many demands for housemaids' rights, the government fears, will simply prompt the gulf countries to seek housemaids elsewhere.

When it came to the prospect of abuse or sexual harassment, the teacher gave almost no allowance for the possibility that even good housemaids might be victimized, no acknowledgment that even a smelly cake mixer did not justify a beating.

The teacher, Kaluarachchi Chandra Malini, a 38-year-old former housemaid with erect posture and a brisk manner, taught the women how to turn on hot and cold water taps, how to run electrical appliances, how to navigate household hazards - the cleanser that could poison a child or the Clorox that could blind a maid.

More than that, she tried to prepare the women for the risks leaving their families entailed. Given the high incidence of fathers raping daughters with wives away, the housemaids were told not to entrust older girls to their fathers. An older lady was better, or even a home for girls.

Because Sri Lanka's divorce rate has climbed with the migration, the women should take the addresses of trustworthy neighbors to whom they could write asking whether husbands had fallen into drugs, drink or other women's arms. The trainees were warned not to send money to their husbands, lest they drink it away.

These pitfalls were already known to some of the women. One student, Disna, had as a girl seen her father drink away the money her mother had sent from abroad.

And Deepa's neighbor had just returned from Kuwait to find that while she had faithfully been sending money to her husband, he had not been faithful to her. Deepa, however, had studiously avoided going down the hill to learn this fact at first hand.

Silence About the Abuse

There seemed to be a national pact under way: with rare exceptions, the returning women did not reveal the worst of their experience, and the departing women did not ask. Sexual harassment and especially abuse were considered too shameful to discuss with husbands, relatives or neighbors.

But while the class steered from the worst, it was often literally in the room next door. One day a girl of delicate beauty, 21-year-old Niroshamie, came into the office, black tendrils curling around her face, X-rays in her hand.

The young scion of the Kuwait house where she worked had repeatedly tried to molest her, finally pushing her to the ground and breaking her wrist. She had to pay for the cast, work with it on for two months, then finance her own way home. She had returned to Sri Lanka with a wrist needing surgery and not a cent more than when she had left.

But the most gruesome cases were kept out of sight, quickly ushered from the airport upon arrival to the Sahana Piyasa, literally the Place of Relief, a shelter run by the foreign employment bureau.

The shelter gets two to three severe abuse cases a week, according to the officials who run it, and often many more. Some women are so badly injured they are carried off the plane on stretchers, or swathed entirely in bandages. Most cases never make the news, and they stay at the shelter until they heal enough not to shock waiting families.

Karunasena Hettiarachchi, who until recently was the chairman of the foreign employment bureau, said the government did what it could to protect women, but the very nature of the job made it difficult. In a house, as opposed to a factory, "there are no rules," he said. Sri Lanka's embassies had no power to investigate what went on behind private walls.

Agents, too, looked the other way, in part because no one wanted to cover the costs of a maid who did not serve out her contract.

Thangarasa Jeyanthi, 20 and emaciated, had arrived at the shelter from Lebanon one morning. She had a face as purple and puffy as a plum, eyes swollen shut, burn marks on her body and dried blood still around her ears.

The husband and wife she worked for had assaulted her daily, she said, speaking in the high, anguished voice of a little girl who cannot understand what she has done wrong. They had cut her with a knife, kicked and stomped on her, tied her hands with rope and denied her food.

Her employer's mother had rescued her, taking her to the police. They secured five months back salary for her, and took her to the airport, where strangers moved by her appearance collected $232 for her.

"I never expected to be returned to Sri Lanka," she said. "I always thought only my dead body would come back."

The abused women struggled to reconcile the message of their training - that good behavior would make for a good experience - with the reality of their employment.

"I did all of my housework properly," said Sudarma Manilariatne, 27, who arrived at Sahana Piyasa in January with swollen, bandaged legs, a gash on her forehead and a fractured hand. "I do not understand why they did this."

She had been beaten by her female employer, and was helped to escape the house by the employer's 16-year-old son, after receiving not a cent of salary. She wore a head scarf, which the shelter staff urged her to remove. The young woman refused and began to cry. For Sri Lankan women, long hair is a source of pride, its absence, a source of shame. Ms. Manilariatne's employer - her "mama" - had cut boy-short the hair that the maid's own mother had helped her take care of as a girl.

Fearful and Already in Debt

The training course was coming to an end. Ms. Malini, the teacher, was worried about Lalitha. She struggled with leaving her children for 12 days, Ms. Malini said. How could she go abroad? Lalitha, visibly upset over her sick child, physically ill herself on some days, insisted that little by little she was mentally preparing.

In class, the girls stared intently at photographs of airplane interiors while Ms. Malini provided last-minute tips. Do not wear black when you meet your employer lest you look too dark. Do not be frightened when you see only the eyes of the Saudi Arabian woman who meets you at the airport. Wear long sleeves and a wedding ring, even if unmarried.

Deepa's 9-year-old was crying in the mornings, knowing she was leaving. "We have to build a beautiful house," she told him, although the family's debts meant a new house was years away.

With the foreign employment bureau's registration fees to pay and new clothes to buy, she and the other women were borrowing money from anyone they could. Deepa had given the family's only valuable possessions as collateral. Her children would be without both their mother and the television they so loved, she said ruefully.

Deepa had failed the strict medical exam Saudi Arabia required of housemaids, and would go to the United Arab Emirates. Her fallibility was a leaky heart valve. She had had surgery once, and needed it again, but she was afraid even to take her medicine with her, lest her employers discover she was unwell.

To both save and escape her home, she would gamble with her life. "I was happier in the class," she said.

Dukkha, or suffering, is a word that colors the women's conversations and shadows their lives. When Lalitha went for the medical test every housemaid must pass before departing, her illness during class was explained: she was pregnant.

She faced a choice between a child she wanted and debts she could not pay. She did not believe in abortion, she said, but hers was a life with no room for error. She paid $27 to terminate the pregnancy, adding to the family debt and her own sadness.

Now Lalitha's agent seemed to be swindling her. He had promised a ticket, then not delivered it, then brought a visa that turned out to be fake.

As wrenching as it was to leave her children, shame was prodding her toward Saudi Arabia. She and her husband borrowed $398 from fellow villagers. The first repayment date had come and gone, and the lenders wanted her gone, too, and earning money.

She wanted to earn money, too, not least to keep paying for private classes for her 8-year-old son. "He is clever," she said of the boy. "I want him to climb up."

Lalitha had already taught her 4-year-old the alphabet, she said proudly. Her husband, who had finished only the eighth grade, noted that his wife was more educated than he.

Only her 8-year-old seemed to recognize the implications of his mother's departure. "Who will teach me when you go?" he asked.

The New York Times


Posted May 8, 2005