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Last Updated: Monday, 24 November, 2003, 09:17 GMT
Work is torture for Sri Lanka maids

Frances Harrison
BBC correspondent in Colombo

Tortured Sri Lankan maid
Kusuma says a Saudi employer burned her with an iron and hot knife
What makes Kusuma cry is not the memory of repeated assaults but the look on her children's faces when they saw her in hospital.

"After three months, I asked Madam for my salary and she started to beat me with iron bars and wooden sticks," the maid explains of her time in Saudi Arabia.

"Sometimes she would take a hot iron and burn me or heat up a knife and put it on my body."

Kusuma is still trying to understand why her employer treated her this way when she had not done anything wrong.

Kusuma says that one day her employer just tired of her. The employer said they were going to the police station and that Kusuma would be arrested.

Instead she just put her on a plane back to Sri Lanka, knowing she would never be prosecuted for torturing her.

Blacklisting

Sri Lankan Minister of Labour Mahinda Samarasinghe assures maids that the government "has been taking these issues up with the relevant authorities and they have been in the main responding positively".

However, labour activists say it is essential Sri Lanka operates a blacklisting system for rogue employers.

The minister says that will depend on the co-operation of the Saudi authorities, who have not yet agreed.

A recent survey by Colombo University found a quarter of Sri Lankan maids had suffered problems such as abuse or lack of payment while abroad.

When I went to his bedroom he closed the door and removed my clothes and his. When I tried to resist he threatened to kill me
Soma, Sri Lankan maid

The Bureau of Foreign Employment runs a counter at Colombo airport to help returning maids with problems.

It says on average 50 a day come back in distress.

Lebanon does operate a blacklist system for bad employers, but that did not help 41-year-old Soma, who recalls repeated rapes by the 18-year-old son of her female employer.

"When I went to his bedroom he closed the door and removed my clothes and his. When I tried to resist he threatened to kill me," she says.

Soma says she begged him to spare her on the grounds that she had a son his age.

"Another day, his four friends came to the house. When I took tea to the room they closed the door and kept me on their laps and started to touch my body and abuse me," she says in tears. All the men then raped her.

There was little comfort from Soma's employer, who seemed to think she had employed a prostitute for her son rather than a cleaner for her house.

"I complained to his mother and she just said, 'I will give you pills to make sure you don't get pregnant' and she beat me."

Soma eventually escaped from the flat and walked for four hours until she met by chance a Sri Lankan couple who took her home, fed her and took her to the embassy.

Although the rapes were reported to the embassy and police, Soma was just put on a plane home. Nothing happened to her rapists.

Training efforts

"We are not in a position to say, 'Look here, ensure that all of these things are in place otherwise we will not send our people'," says Minister Samarasinghe about the need for better insurance and health cover if something does go wrong.

Maids at Colombo airport
Maids arriving back in Colombo airport - 50 a day are in distress

Migrant workers make up the largest net foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka and the country has a huge unemployment problem, so it often cannot dictate terms to richer nations.

Training the maids about what to expect is a key issue.

"If a person is trained at the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, I don't see that person will have a problem," says Shoaib Abdeen, who runs the Mount Lavinia school for maids.

The government says all women going to Arabic countries have to take basic language courses and learn cooking.

Those going to the more lucrative markets of Singapore, Hong Kong and Cyprus get extra classes like map reading.

The maids are advised not to run away from their employer if they encounter problems but maintain a positive attitude.

Given the high failure rate of women workers overseas, it might be better to teach an escape plan should the need arise.

For legal reasons Kusuma and Soma are not the maids' real names


SEE ALSO:
Maids relive Gulf War fears
06 Mar 03  |  South Asia
Princess fined over assault claim
03 Jul 02  |  Americas
Rape victim jailed for dumping baby
14 Mar 01  |  Asia-Pacific
Kuwait hangs maid murderers
30 Jun 02  |  Middle East


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