Devana Senanayake

Domestic labour is one of the most precarious forms of work, whether in Sri Lanka or in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Workers are at risk of exploitation, abuse and in many instances, death. In 2022, R. Rajakumari died from the physical abuse she experienced inside the police station.

A blunt object had been used to beat her until she succumbed to the trauma in hospital. In 2021, sixteen-year-old Ishalini Jude Kumar, employed at a house of a member of parliament, died from severe burn injuries. A post-mortem evaluation concluded that she had been subjected to repeated sexual abuse. In 2013, the Saudi Arabian state executed Rizana Nafeek. She had travelled overseas at the age of seventeen and was responsible for a baby who had accidentally choked as she fed him.

Labour conducted behind closed doors such as the preparation of food, the maintenance of a household and the care of family members calls for a variety of skills and the expenditure of emotions. “Care is seen as an infinite resource that can be commodified. Women’s care labour is not assigned any kind of formal value in the economy and is not seen as a ‘normal’ form of labour,” says Matt Withers, lecturer at the Australian National University. Despite the essential nature of social reproduction, the labour itself is devalued, informalized and invisibilized.

While researchers, policymakers and the media separate domestic labour in the country and domestic labour from the country, they are deeply connected. “Both internal and international migration have the same fundamental drivers such as a lack of viable opportunities and unequal development,” Withers told me.

History of Domestic Work  

Women began migrating to MENA in the 1980s. Their core motivations included the need to settle debts, buy land and build a house for their family. Their secondary motives included the provision of daily consumption needs, assistance for children’s education and to cover the family’s matrimonial costs. Workers could not relocate families, buy land, start a business or apply for citizenship in host countries. Instead, they returned home once their term ended or when they had earned the required sum of money. The circular migration of labour from the southern coast of the island to the MENA and back has sustained the economy for years. “There is a structural dependence on remittances at a macro-economic level. If migration is significantly impacted then the economy could collapse like a house-of-cards,” says Withers. In 2022, 51 per cent of total remittances came from MENA. When the country’s foreign exchange reserve dried up in 2022, remittances acted as one of its only sources. Women who sent remittances not only supported their families and extended families but even the country.

Domestic workers in Sri Lanka found jobs from estate brokers, recruitment centres and kinship networks. The majority of child labourers came from the plantation sector in Sri Lanka. A number of individuals started in the industry before they reached ten years of age. In her book, “Tea and Solidarity”, Mythri Jegathasan notes that potential domestic labourers from the Hill Country in the Central Province see the financial and social benefits from remittances and compare them to the risks and benefits of employment in the plantation sector. Based on this evaluation, they choose to leave the plantation for jobs in urban areas like Colombo or Kandy.  

Both live-in and live-out workers cited poverty as their core motivation for becoming domestic workers. Many are from wattes (urban settlements) or the Hill Country community. Women from plantations face a number of obstacles such as the Family Background Report (FBR) released in 2013 which mandated that if workers wanted to relocate overseas for labour, they needed an endorsement “by the superintendent of the relevant estate.” As a result of these obstacles many women are employed in households in urban areas in Sri Lanka.

Women from the Hill Country community experience shame on three dimensions for their decision to enter into the domestic sphere. “Shame operates through caste, class, gender and ethnicity. It is also tied to the plantation economy, as they have been hired from the plantations since the colonial era. Society often perceives domestic labour as a form of unskilled labour and as such, is placed at the bottom of a labour hierarchy,” Jegathasan said.

Limited Laws and Regulations

“Domestic labour is not listed under informal sector employment in the labour force survey. It appears to be an invisible form of labour in the realm of informality. ”

Domestic labour is not listed under informal sector employment in the labour force survey. It appears to be an invisible form of labour in the realm of informality. There are no statistics about the number of domestic workers employed inside the country. “We tried to extract these numbers from various Grama Niladharis (village officers) but they did not have it,” General Secretary of the Protect Union, Kalpa Maduranga told me. Laws inside the country have failed to meet the international minimum for the industry. For example, colonial-era laws such as the Domestic Servants Ordinance 1871 are obsolete. Many unions and advocates have noted that the country has failed to ratify ILO’s Convention 189 that tackles the informality of domestic labour.

Workers inside the country face a number of problems. Instead of formal contracts, they rely on verbal contracts. While both employers and employees prefer this practice, it results in the exploitation of workers. Workers have endless hours. 31.4 percent of individuals surveyed for an ILO study said that they started before 6 am and 86.7 percent of respondents worked more than 8 hours each day. Employers do not provide paid leave and sick leave. In fact, many individuals had their salary reduced because they took leave to recover from an illness. Employers also did not provide bonuses, social benefits or retirement funds.

Workers also experienced inappropriate advances. 16.7 per cent of individuals surveyed in the above report said that they had experienced non-consensual touch and 8.3 percent reported sexual assault. Despite these dire statistics, most domestic workers noted a moderate level of satisfaction as they felt included in the family unit. Employers, therefore,  familiarise and personalise domestic labour rather than formalising and professionalising it. Workers’ livelihoods depend on their interpersonal relationships rather than on a formalised structure. Nevertheless, in the realm of informal labour, this is perilous for individuals who cannot rely on interpersonal relationships.

Workers in the transnational context experience exploitation in two dimensions. Middlemen in recruitment centres and moneylenders exploit and extract profits from domestic workers, who are further exploited by their employers overseas. In MENA, the kafala system is a visa sponsorship scheme that creates a dependency on employers. Employers confiscate their passports . Workers are on-call at most times. As a result, there is no separation of paid labour and leisure time. Mobility outside the house is limited. They have no access to healthcare. There is no assistance from recruitment centres, the local police or the Sri Lankan embassy. “Why do we send them into vulnerable situations in private households? Why are they not formally trained and sent into jobs that are available in the formal care sector, that provides better conditions and protection instead?” Shymali Ranaraja, lawyer and researcher, asked.

Impact of the Pandemic and Economic Crisis

The informalized and invisible nature of domestic labour makes it vulnerable to external shocks such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the current economic crisis. In 2020, many domestic workers lost their jobs as many of their employers took over previously outsourced domestic chores. Many of these individuals are still unemployed. Workers stranded in MENA camped outside embassies and consulates. They contracted COVID and some succumbed to it. Others lost their jobs and had no option of relocation to Sri Lanka, as the government closed its borders to prevent the spread of the disease. While the country opened borders in May 2020 for their entry, the local airline and quarantine hotels charged exorbitant fees. When the country detected other COVID-19 clusters in July 2020 and October 2020, they limited or halted repatriation once more. These policies expose Sri Lanka’s attitude and bias towards domestic workers. The country is dependent on remittances, but the hands that acquire the money are overlooked and deprioritized in the face of crisis.

With the economic crisis, the situation has become unbearable in both the  local and transnational contexts. Poverty doubled from 2021 to 2022, pushing 2.5 million people under the poverty line. Urban poverty rates have risen from 5 to 15 percent. The middle class, composed of doctors, teachers, civil servants and entrepreneurs, who routinely recruited domestic labourers have also been hit. “The demand for domestic labour continues to exist, but the amount of money paid for it has decreased,” union leader Kalpa said. Live-out labourers work fewer days and receive less pay for the same amount of labour. Live-out labourers are replaced by cheaper labour options such as live-in labourers from the plantation or part-time workers. In 2022, 300,000 people left Sri Lanka for jobs overseas, particularly unskilled and semi-skilled workers. Women from rural areas and the plantation sectors left en masse because they received 300,000-400,000 rupee bonuses at the point of recruitment, sources told me.

Workers face insecurity as a mountain of expenses continues to build but they do not have the money to pay for it. “With the economic crisis, the 30,000 per month I earn barely covers basic food, much less everyday utilities,” Rama Rajakumari, from the Central Province, who is employed in a number of  Colombo homes, told me. 10.13 million people from the rural areas in the North, North-Central and Eastern area are vulnerable because of debt. 33.4 percent of respondents to a UNDP study experience vulnerability and deprivation because of indebtedness related to food, medical care and education.

Kanthi sells food to a local school and also does odd jobs in local houses. She is the sole breadwinner and caretaker of her household. “The cost of uniforms, books and stationery for my child have skyrocketed,” she said. The steep costs of food prices mean that basic staples are out of reach. “Workers from the plantations find jobs in middle-class homes in Hatton but are rarely, if ever, paid 1000 rupees per day. The most I have heard of is 500 rupees per day. Many of these people can barely buy essential food such as rice and live a hand-to-mouth existence,” Kalpa told me.  

Electricity bills have also spiked in 2022 and in 2023. Letters notifying disconnection of electricity because of unpaid bills have been sent to many households. For example, some Protect Union members had to skip union meetings because of the increased cost of public transport. Some union members could not even be reached on the phone because they had not paid their bills or lacked money for mobile data.

As a consequence of the crisis, workers’ vulnerability to exploitation has increased. Local brokers are normally paid a fee by their clients but now they have started to collect money from both their clients and labourers. Sources confirmed that child labour has also increased as mothers started to take their children to their employers’ homes. While the children initially accompanied their mothers to their jobs, they eventually took full responsibility for chores in these homes.

Women are sold into the sex industry in both the local and transnational spheres. “Workers move to an urban area like Colombo or Kandy, where they are linked to an informal centre and then tricked into the sex trade,” General Secretary of the Working Women’s Front (WWF), Yogeshwari Krishnan said.  In 2022, brokers, local diplomats based in the Middle East and bureaucrats in the airport were arrested for running a scheme which tricked labourers into the sex trade in Oman. Some women who moved to MENA on tourist visas, used fake recruitment centres or received references from personal connections and ended up in so-called safe houses which were sites for sexual assault. Women who went with the hopes of receiving jobs were auctioned into the sex trade. “Workers are vulnerable if they relocate through informal methods. We place a lot of emphasis on employment found from credible recruitment centres. If not, there is no opportunity for assistance or an intervention,” Krishnan said.

Obstacles to Unionisation

Domestic workers lack unions both domestically and internationally. Local unions only pay lip-service to the troubles faced by labourers instead of organizing necessary strikes or advocating for policy change. Union leaders attend events about domestic labour, but never include or advocate for domestic labour in public consultations or strike actions, according to sources. Plantation unions are also far more interested in national politics rather than questions of labour. Trade unions, such as those in Free Trade Zones, concentrate on their industry, instead of pushing for mutually beneficial policies across industries. Workers from rural areas are rarely represented by influential Colombo intellectuals in their research or advocacy because of their elitism.

In spite of dominating the local and transnational spheres of domestic labour, women workers have limited authority in Sri Lankan society, the political sphere and the international division of labour. Women in MENA cannot vote in any election by mail, so their collective needs are not prioritised by their political representatives. Similarly, local advocates do not have jurisdiction to interfere in or settle disputes in MENA. Sri Lankan diplomats prefer to maintain cordial relations with employers in MENA in order to stay competitive in the labour market. Employers can easily source labour from other countries if they hear too many complaints. With Sri Lanka’s mountain of external debt and current economic crisis, it has limited status and authority in the international hierarchy of nations. So the odds are not in the country’s favour to pick and choose better labour markets such as the EU.

“There is a supreme hypocrisy in calling for better terms and conditions overseas, without introducing similar protections here in Sri Lanka,” Ranaraja complained to me. Founder of the Domestic Workers’ Union, Menaha Kandasamy, has spent years explaining to her union members that domestic labour is a profession. “Workers should understand that they are workers. They need to understand the workplace. They need to see households as professional places, identify the problems and mobilise around it,” she told me. While numerous advocacy and research groups have proposed legal measures, these cannot be easily enforced because domestic labour occurs inside private, enclosed households. In a transnational context, Michele Gamburd, the foremost researcher of transnational migration from Sri Lanka to MENA, recommends multilateral consensus about minimum standards and an international mechanism for enforcement.

Women-led trade unions, that were excluded from the consultation process, voiced their opposition to the government’s proposed labour reforms in 2023 because they are likely to increase exploitation.  The reforms seek to increase hours for decreased pay, limit unionisation and flexibilisation of contracts. With austerity measures imposed by the IMF, the continued neo-liberalisation of the economy and the ludicrous calls by economic experts to increase women’s participation in the labour force despite their overrepresentation in the informal sector, it is unlikely that domestic labour will become a formalised and professionalised industry. Given the destabilisation of labour laws and the repression of public forms of dissent such as strikes and protests, informal domestic labour is likely going to descend into a form of indentured labour.

In a recent development, the state has proposed the abolition of transnational domestic labour and a transition towards skilled labour over the next decade. However, such paternalistic restrictions on women’s labour, much like the Family Background Report, have never been successful because of the country’s economic dependence on remittances. Women-led unions and the country’s feminist movement should push the state to reconceptualize domestic labour as skilled and formal, and advocate for better pay and safe conditions to meet the transnational demand for care labour.

Devana Senanayake is a journalist from Colombo, Sri Lanka. Devana has reported for The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Guardian, Aljazeera, Inter Press Service and South China Morning Post.

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