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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2678

Sri Lankan authorities neglect domestic workers

By Quintus Perera – Asian Tribune

Colombo, 14 November, ( The National Workers Congress (NWC) conducted a full day seminar to coincide the United Nations ‘World Day for Decent Work’ at the Mahaweli Centre with a large number of domestic workers drawn from various parts of the country.

Anton Lodwick, Secretary General, NWC welcoming the guests and participants and making opening remarks said that the National Workers Congress has been campaigning the cause of the domestic worker in Sri Lanka for the last five years.

He said that they have formulated a draft legislation covering the protection and facilitation of the domestic workers and the draft legislation was submitted to the Labor Department and to the International Labor Organization for consideration and comments.The domestic workers seminar of NWC in progress with the guest speakers and other dignatatories participating.The domestic workers seminar of NWC in progress with the guest speakers and other dignatatories participating.

They have organized this commemoration programme to celebrate the World Day for Decent Work and with the celebrations they have attempted to focus the importance of safeguarding the domestic workers and provide them the same legal protection as the workers in the other sectors. .

Mr Dodwick said that they are taking steps to organize these domestic workers to facilitate them to be unionized and also to operate a ‘help-line’ for those domestic workers in distress.

The International Trade Union Federation is promoting the ILO to prepare a comprehensive agenda for the domestic workers globally. Mr Lodwick said that the National Workers Congress is very proud to be a part of this massive global campaign. He said that they were themselves committed to pursue the government and other stakeholders in this sphere to fulfill the needs of the domestic workers in Sri Lanka and campaign to get them adequate protection.

He said that they represent 14 Domestic Workers Associations from all parts of the country and said that all these associations are affiliated to the National Workers Congress.

Mr Lodwick said that they have been very much helpful to the domestic workers in whatever possible manner. Whenever these domestic workers made complaints they have gone into those case and found solutions for them. He said that there has been various complaints such as violence against them low wages, non-payment of wages, all kinds of harassments, sexual abuse and so on.

In settling these disputes they have consulted the workers as well as their employers and where necessary they intervened in many police cases and also provided legal advice in several cases.

C J Weliamuna, Attorney-at-law and a Human Rights Activist making the keynote address at this seminar said that though there is oppressive laws that were enacted as far back as 1871 against the domestic workers in Sri Lanka which is still active in the Statute Book, the authorities have failed to provide legal cover for the domestic workers compared to the other workers in the public and private sector.Domestic workers drawn from various parts of the country attending the NWC seminar at Mahaweli CentreDomestic workers drawn from various parts of the country attending the NWC seminar at Mahaweli Centre

He said that the reason as to why these authorities do not take much care to enact legislation to project this essential segment of domestic workers could be attributed to the fact that many of these people and politicians involved in the procurement of these legislation are employing domestic workers and if such projective legislation were brought in, that would affect their employment of domestic workers in their households.

He said that the 1871 legislation on domestic workers is for all the domestic servants to be registered with police at the time they take up employment so that if they flee their employer, they could be arrested.

He highlighted the denial of rights and privileges of domestic workers and a lack of implementation of legislations. He said that in Sri Lanka decent work is limited only to words while the entire world is working on decent work. This was there for a long time and there have been numerous surveys and studies were done on the subject of decent work.

The ILO, NGOs, the trade unions have been involved in carrying out these surveys and the main purpose is to provide social justice and to provide the necessary protection for these workers.

He said that discussions on protecting workers were there since a long time even before the ILO was established. There were workers struggles to obtain adequate protection for them. Then these struggles gathered force and it has been and even now workers have become a force to be reckoned with as they have been able to change the political agendas in various countries.

He said that whether one likes it or not, workers have a great force in the political arena. According to ILO conventions the settlement of all disputes and problems of workers and employers has to be settled by a tripartite approach. Earlier the workers, the employers and the government tried to solve the workers problems and in this backdrop they now discuss the Decent Work.

Mr Weliamuna said that the issue of GSP+ directly concerns around 280,000 workers involved in the garment industry and whether their work could be continued or not would be decided by how this problem is tackled. There has been a number of responses by the trade unions, employers and the government. But the sad part of it is that such a critical matter government is trying to make a political issue out of it.

He stressed that the government should take the full responsibility in settling this issue as not only the 280,000 workers jobs involved, but also there are around 5 to 6 persons live on the remunerations of these workers thus the issue involves around 1.5 million lives.

Also the garment industry has become the main income generating avenue for the government and therefore government should not evade as a political issue. He said that decent work also means that their employment to be protected.

Further, Mr Weliamuna said that those working in the garment factories do not know what will happen to their jobs tomorrow. Thus ensuring decent work environment for all the workers is the responsibility of the trade unions, employers and the government. Ensuring decent work environment and ensuring continuous work would also help alleviate poverty. Therefore the main purpose is to ensure jobs for everyone in the family and it is not enough to provide jobs alone, but the decedent work environment is an essential component.

It should be decent work and there should be pleasant environment along with social protection and otherwise it would not be decent work. He said that they speak of domestic workers and there are around 150,000 such domestic workers in Sri Lanka. But unfortunately, there is no official statement that there are so many domestic workers in Sri Lanka.

He said that when domestic workers take up work, specially in Colombo as the come from far away places, they would prefer to take their earnings at the time they visit their home towns. When it is say six months they would get the money collect per month and say amounted to Rs 30,000. But he said that there should be interest accrued for the accumulated money, which would never be given.

It is a fact that these workers are more vulnerable and susceptible to abuse and ill-treatment than their counterparts in other sector He said that they speak about physical treatment, abuse, low salaries and the domestic workers face more difficult situations. In Sri Lanka they should be ensured of social justice and adequate protection. Whether they receive a reasonable salary, whether it is paid in time, whether they are forced to work in excess to their remuneration, all these matters have to be looked into. There is the problem of their accommodation and their living conditions as in many cases their abode would be confined to the kitchen.

ILO has provided many conventions. There is the right to organize and to be a part of a trade union and he said that to provide facilities for the domestic workers is also very important. He said that in all the countries there are domestic workers and in most of the countries there is also provision for their protection, but when they have foreign workers those protection provided is very low.

D S Edirisinghe, Commissioner General of Labour in his address as Chief Guest conceded that the government has so far not introduced any legislation to cover domestic servants in difference to the legislation that are in place to protect other types of worker

Ms Thirumakal Mohan, Representative, Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC) making her remarks said that working conditions of domestic workers in Colombo and elsewhere in the country are very poor. Stern action should be taken against such ill-treatment and should work for the betterment of these workers.

Their recommendations have been to formalize and register all these workers in Sri Lanka.

She said that when they met Mahinda Samarasinghe when he was the Minister of Labour he said that on the findings of research he would take action to formalize the domestic workers’ trade. But it was only limited to an assurance and after that nothing happened, though there were many consultations on the issue. Subsequently, ministers changed and even governments have changed, and the domestic workers are still left in the same place and the working conditions of the domestic workers were not changed.

To learn that there is lobbying with the government to formalize the working conditions of the domestic workers, she said they are very happy to support those worthy attempts. She said that they are willing to help formalize these abandoned set of workers indicating that it is an important and urgent matter. She assured that their organization would continuously support these attempts.

In 2003 some studies were made with regard to domestic workers and the survey proved that the conditions of the domestic workers overall were absolutely poor. At that point of time the then Minister of Labor pledged that they would take steps to formalize conditions of the domestic workers.

To collect data for their survey, they have interviewed more than 650 domestic workers and found that they were still under very bad conditions.

The message from Ms Tine Staermoss, ILO Director in Sri Lanka was read. The statement indicated that it is encouraging important instance where the Sri Lankan Trade Unions taken up the cause of Domestic Workers and also for them to celebrate the World Day of Decent Work.

It could be a problem to understand as to the linkage between the ILO and the International Day for Decent Work. But if one probes deep into the matter there is a firm linkage between the two.

What is this commemoration? During 2000 and 2001 the commemoration of the International Day of Decent Work was launched on a concept by Mr Joan Somaria, the then Director General, ILO. Within this concept, it contains the basic principles of the ILO like social protection, workers’ rights, creating employment, and social dialogue.

This concept then extended from 2005 to 2015 under the theme “The Decade of Decent Work in Asia’. The “Decent work’ while expanding internationally, the main stakeholders –trade unions, employers and governments were influenced to carry it forward.

- Asian Tribune -

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