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Empower - don't punish - Sri Lankan domestic workers

On November 18, 2013

The Sri Lankan Embassy in Muscat recently announced it will only grant visas to female domestic workers if they receive a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from a husband or male relative. Heralded as a “protective” measure, this new policy instead undermines female agency, pushes women into informal and undocumented migration channels, and ultimately increases their vulnerability.

Currently, over half of Oman’s 30,000 Sri Lankan workers are domestic workers – many of them female.  The number of arrivals this year has fallen because of Sri Lankan policies discouraging the migration of domestic workers.

The Colombo Gazette quoted M.M. Deshapriya, the Counsellor of Labour at the Sri Lankan Embassy in Muscat:

"We want to protect the rights of their workers' families also as some of them face problems such as harassment and delayed wages while their families back home face serious socio-economic problems. So we have decided not to hire them unless we get a no-objection certificate that they can maintain homes in their absence from the island."

The NOC permits the Sri Lankan government to sidestep accountability for failing to improve protection and access to redress for harassment, delayed wages, and other forms of abuse.  Similarly, the NOC policy disregards the “serious socio-economic issues” at home, which is often the primary reason women are forced to or choose to migrate in the first place.

The NOC is not even a band-aid solution to migrant worker abuses – the new policy only exacerbates their situation.

Freedom of mobility is a basic human right, one that cannot be restricted by gender-biased migration policies. Previous efforts to restrict domestic worker migration, through deployment bans or arbitrary age-limits, have pushed women into undocumented, more exploitative migration channels. Domestic workers seeking opportunities through unofficial channels consequently face even greater risks in arranging for their migration and in their employment in the destination countries’ informal economy. Undocumented workers have even fewer means for legal recourse against exploitative employers and are more vulnerable to trafficking and forced labor conditions.

Responsive and preventative measures - rather than restrictive policies - are necessary to protect migrant workers’ rights; restrictive policies imply that the conditions migrant domestic workers face are due to the workers’ actions rather than recruitment agents and employers, essentially directing blame solely to migrants. A concurrently proposed  electronic fingerprinting system reflects the prioritization of criminalization over assistance, which the ambassador claims:

"… will also help in the ongoing blacklisting of migrant workers who return to Sri Lanka after being convicted for various offenses. Most of these workers had been found guilty for allegedly over-staying visas, robbery, engaging in prostitution and flouting the laws of Oman."

Migrants found guilty of offenses should not be automatically backlisted as their cases are often executed under duress; Sometimes a “guilty” migrant’s only crime is to attempt escape from exploitative working conditions, but without regular access to lawyer or translator, migrants face an unequal access to and treatment by courts.



Origin countries are often very constrained in their ability to impose requirements on employers or to levy penalties on recruitment agencies in destination countries, though some countries are making strides through bilateral agreements. For example, the Philippines recently proposed a mechanism in Saudi Arabia where employers and recruiters would be vetted. However, this does not mean limiting the choice to migrate is the only resolution.

Several policy options exist for origin countries, including proactive, rights-based pre-employment awareness campaigns and pre-departure training. Currently, most training occurs after recruitment – a point at which migrant women have often already entered non-negotiable, exploitative contracts, precisely because they lack information and support. Additionally, most training focuses on imparting certain skills and cultural awareness to workers - emphasizing their restrictions rather than informing them of their rights in host countries and how to access help.

Sri Lanka’s imposition of quotas on recruitment agencies is unlikely to adequately address the exploitation of domestic workers. Over-regulation of recruitment agencies has also pushed recruiters into the informal market, particularly as costs of operations increase. Origin countries can improve the regulation of the recruitment process by incorporating brokers known as sub-agents into the formal, regulated process. Sub-agents who liaise with recruiters in remote villages are excluded from recruitment standards and can therefore levy illegal fines and mislead workers about job conditions - all without penalty.

Equipping embassies to deal with domestic workers is also essential, as they are often migrants’ first and only option for recourse.  Embassies and consular representatives often lack sufficient financial and administrative resources to support workers in distress, thereby leaving many women with no means of support abroad.

Women’s migration should not be treated as secondary or supplementary to male migration as this perpetuates misconceptions of domestic work as a mere extension of women’s natural abilities, and therefore not “real” work that demands fair compensation and regulation. Migration can have a positive impact on the status of women as their remittances can improve their household and social standing, but Sri Lanka’s latest measure subordinates the value of women’s work to local economies by misplacing the choice of migration to male family members. Though migration is often a household decision, the choice and agency of domestic work should not be misappropriated by the state; these restrictions put more onus on women to “maintain homes in their absence,” further more castigating domestic work to the realm of a woman’s natural and unpaid abilities – ironically so in the very homes of women where their financial situation is especially dire.

The number of Sri Lankan women departing for Oman as domestic workers has decreased from previous years because of the government’s efforts to discourage this migration sector. Encouraging women to pursue alternatives occupations and means of securing livelihoods can be advantageous to women’s rights, but only if complimented by efforts to train and support women’s employment in other fields. Yet the issue of this NOC-policy remains; the ultimate choice of work and migration should lie with women themselves. The NOC and the misappropriation of decision to men is not a rational tool for state-level policy at home or host countries.