By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
Colombo, October 23: Sri Lankan Female Migrant Domestic Workers (FMDW) tend to indulge in “circular migration” in which they go back and forth between the home country and the country of employment. Called “circular migration” this is one of the most visible patterns in the Sri Lanka-Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) migration corridor.
Therefore, it demands deep and continuous study, says Madhuka Sanjaya Wickramarachchi, a Sri Lankan diplomat posted in the Middle East. In a paper published in the International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications (Volume 10, Issue 10, October 2020), Wickramarachchi says that a quarter of Sri Lankan FMDWs are circular migrants. “They start their journey in their mid-20s and return home periodically and, often, permanently, when they reach their 40s and 50s, effectively spending almost two decades of their adult life in the migration cycle,” he observes.
Lankan FMDW do not opt for “step migration” in which migrants leave the first destination, not to return to Sri Lanka, but to head to a second destination. Step migration can be noted in Sri Lankan male migration, but not in FMDWs. The FMDW always returns to Sri Lanka before proceeding to another destination, Wickremarachchi says.
Most first time FMDWs move to Kuwait, which is also their main choice for repeat migration. Saudi Arabia is their second choice. The UAE, as a hotspot for FMDWs, is a recent trend, he says. He explains this trend by pointing out that it is mainly due to the UAE’s flexibility in regard to converting tourist visas into work visas.
The Sri Lankan government-mediated exclusionary policies, such as minimum age and the Family Background Report, had reduced the number of FMDWs leaving for the GCC with legitimate work visas. But the flexibility of the visa regime in the UAE has enabled FMDWs to circumvent some of the State-imposed barriers, the diplomat cum researcher points out.
A survey conducted in 2019 involving 100 FMDWs in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait showed that the primary reason for their second departure was economic, as they had no other means to support their families.The response group was in the age group 28-45, which is the general age of the FMDWs. They were married and had children 10 years or older.
“The entire cohort of the group indicated they were more focused on the economic gain that they make at the end of their tour of duty which is close to 300% higher than they would get in Lanka,” Wickramarachchi says.
High unemployment, unemployment of husbands and unavailability of economic opportunities back home in Sri Lanka were the main “push factors”. Other push factors like natural disasters and social unrest were not mentioned by the FMDWs. Interestingly, only 3% cited the internal conflict (terrorism and war) in Sri Lanka as the reason to leave the country for the second time. Again interestingly, for 84% of the FMDWs, the decision to leave the country for the second time or more, had been an individual decision and not a family decision. The non-involvement of the family in decision making in this critical area might be reflecting growth in female autonomy in the lower strata of rural and urban Sri Lanka.
The ‘upfront payment’ which is being received by the FMDW before her departure is a major incentive to migrate again, points out Wickramarachchi. Sub-agents have a preference for ‘experienced’ FMDWs and pay them higher ‘upfront payment’ as well as a higher monthly remuneration.
The idea of “debt-free departure” is also an incentive because the total cost of the departure process is taken care through the payment received from the prospective sponsor.
The FMDW’s choices and consequences of their past decisions and behavior coupled with the previous experience of their occupation are also important factors in the decision making process. Good past experience is a “pull factor”. Since 25% of the FMDWs migrate more than once, past experience of employment in the GCC must be quite good.
On The Family Left Behind
A survey conducted in 2008 in Sri Lanka indicated that 69% of the FMDWs had a relation to take care of their children left behind. 82% left their children either with their mother or with the eldest daughter. Upon inquiry as to why they are not left with a relation, their “considered answer” was that relations could not be trusted, the survey found. Interestingly, little or no mention was made of husbands in the matter of child care.
The FMDWs who left their children back in their villages said that the education of the kids improved because remittances enabled them to go for tuition classes and buy books.
The survey revealed that 62% of the FMDWs returned to Sri Lanka after their first overseas vocation to find that their families were scattered, with husbands abandoning them and moving with other partners. Such women had no other way of survival than to migrate again. “Harrowing tales of abusive or dysfunctional relationships were prevalent. For them, circular migration was an effective escape mechanism,” Wickramarachchi says.
In most cases, women migrants found very little of their earnings remaining as savings or investment as their family members had used these remittances for consumption. “The resultant deprivation made the migrant worker’s repeat migration inevitable.”
However, this is not true of all FMDWs, especially nowadays. With their mobile phones, they many maintain “trans-national” relations with their homes and participate in family decision-making. Modern communication facilities made repeated migration less of a familial disruption. Circular migration was facilitated. Better communication enabled FMDWs to keep in touch with persons overseas who could tip them off on new job opportunities.
“Habitualization” of Migration
Ninety per cent of the FMDWs said that they started to “spare some money for themselves” only at the second round of their migration cycle. The survey revealed that 30% of the second timers and 70% of the third timers intended to return to the GCC, which indicates a “habitualization” of migration, creating a “culture of migration” Wickramarachchi says.
Circular migrants tended to remain domestic workers showing no interest in employment in Free Trade Zones which is a common option available to females in Sri Lanka.
Bid To Export Skilled Male Workers Fails
The Lankan government has a policy of “destination diversification”. It has added new ‘male-oriented’ markets such as South Korea, Japan and East European countries to encourage skilled male workers to migrate and send more money back to Sri Lanka than the FMDWs do. But Wickramarachchi says that this has not worked. Skilled male workers actually remit less and highly paid professionals remit the least!
Therefore Sri Lanka is back to depending on the FMDWs for its remittances. In 2014 and 2015 Sri Lanka received US$ 7.036 billion and US$ 6.98 billion respectively in remittances, which accounted for 8.4 % of the GDP, well ahead of earnings from apparel exports (US$ 5 billion), tourism (US$ 4.4 billion) and agricultural exports (US$ 2.7bn) of which tea was US$ 1.5 bn. At present, migrant labor represents 23% Sri Lanka’s total labor force.
Sri Lankan FMDWs are in demand in the GCC and Saudi Arabia because in contrast to the Filipinos and many other nationalities, they are less expensive, obedient and loving, “treating their employers’ children as their own”. The salary per month of a Lankan domestic worker is so low that they are affordable even for low-income families in the GCC, Wickramarachchi points out.