The abuse and exploitation of unskilled migrants from South Asian countries such as Sri Lanka has long been considered one of the darker sides of the Middle East.
In recent years, several cases of such abuse have made world headlines, with human rights organisations claiming that Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and Dubai are not doing enough to protect foreign workers from their employers.
Sri Lankan authorities have been particularly worried about the issue, as out of around 1.8 million Sri Lankan citizens currently working abroad, a significant number are unskilled women who work as domestic servants: the group which is most vulnerable to abuse. In August last year, doctors removed 13 nails and five needles from a Sri Lankan housemaid who claimed her Saudi Arabian employer had hammered them in.
Last week, foreign employment promotion and welfare minister Dilan Perera said that he was hoping to discourage unskilled workers from leaving the country, and boost the number of skilled workers Sri Lanka could offer to the Middle East instead.
“The maidservants who come out for foreign employment face problems, such as... harassment, delayed wages, breach of contract, in the host countries,” Mr Perera told Arab News.
“We want to offer more skilled and quality manpower to the Kingdom and other regional job markets.”
As part of the minister's plans, more training programs are to be organised for Sri Lankans who are interested in working abroad, to increase their chances of gaining a skilled job.
Nisha Varia, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said that Sri Lanka's desire to improve education for its workers was a “welcome move”, but cautioned that more steps needed to be taken to ensure Sri Lankans' safety when working abroad.
“The Sri Lankan government is right to be concerned about the high rates of abuse suffered by women migrating for domestic work,“ she said. “But sending more highly-skilled workers abroad is not a solution by itself. The Sri Lankan government should also be improving education and local job opportunities for the women who typically migrate as domestic workers so they have real alternatives.
“They should also continue to improve protections for the hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan domestic workers abroad, many of whom are not paid their full wages, must work around the clock for little pay, and who risk harassment and abuse.”