Female migrant workers
Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the two largest receiving countries for female domestic help from Sri Lanka.

Image credit: Domestic worker doing the ironing courtesy Shutterstock

The health toll on female migrant workers in Gulf countries

New research reveals the huge physical and mental health toll suffered by migrant women from poorer Asian countries like Sri Lanka who go to the Gulf countries to work as cleaners and maids. 

Those interviewed said their employers had denied them proper food and rest breaks and they were forced to continue working when they were ill. One woman told researchers how her painful burns were ignored and she was given inadequate clothing for extreme cold weather. Another said that when she was hit by a car, they applied cream to her injuries rather than provide proper treatment. The women interviewed by researchers most often reported injuries from heavy lifting and carrying, as well as respiratory difficulties and eye damage from the use of chemical cleaning agents.

Sixty domestic workers from Sri Lanka were interviewed before or after they had worked abroad with nearly all of them going to Gulf area countries. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the two largest receiving countries for female domestic help from Sri Lanka. Nearly two thirds (65 per cent) of the 40 returning women said they were not permitted to have time off when they were sick. Many also reported symptoms of mental illness, such as depression and insomnia, with the study suggesting this could be due to their living conditions abroad and the fact they missed their families. The research concludes that the women knowingly sacrifice their own health in order to send money to their families back home.

The health and labour rights of women migrating for work abroad is largely ignored by many of their host countries resulting in modern day contract slavery in many cases. 

Dr Hiranthi Jayaweera, School of Anthropology

The research is led by the University of Oxford, with the London School of Economics and Political Science and the Centre for Women's Research, Colombo. The researchers carried out in-depth interviews with the migrant women, as well as representatives from trade unions, national and local government representatives, recruitment agencies, medical testing centres, and labour migration and health experts from the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan and Lebanon.

The study suggests that the compulsory foreign employment welfare insurance scheme run by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment falls far short of what is required. Medical expenses were only available after repatriation, as a result of illness or accident, pregnancy due to rape (but not for those escaping from abusive situations in employer households), and compensation for disability arising from accident or injury at work. The women therefore had no choice but to put up with employer violations of many of the health-related provisions in the standard employment contract, such as adequate food and rest breaks, limitations on working hours, and humane treatment generally, says the study.

The researchers argue that the Sri Lankan government needs to adopt a stronger approach closer to that of the Philippines, which has employment contracts offering more protections for its workers operating in some Gulf countries. The study acknowledges that the Sri Lankan government has tried to develop labour migration and health migration policies. But the sponsorship system in Gulf countries that ties migrant workers to individual employers and the lack of power that labour sending countries have with rich Gulf countries means that in reality laws designed to protect the workers' health rights are commonly flouted.

One worker who was interviewed by researchers said: 'When I came I was like a skeleton, my son and husband could not make me out. Now I do not feel weak at all.' Another complained after being hit by a vehicle, 'They didn't get treatment for my injured shoulder that was swollen when the vehicle hit me. It was so serious I could not even breathe. They fomented with hot water and applied a cream. Not that much of care.' Another said: 'Some have gotten ill, some have become pregnant. They cannot come back to Sri Lanka. They cannot stay in that country either. Their situation is pathetic. The state should find out the condition of these women. It is essential that such women are helped.'

Dr Hiranthi Jayaweera, Research Associate in the School of Anthropology and former senior researcher with COMPAS at the University of Oxford, said: 'This study has focused on Sri Lanka, but there are many other female migrant workers working as cleaners or as other domestic helpers in the Gulf countries who are probably suffering the same fate. Asia to the Gulf region is one of the world's largest migration corridors.

'The health and labour rights of women migrating for work abroad is largely ignored by many of their host countries resulting in modern day contract slavery in many cases. Sri Lankan embassy staff, as well as those involved in the recruitment, training, medical testing, and setting up of employment contracts and insurance schemes with these workers need to be put in place better protections. They need to make the migrant workers more aware of their health entitlements according to the policies and health systems in the different receiving countries. The health and basic human rights of these women have to be given much higher priority.'

The research was funded by the International Migration Initiative of the Open Society Foundations.