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Menial Labour:
No Fixed Hours, No Holidays For Sri Lanka’s Housemaids

Employers advertising for household help often ask that the applicant come from an “upcountry estate”. Poverty and lack of education means these women will work longer hours for less.

02.10.2017  |  

The life of a Sri Lankan housemaid is a hard one.  “I get up at 4.30 in the morning and go to bed at 11.30 at night,” Shanti, a 30-year-old maid working in Colombo explains her daily routine. “At 4.30 I make tea for everyone. When you take the tea to the younger son, he will ask for milk. When he gets the milk, he says it is not hot enough. When you cool it, he will say there is not enough sugar,” she complains. “That is how my day begins.”

“My day does not finish until midnight,” says another  housemaid, Shanmuganathan Kumary, 21, who has been working for a Sinhalese family in the Veyangoda area for the past three years. “I do everything from cooking food to washing clothes to child care and cleaning. It is very difficult. I came here willingly to do this job,” she continues. “But sometimes when I have to work without a break, I get upset.” At this point, Kumary’s eyes well up with tears.

Other estate-dwelling families look at the women returning from Colombo with cash in their wallets and their skin fairer because they have not had to work outdoors in the hot sun, and they feel jealous.

Many Sri Lankan women from upcountry tea-growing estates in the north end up working as housemaids, often because of their family’s poverty, a lack of education and now opportunity to do any other job. Many of the advertisements for this kind of job often specify they want girls from the upcountry estates.

The women who go to work as housemaids in other parts of the country experience many difficulties, says Sinthuja Krishnarajah, an organizer of the Meenadchy Estate Women’s Movement. “There have been many examples of sexual abuse in the past,” Krishnarajah says, “where the men have taken advantage of the female’s poverty or the living conditions to abuse them. A lot of the girls don’t report this because of the fear of getting a bad reputation. They cannot get justice.”

The social situations in which the young women find themselves are also difficult for them to deal with.

“Everything is strange to me here,” Kumary notes. “From the way people dress to the way they talk to one another. It took me a while to get used to it. But now it’s getting better.”

Like many of the other housemaids who seek this kind of work, Kumary took the job because she did not do well at school and her family is poor.

Most of the families who send their female offspring to work as house maids don’t have any contact with the actual employers. Instead they go through intermediaries or brokers. Often the women end up working for extremely low wages for years, without any sort of contract or any fixed hours. They do not get any access to pension plans or health plans nor do they get any mandated holidays. A report suggests that only around 15 percent of the house maids working in Sri Lanka are employed with a regular wage; just over 60 percent are classified as “casual workers” with no secure working conditions or fixed hours.

Human rights activist Nalini Navratnarajah believes that the solution is to improve conditions in areas where the house maids come from, so that they can make better choices.

“The government and estate sector leaders should take action to improve the education and poverty situations on the estates” she argues. At the same time though. Navratnarajah acknowledges that nobody appears to be working towards any of this.

And at the same time, other estate-dwelling families look at the women returning from Colombo with cash in their wallets and their skin fairer because they have not had to work outdoors in the hot sun, and they feel jealous. It looks good compared to working on the tea estates. And so, they prepare to send the next generation off to work as house maids, without worrying too much about changing the harsh conditions under which the women work.