Sri Lanka to send fewer maids to Arab countries, cites abuse

COLOMBO, July 30 (Reuters) - Sri Lanka will cut the number of maids it sends to the Middle East, a labour official said, citing increased complaints of abuse by women migrant workers.

"We want to reduce the number of women migrant workers mainly because of complaints we received from those in Middle East countries," Kingsley Ranawaka, the chairman of Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment told Reuters.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have been the main markets for over 700,000 Sri Lankan maids who have increasingly complained of rights abuses.

The Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE) said it had received over 3,400 complaints from female workers in the first half of 2008, mainly from the Gulf region, for harassment, breach of contract and unpaid or underpaid salaries.

The bureau said it received complaints for 577 cases of breach of contract and 479 of harassments in the first half of 2008, including cases of sexual abuse and physical violence.

"We want to discourage female migrant workers and promote males. Also now we want to deviate workers from the Middle East to other markets like the European Union, Canada, Australia, South Korea, and Japan," Ranawaka told Reuters late on Tuesday.

Despite the increased complaints of abuse, around 100,000 Sri Lankan women still make their way to the Gulf region every year to work as domestic helps.

New York-based Human Rights Watch in last November said Gulf Arab governments were failing to curb serious abuses faced by Sri Lankan maids in their countries.

Sri Lanka received over $2.5 billion from workers' remittances last year, the main foreign exchange earner after export earnings from garments. The country's $27-billion economy has been badly hit by a 25-year civil war.

Ranawaka said Sri Lanka planned to increase migrant workers in the semi-skilled and skilled labour category, while reducing the number of maids without affecting worker remittances.

He did not elaborate.

He said the government was also considering tough action against labour agents and could blacklist employers who abused the country's workers.

Gulf Arab countries, which have small national populations, have for decades relied on temporary migrant workers to fill jobs created by rapid, oil-fuelled growth.

Women from Asian countries including Sri Lanka, Indonesia and the Philippines work as maids and nannies for families across the Middle East and in wealthy Asian states.

In May this year, Human Rights Watch had slammed a Saudi Arabian court decision to drop charges against an employer accused of abusing an Indonesian maid so severely she lost her fingers and toes.The maid had been beaten daily and forced to work long hours without rest for her Saudi employers. (Editing by Valerie Lee)