With no other option to support her family in her native Sri Lanka, Nalani Samarasinghe, 41, has moved to Qatar three times for jobs ranging from 11 months to three years. At her last job as a domestic worker, she was expected to work between 5 a.m. and 1 a.m. daily with no holidays. In addition, the employer charged her rent and refused to let her return home for more than two years. Samarasinghe, who was interviewed by the Migrant Service Center in Sri Lanka, says she could not leave for a better job because migrant workers’ visas in Qatar are tied to a specific employer.

Samarasinghe is among the nearly 85 million people who migrate for work globally, as unemployment and increasing poverty have prompted many workers in developing countries to seek jobs elsewhere. In Sri Lanka, overseas migrant worker remittances totaled almost as much as the country’s entire annual export income in 2011, according to Sri Lanka’s Bureau of Foreign/Employment. Overseas migrant workers now make up nearly a quarter of Sri Lanka’s economically active population.

Today, International Migrants Day helps highlight how unsafe migration processes and the lack of labor and other legal protections for migrant workers make them easy targets for traffickers, primarily unscrupulous labor recruiters and employers. Like other migrant workers around the world, Sri Lankans who leave their country to support themselves and their families are far more likely than other workers to experience work-related abuse, even death. In 2010, the Sri Lankan government received reports of 313 deaths of migrant workers, including 18 suicides, along with thousands of incidences of harassment and sickness.

Samarasinghe’s experience with labor recruiters is all too common. Each time she signed on for a job overseas, she received a contract agreement before leaving Sri Lanka. But each time when she arrived in Qatar, she says “nothing match[ed] the agreement.”

The Migrant Services Center, a Solidarity Center partner, is assisting migrant workers like Samarasinghe and their families in Sri Lanka while championing structural change through the legislative and governmental processes. The center maintains a registry of unscrupulous brokers and employers and connects with village representatives to help steer migrant workers away from illegal agencies that are not registered with the government. (The Solidarity Center in Sri Lanka and Qatar work with the Migrant Services Center and other workers’ rights organizations to eliminate all forms of worker exploitation and to build support for worker rights.)

The center’s 30 Migrant Worker Associations are central to fulfilling its mission. The associations, spread across eight districts, are geographically located in areas from which the most workers emigrate. The center’s staff recognize that informing migrants about possible problems they may encounter abroad is its biggest educational challenge, says MSC program manager Amali Kalupahana.

Assistance for migrant workers does not end after they leave Sri Lanka. The center monitors families with the aid of village-level association leaders. It provides emergency hotline services for migrant workers and their families in distress and acts as liaison between migrants’ families and Sri Lanka’s Foreign Employment Bureau when an overseas domestic worker is trapped in an exploitative situation. Inhama Ifthikar, who staffs an MSC emergency hotline and frequently travels to rural areas to provide training, says the most common requests she receives involve repatriation stemming from harassment, beatings or lack of basic needs.

The center also works with the Sri Lankan embassies. Together, they address problems like harassment, restrictions on communicating with families and rape cases. Also, “it is common for migrant workers not to get paid,” says Kalupahana. “We help them get their pay.”

Although there are more steps the Migrant Services Center can take to improve its advocacy and support for migrant workers, the center offers a model for how other labor and workers’ rights organizations can begin addressing the needs of one the fastest growing workforces in the global economy.

This report is an excerpt from Catalyst for Change, a forthcoming series prepared by the Solidarity Center with support from the National Endowment for Democracy. The series features the working people, their unions and activists who are advancing worker rights and greater equity in their societies. Their experience and efforts provide real, transferable lessons for others seeking to affect positive change.

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