On 15 July, a 16-year-old employed as a domestic worker at parliamentarian Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence succumbed to severe burn injuries. She had been treated at the Colombo National Hospital for nearly 12 days, for injuries her employers said were self-inflicted.
Following the teenager’s death, activists and others have been drawing attention to policy and legislative inadequacies that leave room for exploitation, and even — as witnessed in this instance — sexual abuse and death.
"Because of COVID-19, my husband didn't have work so I had to take out loans,” the teenager’s mother told the media on 20 July. Her family is among many of those facing poverty in the estate sector. “They asked for one of my daughters to go to work instead of me. So she went because it was hard for us, and we needed help to pay off the loans," the mother said.
State Minister of Infrastructure Facilities Jeewan Thondaman on 25 July said that discussions are underway to strengthen the century-old Workers’ Ordinance to ensure that minors from plantation communities are not employed for domestic work.
The existing living and working conditions of many domestic workers currently violate a number of international conventions. For example, such workers are excluded from a range of legal instruments that recognise domestic workers as legitimate, contracted workers. Legislation such as the Wages Board Ordinance, Shop and Office Act, the Employees' Provident Fund Act, the Employees' Trust Fund Act, and the National Minimum Wage of Workers Act excludes domestic workers, resulting in a loss of recognition and equal protection before the law.
Sri Lanka's minimum age of employment is 14, under a system that has not changed. In 2016, the International Labour Organization said at least 36% of working children are exposed to undesirable or unsafe working conditions.
Earlier this year, Labour Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva announced that steps will be taken to amend four pieces of legislation to raise the minimum age of employment to 16, while the National Child Protection Authority recently called to increase the age to 18. However, these assurances are yet to be implemented.
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