After a couple of years of interval, Bangladesh has started sending its female migrant workers as domestic help to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia following the request of that country. Annual female migration from Bangladesh was only around 56,000 in 2013, but it went up to over 121,000 in 2017, mostly for domestic work.
Over the years, there have been numerous complaints and allegations of Bangladeshi female migrant workers facing abuses and exploitation in the hands of their employers, especially in the Middle East, where they are often treated like poorly paid slaves.
Bangladeshi female migrant workers returning from Saudi Arabia are alleging of widespread physical and sexual abuses and non-payment of salaries by the Saudi employers. Some of them said that though they were legally recruited as domestic workers but were instead used as sex workers in the oil rich Arab country - the biggest overseas labour market for Bangladesh. The country has been recruiting a high number of female domestic workers since 2016. The number of such Bangladeshi workers going to the kingdom was over 68,000 in 2016 and rose to over 83,000 in the last year.
Take a look at Sabrina, 25, one of 127 female domestic workers, who returned home recently. She said since her arrival in Saudi Arabia in late September, 2017 she was taken to a number of apartments where men of Arab descent molested her repeatedly and mercilessly. To escape the violence, she managed to call her husband in Dhaka, who then contacted the recruiting agency and then the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET). Subsequently, Sabrina was taken to a safe home run by the Bangladesh Embassy in Riyadh and then repatriated to Bangladesh. Her husband Mohammad Zakaria (not his real name) said that his wife Sabrina received no salary in Saudi Arabia but only violence and sexual abuse. The harrowing tale of atrocity and sexual abuses meted out on her reveals a grim picture of the horrific conditions of Bangladeshi female workers serving in that country. She was also quoted to have said that though they went there legally through a recruiting agency, among those who are aged less than 28 years and somewhat good looking were often employed in sex trade. And those who refused were inhumanly tortured.
Azmeri, aged 50, a domestic worker from Narayanganj said her employer used to beat her for any petty mistake. “How can I work such long hours?” she said, adding that she had to work 16 to 18 hours a day (cheated and abused in Saudi Arabia, January 13, 2018 the Daily Star). According to a letter of Bangladesh Embassy in Riyadh, there were a total 369 domestic workers in a safe home in Riyadh until January 7. Most of them have already been repatriated and the rest will be coming in the next few days. The survivors of violence, fearing more persecution, however, don’t want to file cases against the abusers, but the abusive employers file police reports, alleging that the domestic workers have fled.
The situation is too awesome in other Middle Eastern countries like Oman, UAE and Jordan, where employers usually kept the passports of the migrant workers with them to prevent them from leaving. This is further aggravated by the draconian ‘Khalafa” system widely practised in most of these countries, which ties the visas of migrant domestic workers to their employers, thereby effectively dissuading them from working for a new employer, without the permission of current employer, even they are abusive. In December, 2016 the Human Rights Watch (HRW) called upon the Bangladesh government to improve and ensure protection for its domestic workers migrating to the Middle East. The reputed international organisation claimed that even Bangladesh has become an outliner in Asia for actively seeking employment of its domestic workers in the Middle East, the country has failed to protect their migrant workers’ right adequately, whereas other countries such as Indonesia, Nepal and Sri Lanka were able to secure protection and minimum wage requirements for their migrant workers.
In a report on abuses against domestic workers in Oman, published by the Human Rights Watch in July 2016, almost all the Bangladeshi women workers interviewed said that their passports were confiscated by the employers, and they were not paid their full salaries but were forced to work excessively long hours. And not only that, they were denied adequate food and shelter. Apart from Kuwait, no other Middle Eastern country sets minimum salaries for migrant workers. However, Embassies of other countries of origin require employers to agree to monthly minimum salaries; Philippines stresses on the lowest minimum wages of USD 400, while the Indian Embassy in the Gulf Countries requires employers to provide USD 300 as refundable security deposit, which is used to pay return flight tickets or unpaid salaries when an employer is found to be abusive. Bangladesh, on the other hand, has the lowest minimum wage of USD 200, which is almost never claimed.
The situation is especially risky for Bangladeshi female domestic workers who are vulnerable to sexual and physical abuses alongside backbreaking work. Interestingly, most countries of the Middle East provide shelter to domestic workers when they seek to escape abusive and exploitative employers and even offer assistance in filing cases against their employers. Regrettably, there are few Bangladeshi embassies, on the other hand, which offer shelter, thereby leaving women workers stranded - without any refuge to turn to when they are abused.
In our pursuit of more remittance, we are indeed putting our migrant workers at a vulnerable setting by asking for cheaper salaries compared to several other countries. If we want to ensure our women workers get the respect they deserve, we need to offer them the highest protection. In order for us to do that, the staff of the labour wing of our foreign mission need to be groomed well and be accountable on how to approach and deal with the migrant workers. Embassies in vulnerable regions with a background of abuse, for example, the Middle East, should set procedures that enable workers to register allegations of abuse, overwork, denial of salary and improper living standards. These allegations should be further investigated upon the return of migrant female workers. Bangladesh should also ratify the International Labour Organisation Domestic Workers Convention, which requires countries of origin to cooperate with other countries to ensure protection of migrant domestic workers, which has already been ratified by 23 other countries.
To boost our economy we need remittance by sending our skilled and half-skilled workers abroad - this is undisputable to say the least. But at the same time, it should be borne in mind that we must do this by ensuring the protection of our workers, especially of our female workers, who are more often vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse in the countries where they work. And the government needs to be more pro-active to ensure our female domestic workers do their job in host countries in a secure environment and with the dignity they deserve. Again, we need remittance but not at the cost of honour - the honour that we, as a nation, are committed to uphold at all time and everywhere.
The writer is a retired Deputy General Manager, BSCIC