Bangladeshi Migrant Female Domestic Workers Face Violence

Credit: ILO

By Nayema Nusrat
NEW YORK, Nov 28 2019 – Millions of Bangladeshi women are facing violence either as domestic housemaids or as migrant workers in Gulf countries. A few days ago, a video in social media, secretly filmed by a Bangladeshi housemaid employed in Saudi Arabia, caught everyone’s attention where she was helplessly crying and begging to be rescued from her abusive employer.

A large number of women from Bangladesh leave their families behind and travel thousands of miles away from home with the hope to get better earnings and ensure a better future for their children and family. While many women realize their expected hope, others face a different reality – suffering through insurmountable cruelty and mistreatment by their foreign employers and find no one to turn to for immediate rescue.

Another extremely common form of violence is inflicted by not getting their due salaries as promised despite the hours of hard labor they provide.

In the video, this young woman Sumi was hiding in the toilet, crying for help and begging to be brought back home. She said, “I might not live any longer; I think I am about to die, please keep me alive, take me back to Bangladesh quickly”, she said in “Bangla”. In the video she stated that her owners locked her up in a room for 15 days and barely gave her any food. They burned her arms with boiling hot oil and tied her down.

She also alleged that she was sexually assaulted by her employers. “They made me go from one home to another. In the first home, they tortured me and hit me repeatedly and then took me to another one where I experienced the same”. She was denied any medical treatment by her former employer.

Another very recent story of Husna, 24, surfaced in social media within just a few days of the Sumi incident, who also went to Saudi Arabia through a Bangladeshi broker agency called “Arab World Distribution”. She sent a video message to her husband Shafiullah, begging for help to free her from the abusive work conditions – she had faced physical violence ever since her arrival there.

Credit: United Nations

The contacts at the local broker agency in Saudi Arabia denied her of any assistance with derogatory words and attempted to hit her. In the video message to her husband she also describes how her owner turned crueler towards her since she expressed the urge to return home.

The recruiting agency in Dhaka demanded an additional 100,000 taka (USD 1178.11) from Akter’s husband if she is to break the two years initial contract to work abroad, as he reached out to them for help.

Most Bangladeshi workers are recruited by “Dalals” (chain of sub-recruiters connected to the recruitment agencies in the country). Women who go for work to Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries come from very poor families in rural areas and are often duped by these “Dalals”, realizing soon after they arrive for work. They often receive false promises of salaries of about 20,000 taka (USD 235) per month but rarely get written job contracts although it’s a legal requirement.

These recruiters typically charge them a large amount of recruitment fee for arranging to work abroad. These poor women arrange money either by mortgaging or selling their properties or getting loans with a very high interest rate.

Rothna Begum, a senior researcher from Human Rights Watch (HRW) told IPS, “Most of these women are already in debt before they even started to work abroad, as the recruitment fees combined with loans with high interest rates keep accumulating”.

These women workers are employed in Gulf countries under ‘Kafala’ immigration system. ‘Kafala’ is an employment framework in the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that require sponsorship from a national for migrant workers to be employed and reside in the country. The sponsor, either an individual or a company, possesses substantial control over the worker.

(The GCC is a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries— Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman.)

Begum stressed on how the ‘Kafala’ system across the gulf countries make the domestic workers more vulnerable to abuse. She noted, “in the GCC states under the restrictive ‘Kafala’ immigration rule, migrant workers’ visas are tied to their employers so they cannot change jobs without their employer’s consent. Migrant workers who escape an abusive employer can be punished for “absconding” with imprisonment, fines, and deportation”.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed hundreds of migrant domestic workers in GCC countries over the years, and almost all of them claimed that their employers had confiscated their passports, phones and restricted their communication.

Some women claimed that as they are typically already coming with so much debt, they feel trapped in exploitative situations, as they feel bound to stay to recoup their money and pay off debt.

Some brave ones risked their lives trying to escape by climbing down tall buildings or jumping off balconies. But those who escaped typically found little or no help from local police. Their employers accused them of criminal activities such as theft or absconding to the police.

HRW’s Begum said “often domestic workers dropped any claims against their employers, in exchange for their employers dropping their own accusations, just so the women could go home. Others found the process of appealing for their unpaid salaries or filing criminal complaints prohibitively lengthy and costly, as they are not allowed to work for another employer during an appeal”.

Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a Bangladeshi Migrant Rights Group released results of a study with 110 returnees, where the number shows that majority had not been able to effectively or safely make money in Saudi; 86 percent among the women interviewed said their Saudi employers didn’t pay their salaries, 61 percent said they had been physically abused, and 14 percent said their owners sexually abused them.

And returning home to Bangladesh doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will still be safe from their ‘Dalals’. Some who returned were beaten up by them for demanding the salaries as promised.

This year BRAC (Building Resources Across Communities), one of the largest Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) in the world, released new figures showing that 1,300 Bangladeshi women had returned from Saudi Arabia in 2018 because of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of their Saudi employers. They also said that this year alone, the bodies of 48 female workers were brought back from Saudi Arabia.

Nuri, another Bangladeshi woman who was tortured and worked without pay in the home of a Saudi family for two months told Thomson Reuters Foundation, “My ‘Dalal’ beat me up and broke my leg when I filed a case against him. I was in the hospital for 15 days. I stay with a friend right now, far away from my house because [the broker] lives nearby my place”.

Nuri held her ground strongly to find justice and is determined about fighting the case in the court – “After he beat me up, I am not turning back”.

Shamim Ara Nipa, a freelance social worker in Bangladesh told IPS, “most of the time these migrant workers do not have proper contact information to reach out to the country of origin agency or the embassy directly for help”.

Nipa also noted that the Saudi Government had been helpful in repatriation of these migrant workers as long as Bangladeshi Government is cooperating. The Bangladesh Government typically steps in when the story of a worker gets highlighted via social media or group protest, such as the case of Sumi who is now in a safe place thanks to BRAC, Bangladeshi Government and it’s Embassy in Saudi Arabia; but there are numbers of other similar violence cases in Gulf countries which never surfaced in mass media, therefore remained silent and unresolved due to lack of government intervention.

Although the Government admits that Bangladeshi workers face violence while working in Saudi Arabia, it rules out the idea of banning female workers going to Saudi Arabia.

Violence against Bangladeshi women workers is still ongoing at an alarming rate; Bangladesh should ensure that it provides the highest protection for its workers abroad, including by increasing oversight over its own recruiting agents, offering protection for its workers in host countries, and aiding workers in distress.

It’s understandable that there are actions and policies that are pursued by the Government of Bangladesh and the United Nations; however, better outcomes are expected while the policies and actions are being implemented and monitored closely.