On October 24, Abiron Begum’s family members received her dead body in a coffin from the Shahjalal International Airport. According to a report by The Daily Star, the 40-year-old woman from Khulna went to Saudi Arabia in 2017 with the hope of overcoming her economic hardship. But in a shocking turn of events, far from coming even close to fulfilling her dream, she had to give up her life due to the torture she was subjected to by her Saudi employer.
During her stay in Saudi Arabia, Abiron endured severe beatings at her employer’s house, where she used to work as a domestic help. The last time Abiron had a chance to talk to her sister, she expressed about the terrible trauma that she had been going through. Reportedly, Abiron’s employers used to beat her mercilessly; she even said her head had been shoved against a hot grill. She cried for help to her family over phone, who were equally powerless to do anything to save her. And at one point, her family completely lost communication with her.
Another report by The Daily Star revealed the ordeal of Kabirun Nahar, a 38-year-old woman from Moulvibazar, who had worked as a housemaid at a Saudi household and also returned to Bangladesh recently. She was never paid by her employer. And when she finally gathered the courage to ask for her salary, her employer got “enraged by her audacity” and pushed her off the second-floor staircase of the house. She returned home from the Kingdom on September 12 with scars in her forehead, a six-inch-long stitched wound on her left knee, and her right leg bandaged from her toes to her ankle.
Dalia Amin, a 22-year-old woman who returned home from the Gulf country last August, had survived an attempted rape by her employers by jumping off the window of the building where she used to work, which resulted in a broken vertebra and leg. Reportedly, she was not only tortured but also “sold” several times.
These three cases from the last three months represent the inhuman conditions in which a large number of our female migrant workers have to work in Saudi Arabia. The search for a livelihood ends in death for many, while for others, the trauma of torture and abuse never go away after returning home.
Most of these women who return home after facing such merciless torture and sexual harassment by their employers are not accepted well by their own families and the society at large. And the families of the deceased workers can never know the real reasons for their deaths as no investigation is done in this regard. Official documents only state that they either died by suicide or suffered strokes.
According to the Brac Migration Programme, more than 900 female migrant workers returned from the Middle East till October this year, most of them from Saudi Arabia. What is most appalling is that, between 2016 and June this year, dead bodies of 311 women workers were sent to Bangladesh from the Gulf countries. This year alone, 119 dead bodies of women workers have arrived home. Of them, 30 “committed suicide”, 19 of them in Saudi Arabia alone.
The shocking number of deaths of our female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia alone brings to the fore a fundamental question: why are we still sending our women workers to the Kingdom?
Apparently, there are hundreds of recruiting agencies who have been alluring the economically vulnerable women from across the country with the hope of better jobs and better pay in Saudi Arabia. Clearly, the government agencies who work with migration and expatriate workers’ welfare do not have any oversight mechanism in place. In the absence of such a mechanism, the recruiting agencies with the help of local dalals are carrying on with their recruitment business in full swing.
According to Shariful Hasan, Head of Brac Migration Programme, while previously there were 15/20 recruiting agencies, currently the number rose to around 600. These agencies employ local dalals to persuade rural women to go to the Kingdom. Currently, if the recruiting agencies can send one woman to Saudi Arabia, the authorities then allow them to send two male workers, creating room for the agencies to take advantage of the situation. Another factor that has contributed to the rise in women travelling to the Kingdom is that women workers do not even have to pay the recruiting agencies to go there. Which means, more and more women are falling victim to unsafe migration.
While it is the government’s responsibility to ensure safe migration of our women and protect their rights, when they return from Saudi Arabia after facing all kinds of violence at the hands of their merciless employers, the authorities often say that they come back because they cannot cope with the Saudi culture and are not properly trained for the jobs! Such statements demonstrate the failure of our policymakers to recognise the problem or the level of abuse these women have had to face.
Moreover, one wonders if the responsibility of the Bangladesh embassy in Riyadh ends with only keeping the women migrant workers, rescued by the Saudi police, in the shelter homes and repatriating them to Bangladesh eventually. Do they not have any role in protecting the basic rights and looking after the well-being of our women who suffer silently in their workplaces?
It is a well-known fact that the “kafala” system in the Middle Eastern countries is one of the key reasons why our abused domestic workers cannot leave their workplaces after facing systemic violence. Under the system, the workers cannot even keep their passports with themselves. Their passports are kept with the employers which is a violation of their human rights. So even if the employers withhold the workers’ salaries, they cannot leave the workplace without their passports.
Although in recent years, some Middle Eastern countries including Qatar and Bahrain have abolished the controversial “kafala” system, while Saudi Arabia is far from abolishing it.
Under the circumstances, if we want to end this vicious cycle of exploitation, torture, and death in Saudi Arabia, we should stop sending our women workers as domestic help. The government should seriously think about the issue. As Brac’s Shariful Hasan believes, if we must send our workers to the country, we can send them as caregivers, nurses, and garment workers after providing them with necessary training, including language training, and only after making them aware of their rights and ensuring that they can seek remedies in case they face violence and other issues. Moreover, we should also look for alternative labour markets to send our female workers to.
Countries like the Philippines and Indonesia had stopped sending their women workers to Saudi Arabia long ago because of the inhuman working conditions prevailing there. We would also like to see a strong and immediate stance from our government on this issue.
Naznin Tithi is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.