How severe was the exploitation of those women migrant workers you have interviewed?
Everyone knows how restrictive the state of freedom—especially that of women—is in Saudi Arabia. So, you can only imagine how vulnerable a foreign worker could become in such a society. It was because of such vulnerability that countries like the Philippines and Indonesia stopped sending their women workers to the country. In fact, Bangladesh sought to cash in on the vacuum created by the absence of Filipino and Indonesian workers.
From the human rights perspective, the treatment received by thousands of Bangladeshi female workers at the hands of their employers constitutes a grave violation of their rights. Can a human being work for 17–18 hours tirelessly without any day-off—that too at very low wages?
The kafala system—under which migrant workers in domestic and construction sectors are regulated across the Middle East—is incompatible with modern human rights laws. Under the system, every worker is virtually subjugated by his or her respective employer. This system allows the employers to take away their labourers' passports or even withhold wages, creating easy opportunities for employers to exploit workers. In fact, Bangladeshi workers often refer to their employers as malik or owner. Many Bangladeshi women workers reported having been treated by their employers as bonded workers.
In such a restrictive culture, women are particularly more vulnerable to exploitation—both economic and sexual.
But the Saudi authorities claim that the workers' failure to adapt to the Saudi culture is the foremost reason for the returns. How true are these claims?
Our workers have always been able to adapt to a different culture and even harsh conditions around the world. They sacrifice so much to go abroad to change their lives. Bangladeshi women workers in Hong Kong or Japan are not subjected to such a system and enjoy relatively better treatment and benefit. So, if it was our women who were inherently unable to adapt to a foreign culture, why does no one return from these countries?
So, I do not believe that the problem is with our workers. And under the international laws and human rights convention, it is not up to the labourers to adapt to their employers' cultural restrictions; on the contrary, employers are obliged to facilitate and ensure employers' fundamental rights. One deserves to be treated with basic human decency and dignity regardless of the culture he or she is living in.
It's not a cultural issue altogether. Among two hundred thousand women who had gone to the country, only five thousand returned. It is actually individual sponsors or employers who are at fault.
What about other Middle Eastern countries?
As domestic workers, Bangladeshi women mainly go to Hong Kong, Lebanon and Jordan, apart from Saudi Arabia. Normally, the problem is prevalent in the Middle East and is particularly acute in one country. That is because, perhaps, it is the most conservative state in the Middle East. In the region, Qatar does a lot better: The country has taken steps to reform its laws governing expatriate labourers, recently joined two core UN human rights treaties, and allows international organisations such as the International Labor Organisation (ILO) to operate.
BRAC's migration programme led by you helped those Bangladeshi women return home. How or in what ways did you help these distressed women?
In most cases, we are contacted by relatives of those workers. The father or husband of a worker may seek help from one of our hundreds of field offices scattered across the country—mostly in rural areas. In return, the field office contacts us. We then try to collect the worker's details such as address, contact number, passport number, etc. When these details are in our hand, we approach the expatriate welfare ministry to intervene. The ministry then contacts the Bangladeshi embassy in Saudi Arabia which seeks to rescue the worker.
In other cases, many women flee their employers' home after having endured abuse and violence. They somehow contact the embassy and take shelter in the embassy's safe home while the details of their return are sorted out. In these cases, we try to facilitate their return by contacting the relevant government authorities and providing them with useful information.
We also pick them up at the airport and give them immediate shelter, food and counsel.
Many of the returnees have reportedly faced harsh social stigma and even been abandoned by their families. Why would a family reject one of its members in such a time of distress?
In our society, there are many who would blame a girl for the sufferings she might have endured. In most cases, these women did not go to Saudi Arabia willingly. They were asked by their husbands or parents to go abroad to change the financial situation of their family. As long as they send money, everyone back home is happy. When she has to return having suffered sexually or physically, there's a tendency among many to blame her. Almost all returnees have had a problem in any phase of the reintegration process in the society.
Does your programme help these women, too?
Yes. The first thing we do is bring psychiatrists and counsellors to deal with the mental trauma that these women have undergone. We also try to persuade the families of these women to take them back. Overall, we conduct campaigns to change the societal attitude towards these returnees.
However, the economic fallout that these women face immediately in the wake of their return is the most challenging problem. When a woman returns and is not accepted by her family, where would she go and how would she live? In our capacity, we talked to the Leather goods & Footwear Manufacturers & Exporters Association and managed to get financial help and jobs for a number of these women.
I believe we need a national policy as to how we can help these women reintegrate into the mainstream society.
What could the government do in protecting women workers' rights abroad and helping those who returned?
I don't believe there's any deficiency in willingness from the government to address the issue. The problem lies elsewhere. Our faulty recruitment system largely depends on unscrupulous middlemen. If we could make the system more transparent such as calling for open applications, the dependence on middlemen would dramatically fall, as would the entire cost for potential workers. Then we could train and prepare them for the jobs, help them cope with cultural and language barriers, and make them aware of their rights and ways of seeking remedies—the scenario will be totally different if we could do this.
The reality, however, is that there's a culture of denial: our policymakers do not even recognise the problem. Some simply deny that there's a problem, while others underestimate the severity of the crisis. If we do not recognise the problem in the first place, how would we solve it?