Protecting our female migrant workforce
Foreign remittance is the second-biggest-grossing element of the Bangladesh economy after the ready-made garments industry. Bangladesh Bank recorded 14,981.63 and 16,419.63 million US dollars flowing into the country during the 2017-18 and 2018-19 fiscal years, respectively. According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), among the total Bangladeshi employment in 168 countries between 1976 and 2018, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) ranked first; almost 3,650,588 (30.29 percent) people travelled to Saudi Arabia in search of their livelihoods.
As reported by the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), women have contributed significantly to the country's foreign remittance levels as part of the over 860,000 strong female workforce currently employed in various roles, including as household helps in the Middle East. Following a bilateral agreement in 2015, Bangladesh started to send women as domestic workers to Saudi Arabia, with employment numbers rocketing fourfolds from 20,000 in 2015 to 83,000 in 2017, according to BMET.
A factor contributing to this surge is the fact that earning money abroad to send home is a dream come true for many families, to become prosperous and empowered. In the case of Saudi Arabia particularly, the opportunity to visit Mecca and Medina is an added draw for prospective job-seekers. However, not every dream takes place on a bed of roses, with some reported stories revealing horrors, brutality and nightmarish scenarios.
BRAC reported, between 2015 and the middle of 2018, nearly 5,000 female workers returned to Bangladesh having had horrific experiences, involving torture and exploitation by their Saudi sponsors. The repatriation is continuing as several Bangladeshi newspapers including The Daily Star and Prothom Alo reported 800 female migrants returned home between January and July this year alone. As evidenced by the examination of several cases of returned workers, the horrendous treatment of domestic helps in Saudi Arabia includes physical and mental torture, sexual abuse and the inhuman and violent behaviour of the household members towards domestic workers.
This mentality is somewhat supported by the so-called sponsorship system known as 'Iqama' in the Kingdom, with passports being confiscated by workers' sponsors upon arrival. Allegations of mistreatment of domestic workers is not limited to the KSA; it is rather a widespread issue throughout the Middle East. Nevertheless, the focus here is on the KSA and Bangladeshi maids due to the large extent of their employment there, and the existence of recent cases where individuals have claimed to have been abused by their Saudi sponsors.
Many instances of maids returning home have been detailed in print, electronic and new media over the years, uncovering the fact that rules regarding their recruitment are exploited, not only by sponsors, but also by numerous exploitative employment agencies in Bangladesh and the KSA. These recruitment agencies start their searches in rural areas and target the vulnerable, trying to attract prospective maids by giving them the false hope of a lucrative job and lifestyle. In reality, no formal contract is signed between the sponsor and the maid. Evidence from many cases shows that the workers' illusions start to break down as a result of racial discrimination, sexual exploitation, symbolic forms of prejudice against them, working 14 to 20-hour shifts, experiencing problems in getting paid, having to withstand poor working conditions, working alone, receiving low wages, there being a lack of safety and security and little emphasis on employee health and wellbeing.
On the other hand, sponsors get frustrated with maids for a number of reasons. Cultural differences pose a big challenge for both parties. Saudi culture has its own language, foods, and values, which differ from those in Bangladesh. Consequently, one of the more obvious difficulties that sponsors and maids face is the language barrier, with domestic workers often speaking neither Arabic nor English.
The maltreatment of domestic employees by Saudi sponsors is a longstanding and disturbing problem for the Saudi government. Citing a number of cases since 2010, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the Saudi Arabian authorities to protect these workers from abuse by means of systemic reform. Human rights agencies should continue their pressure on Saudi authorities as long as the exploitation of migrant domestic employees persists.
These reforms could include a change in the sponsorship rules, with particular attention paid to giving equal rights to sponsors and employees, monitoring sponsors' conduct and setting a standard employment contract. The contract might be comprised of information, such as a job title and description, the place of work, the hours of work, the salary, holidays, provisions for sickness and could detail a grievance and complaints procedure. It could also provide the particulars of any penalties that can be faced should either party breach the terms of employment.
Additionally, the Saudi government can collaborate with the administrations of other countries to introduce a unique monitoring system that regulates domestic working conditions and employees in the industry. A monitoring team could visit maids at least once a month and try to enforce appropriate working conditions for them. Finally, the government should utilise available media to create awareness among sponsors and advertise the benefits of treating workers with kindness.
In order to solve the problems between domestic workers and sponsors, firstly the Bangladeshi government must transform its large population into an abundance of resources. To make them ready for the culturally diverse workplace, the authorities should place emphasis on designing and providing cross-cultural communication training, including improving general interpersonal and foreign language skills, and encourage citizens to learn about the world around them. This training and development can also help women migrant workers to understand different customs, beliefs and communication strategies.
Secondly, the government should identify the recruitment agencies who are corrupting the system and targeting vulnerable individuals, moving to punish them accordingly. Lastly, the Bangladeshi authorities should provide a dedicated phone number for workers of all kinds to ensure the health, safety and security of people working abroad.
Indeed, it is significant for both Bangladesh to export and Saudi Arabia to import required workforce, and imperative for both countries to meet the challenges facing the employment sector. To do so, both governments should share the burden of responsibility.
Human dignity comes first and should be placed above all things.
Mohammad Omar Faruk is Director of Panacea Plus CIC, and a human resource consultant based in London.