Once the female migrants from Bangladesh board the aircraft en route Saudi Arabia, no one back home can do anything about what job they actually get there and where they work, officials have said. 

Their news only comes to light if they are tortured and lodge a complaint with the embassy there or if their families file complaints about them being mistreated. Once the female migrants reach there, the Saudi authorities take over.

The Bangladesh embassy in Saudi Arabia sent a report in the first week of November about the state of women workers there.

The report specifies that between January 2015 and October 2019, a total of 131 bodies of female workers were sent back to Bangladesh from the Middle East country. Of them, 98 committed suicide and 5 were killed.

However, according to the non-government organisation BRAC, 152 women returned dead from Saudi Arabia in these four years.

Prothom Alo spoke to 18 women who had returned from Saudi Arabia over the past two

Most of them had been subject to mental and physical torture. Dalia Begum of Munshiganj told Prothom Alo that she had to undergo physical and mental sufferings during her 14 months abroad.

She had even jumped from the building to escape as she couldn’t take the torture anymore, but she broke her limbs and landed up in a hospital in Riyadh for two months. She then spent four months at the safe home in the Bangladesh embassy and returned home in a crippled state.

In March 2016 too, the Bangladesh embassy sent a report from Saudi Arabia to the expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment ministry back home about the problems of women migrant workers there. It mentioned that there was a lack of transparency in sending women workers to Saudi Arabia. The embassy, the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET) and the ministry have little to do. It was all in the hands of the Saudi authorities.

The report said that the agreements did not specify clearly what was meant by domestic help. As a result, the workers do not always meet the expectations of the Saudi employers. The workers also incurred their employers’ displeasure due to language problems. The report mentioned 42 women who had been subject to torture, one of them even gang raped.

Bangladeshi diplomats in Jeddah and Riyadh admitted that Bangladesh did not have any control over the work of the Bangladesh female migrants there. Speaking to Prothom Alo, they said that the Bangladesh ambassador Golam Masih recently spoke to the Saudi state minister for labour, Abdul Majid Al Rashudi in this regard. He requested that the authorities ensure that no irregularities or deviation from contract occurred in their employment.

Speaking to Prothom Alo over phone from Riyadh on Saturday, ambassador Masih said, “Today a 14-year-old girl was brought to the embassy. She had arrived here three months ago and fell into a bad situation. How could such a young girl be sent here? Who sent her? These matters must be resolved. The embassy recently conducted a survey of 50 women workers. Nine of them came here with no health check, though they all had health certificates.”

Golam Masih said that a joint technical committee meeting of the two countries would be held on 26 and 27 November to discuss the problems of the female migrants.
He said, “We will ask for their problems to be resolved and their wags to be increased.”

Embassy sources said that Nepal would send no women workers for wages less than 1600 riyals and the Philippines would ask for 1800 or 2000 riyals. But Bangladesh women receive only 800 riyals.

Demands were made in parliament on 12 November to stop sending women workers to Saudi Arabia. Jatiya Party member of parliament, Kazi Firoz Rashid, said, “We are sending our mothers and sisters there and they are being sexually abused and tortured, returning home dead. The ministry does nothing.”

An agreement was signed between the two countries in February 2015 to send housemaids to Saudi Arabia. From then till September this year, 293,588 women went to Saudi Arabia from this country as housemaids. The Bangladesh embassy there said that in the first month of this year 8,637 women were sent back despite the government mediation. Outside of that, another 1,500 housemaids also returned home by various means over a span of 10 months.

Expatriates’ welfare and overseas employment minister Imran Ahmed told Prothom Alo, “I summoned the Saudi charge d’ affaires and informed him about the complaints being made by the Bangladeshi women workers. I have also asked our ambassador in Riyadh to raise the matter with the Saudi authorities there too.”

There are around 700 registered recruiting agencies that send workers to Saudi Arabia. It has been alleged that some recruitment agencies violate the rules and send the women workers through other agents. They are not given proper training before being sent.

As to whether action will be taken against the agencies responsible for the crisis faced by the women in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA) secretary general Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury told Prothom Alo that the entire process was in Saudi hands.

The problems raised by the women must be resolved, he said adding this should be done by the government, manpower recruiters and the Saudi authorities.

On 12 November, the expatriates’ welfare minister told the parliament that the licence of 160 agencies had been suspended and three cancelled due to various irregularities.

Women workers from the very beginning have been complaining about rape, oppression and being beating up. However, those involved in the migration sector feel that the matter has exacerbated as the government failed to take timely initiative in this regard. They also feel that the women fall into difficult circumstances as they are not given adequate training before being sent on overseas jobs.

Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) founding chairperson Tasneem Siddiqui told Prothom Alo that the harsh face of migration has been revealed in the frequent return of women workers. The tortured women must be interviewed and the agencies responsible for sending them must be black-listed. The embassy can also set up a precedent by taking legal action in Saudi courts on behalf of a couple of the victims.

* This report appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.