Migrant women workers, some return, some don’t

Sohrab Hassan | Update:

A protest procession demanding ensuring safety of migrant female workers at Shaheed Minar, Dhaka. Photo: Hasan RazaSumi, like so many other Bangladeshi women who go to work in Saudi Arabia, faced trauma, faced abuse at the hands of her employers and sufferings untold. But she and others like her consider themselves lucky. At least they have managed to return home. So many more languish there in living hell.

Sumi and the others, with the help of their families, the Bangladesh embassy in Saudi Arabia and BRAC’s migration programme, returned home. Sumi Akhter’s tale of suffering went viral on social media. She had spoken about how she would be beaten every single night by her employers, even had hot oil poured on her when she protested. But she escaped and returned to Bangladesh within five months.

Sumi is the daughter of a day labourer in Boda, Panchagarh. On 30 May she went to Saudi Arabia as a housemaid. She said within a week of joining her job, the torture began. She learnt that she had actually been sold for Tk 400,000.

Her first employer would torture her regularly and then sold for 22,000 Saudi riyals her to another employer at an area along the border with Yemen. There too she suffered. She was not given enough food. One day she finally persuaded her employer to allow her to call home. She went to the bathroom and told her husband Nurul Islam about her plight.

Sumi had gone to Saudi Arabia through a recruitment agency, Ruposhi Bangla Overseas. The agency didn’t even have the clearance to send women workers to Saudi Arabia and sent her through a different agency, Jyoti International. Sumi, Dalia, Shireen and so many other women were thus tossed from hand to hand and they had no idea what the conditions of their employment were or any other details. Upon arrival, their employers simply took away their appointment letters and passports. There was no way they could even run away.

Sumi spoke over the telephone on Friday, saying she had worked in a readymade garments factory back home. Her husband told her she could get a job as a nurse in Saudi Arabia. Her parents were against this, but her husband insisted.

Now that she is back, Sumi is with her parents and has refused to meet her husband. She said she hadn’t wanted to go to Saudi Arabia in the first place. It was her husband who ‘trafficked’ her, she said. “When I was trapped in Saudi Arabia, my husband came to my parents and took around Tk 70,000. My father had to sell our cow to pay him. He took another Tk 10,000 from my father on the day before I returned, saying he needed it for transport fare. He has even filed a case against my father, demanding more money. I want separation from this man.”

Sumi said she was grateful to the Bangladesh consulate’s officer in Jeddah, Abdul Huq, for helping her return. She really said she was still unwell. Her eyes had been hurt in Saudi Arabia and the physician has said her corneas have been affected. Her father is poor and they can’t afford the medical treatment.

BRAC’s migration programme played a role in Sumi’s return. They sent her application to the expatriate’s welfare ministry and the foreign ministry. And state minister for foreign affairs Shahriar Alam also took initiative for her return when her story spread on social media.

Al Jazeera carried the story of Bangladeshi two women who had suffered and returned from Saudi Arabia. Shireen Begum is from the village Namkikari in Lalmonirhat. She was poor, struggling for survival with her husband and children. One day she heard she would get a job for a payment of just Tk 40,000, and would get monthly wages of Tk 20,000. They borrowed the Tk 40,000 at a high interest rate from a local money lender and she went to Saudi Arabia in May.
She was told she would simply have to cook for four people and would be paid 235 dollars a month. But she found that there were many people in the house where she was to work and when she couldn’t cook as they wanted, they assaulted her. The elder son of the house tried to attack her one day, but she managed to resist and complained to the police when she was attacked again. She had no valid papers with her and so was kept in jail for four weeks. Later she managed to return home with the help of the Bangladesh embassy there. “I worked or four months there but received only two months’ wages. How will I pay the moneylender back?” she asks.

Dalia Akhter is from Gandaria, Dhaka and has returned from Saudi Arabia, crippled. She had gone there in July 2018 on a 260 dollar wage. She would have to work from early morn till late night and the lady of the house would beat her with a stick often. They sold her to another household but she was tortured there too. She tried to commit suicide, jumping from the third floor of the building, but simply broke a leg. Her employer dropped her off at the Bangladesh embassy. She returned home after three weeks, penniless. She laments that she has now become a burden to her family.

Who will take responsibility for this predicament of Bangladesh’s migrant women workers? A recent Prothom Alo report pointed out how no one bothered about them anymore once they reached Saudi Arabia.

Both the countries must take responsibility for them. On the Bangladesh side, they must be given proper training and taught the language. It must be ascertained whether they will be able to adapt to the climate and environment there. Certain unscrupulous recruitment agents simply lure them with ‘dream jobs’.

Women workers started to be sent from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia in 1991. Then this stopped for a long span of time. In 2015 a fresh agreement was signed between the two countries and till September this year, so far 293,588 women workers have gone there on various jobs. There are around 700 registered recruitment agencies. There are allegations that some agents are actually trafficking there women. The government has blacklisted 167 agencies, but the situation hasn’t improved.

Human rights are violated again and again in Saudi Arabia. But that does not mean that they can treat the foreign female workers like slaves. Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka have stopped sending their women there because of the mistreatment.

Sumi couldn’t take the torture anymore and has returned home. But there are so many more women who remain entrapped there. Will the government do something for them?

*Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir

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