An increasing number of Bangladeshi women are going abroad to find employment as domestic helpers despite a growing number of reports of adverse working conditions and abuse overseas.
According to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET), in 2017 a total of 1,008,525 people went abroad for work. Of them, 121,925 were women workers, accounting for 12.1% of the total migrant workforce from Bangladesh. In 2016, about 118,000 women workers went abroad and in 2015 the number was 103,718.
Although Bangladesh benefits from the remittances the women send home, most of their host countries provide poor living conditions and are failing to stop the torture and abuse of domestic workers, particularly in the Middle East.
“The increasing demand for female housekeepers has led to the rise of overseas female migration in the countries that provide very little ground for human rights exercise,” said Syeda Rozana Rashid, associate professor of international relations at Dhaka University.
“It is not possible to bring the receiving countries under any agreement to contain the level of repression. It will result in low remittance inflow and decrease the demand for workers from this region.”
Rehena Sultana (not her real name) went to Lebanon in 2009 to work as a domestic aide. Due to irregular payment and severe physical torment by her employer, she fled her workplace after five months.
Within three days of fleeing she was captured by the local police and tortured under police custody for two months. The Lebanese authorities wanted to send Rehena back to her workplace, but she wanted to return to Bangladesh.
Only with the assistance of local women police officers was Rehena finally able to get her employer to cover her return fare. After her tortuous ordeal, she returned home with only Tk18,000 in her pocket.
“The owners of the receiving states treat the workers inhumanely,” said Mehnaz Sultana, the programming director of the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU).
“Female domestic workers have to work extra hours, which gradually worsens their health conditions.”
Kakali Begum (pseudonym) went to Saudi Arabia on November 2017 to work as a domestic worker. After reaching Saudi Arabia, she was sold four times from one house to another. She was overworked and physically tortured in every house. After three months, she informed her family members and begged them to rescue her from this miserable situation.
Kakali’s family members then contacted the Bangladesh Society for Enforcement of Human Rights (BSEHR). With the help of the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET), BSEHR was able to bring her back to Bangladesh in January this year.
Kakali filled a case with the support of BSEHR against the recruiting agency but after a few days, she decided not to proceed with the case, told Mostafa Sohel, Executive director of BSEHR.
‘’Lengthy and complicated processes for seeking justice make victims feel hopeless’’, he added.
As well as being subjected to torture, many women migrant workers become victims of fraud.
After receiving training from the Technical Training Center (TTC) in Rajshahi, Rupa Sharmin (pseudonym) went to Lebanon in 2015 to work in a garment factory. On arrival the 29-year-old was shocked to find herself assigned to a housekeeping job, where she also tortured by her employer.
Rupa’s parents found a way to end their daughter’s nightmarish work placement through the BRAC Safe Migration Program. Before she was able to leave Lebanon, however, her employers injected her with a substance that caused severe damage to the hemoglobin of her blood cells.
Saudi Arabia in the spotlight
Saudi Arabia tops the list of the destination countries for women domestic workers from Bangladesh. In 2017, almost 83,354 women were employed in the kingdom, accounting for two out of every three Bangladeshi women workers overseas.
Last year, however, the Bureau of Manpower, Employment, and Training (BMET) received 17 allegations online from Bangladesh migrants to Saudi Arabia, of which 12 were from women.
BRAC’s Migration Programme head Shariful Islam Hasan said such reports of violence, exploitation, and torture from domestic aides in Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries had prompted Indonesia and Philippines to stop sending women as domestic workers to the region.
“Bangladesh is still sending female workers to Saudi Arabia for a minimum wage without checking the conditions of their standards of living,” he said.
Saudi Arabia has recently responded to criticism of its treatment of domestic workers by initiating an experimental project to house them in hostels instead of their places of work.
To ensure transparency about recruiting workers, Saudi Arabia has also introduced the Musaned system to monitor and improve the domestic labour market by acting as an orchestrator between private and public sectors. It has also set up telephone hotlines from which domestic workers can call up law enforcement agencies.
Bangladesh is making several efforts of its own to provide immediate support to exploited women migrant workers. Since 2009, the Wage Earners’ Welfare Board (WEWB) has run safe homes for women migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Lebanon under the authorization of the Bangladesh embassies there.
The main objective of the safe homes is to provide shelter to migrant women who have been tortured and exploited, or who have faced other security issues.
“Before departure, the women workers are provided with the contacts and information about the safe home during their briefing,” said Zahid Anwar, assistant director of Wage Earners Welfare Board (WEWB).
“If any woman decides to leave her workplace due to torture, she can be rescued by the Bangladesh embassy and seek shelter in the safe home.”
Not all vulnerable female migrants can seek shelter in a safe home, however. Many have their passports and means of emergency contact seized by their employers on arrival.
“A lack of information and means of communication jeopardize the lives of these female workers, throwing them into a critical condition,” Prof Syeda Rozana Rashid told the Dhaka Tribune.
Additional reporting by Johura Akter Pritu