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The suffering maids

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By Shabana Mahfooz
Tue, 11, 18

Hunger, joblessness and penniless, are some of the few conditions which force men and women......

world in focus

Hunger, joblessness and penniless, are some of the few conditions which force men and women to leave their homelands and move to greener pastures. The trend is, understandably, more visible in developing countries, where usually high rates of poverty and unemployment coupled with a high population rate result in increasing demand for higher paying jobs. The monetary value of working in another country may be high, but the price paid for things which money cannot buy, is a lot more.

Women in Bangladesh are among many thousands across the world, who are lured to the Middle Eastern countries with the promise of steady jobs. More than a million domestic maids are employed only in Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter, where many families seek home help from other countries. For women seeking employment in Bangladesh, these countries, being Islamic states like their own, become a source of comfort and the women suppose that despite cultural differences, the bond of religion may be helpful in a conducive work environment. But most of them are not even paid their salaries on time and, to their horror, are tortured by their employers.

This year, the United Nations urged in its report that more is needed to be done to prevent the exploitation and abuse of domestic workers in the Middle East. “Implementation and enforcement remain major challenges, and continuing and credible allegations of abuse and fraudulent behaviour continue to plague the sector.” This is stated in a report prepared by International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency. According to ILO estimates, nearly one in five of the world’s migrant domestic workers live in the Middle East. Out of a total of 3.16 million workers, 1.6 are women.

As a result, Bangladeshi women continue to return home daily from Saudi Arabia after facing physical or sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. In 2016, the number of Bangladeshi workers going to the Kingdom for work was over 68,000, which rose to over 83,000 in 2017. But many returned home and escaped to Bangladeshi government shelters in Riyadh and detention centres across Saudi Arabia.

Bengali media reported that a coalition of migrants rights workers and former maids who were abused, have called on the Bangladeshi government to protect its female domestic workers inside Saudi Arabia. The High Court at Dhaka also sought a report from the government about the details on how many Bangladeshi woman workers have so far been sexually harassed in foreign countries, including Saudi Arabia.

In 2011, the Saudi Arabia National Recruitment Committee and Bangladesh Association of International Recruitment Agencies, BAIRA signed a memorandum of understanding for the recruitment of house help from Bangladesh. But no female domestic worker went after interviews of 150 recruits from Indonesia, Philippines and Sri Lanka working in Saudi Arabia were published in a report by Human Rights Watch in 2010. The interviews revealed ‘physical and mental torture’.

Then Saudi Arabia signed another treaty with Bangladesh in 2015. It included a clause ‘that three male workers will be recruited against one female house help’.

Syeda Rozana Rashid, a Dhaka University associate professor of international relations told a publication that 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. It is not possible to bring the receiving countries under any agreement to contain the level of repression,” she said. “It will result in low remittance inflow and decrease the demand for workers from this region”.

Expatriate Bangladeshi workers sent home around $15 billion, last year. This was 17 per cent more than the remittances sent in the previous financial year. This year, the Bangladeshi government has announced plans for further expanding job markets for the Bangladeshi job seekers abroad.

Apart from ensuring the welfare of Bangladeshi workers moving abroad, the country also has to deal with societal pressure. Female workers who escape persecution in Saudi Arabia or other Middle Eastern countries are rejected when trying to return to their families.

Domestic workers from other countries who work in Saudi Arabia have also reported abuse. In 2014, a Sri Lankan maid returned from Saudi Arabia with 24 nails inside her body. The woman alleged that her Saudi employer ‘had tortured her and drove nails into her body as punishment’. In 2010 Indonesian housemaid Sumiati Binti Mustapa, was severely beaten by her Saudi employer ‘who put a hot iron to her head, mutilated her with scissors and left her with broken bones and internal bleeding’.

In 2011, when Indonesia and the Philippines laid new hiring guidelines, Saudi Arabia’s Labour Ministry refused to issue work permits for domestic workers from there. In 2015 Indonesia banned women from going to 21 Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, to become domestic helpers.

Earlier this year, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte permanently banned his country’s citizens from travelling to Kuwait - another Middle Eastern country, after repeated cases of murder and abuse of Filipino workers. This is despite the country’s reliance on remittances.

On the other hand, Ethiopia has lifted a ban issued five years ago on domestic workers moving overseas after passing a new law to guard against abuse. Kenya has also softened after a hard stance. In 2012, the Kenyan government suspended the licences of recruitment firms sending citizens to the Middle East, after stories of ‘Kenyan women being mistreated, abused or even dying in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Lebanon’. The Ministry of Labour and Social Development in Saudi Arabia, while acknowledging problems with workers’ rights, says that Islamic law ensures protection for both Muslims and non-Muslims, and that foreigners were guests in the country.

This year, Saudi Arabia’s Cabinet has also approved a jail sentence of up to five years and a $80,000 fine for sexual harassment. However, Saudi Arabia needs to do more. Human rights group like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have consistently labelled Saudi Arabia as one of the worst violators of human rights. Recently, a spat between Saudi Arabia and Canada emerged, with ties between the two countries greatly affected. The diplomatic dispute surfaced after Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland showed concern about the arrest of several social activists in Saudi Arabia. In angry retaliation, the Saudi foreign ministry tweeted to criticise Canada’s ‘negative and surprising attitude’ calling it ‘an overt and blatant interference in the internal affairs of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.’ Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador and suspended all business and trade between the two countries.

While recent decisions, like removing a decades old ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia has been hailed across the world, human rights issues, especially those regarding domestic workers still remain a concern. Saudis need to develop a culture where foreign workers are treated with respect and dignity and they deserve to be treated as humans, not as owned property. Until then, exploitation of workers seeking a better future will continue.

The writer is a broadcast journalist and freelance writer. She has keen interest in issues concerning women, religion and foreign affairs. She can be contacted at [email protected]

- Article originally published in South Asia Magazine