Bangladeshi domestic workers, almost all of them women, are coming home in coffins. Some are returning penniless, having lost their last Dinar in purchasing a return ticket. And there are many more who are stranded, not knowing what to do next.
These women are either our sisters, daughters or mothers, not to mention that they are human beings with rights that must be protected. Yet, in the face of a widening tragedy, there is almost no outrage. Is it because most of them are so darn poor that we don’t even consider them worthy of our sympathy and of their rights?
Reports of violence against female domestic workers by Arab employers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States are truly frightening. A Filipino woman was chopped into pieces and then hidden in a fridge. A Sri Lankan girl returned home with more than 24 nails hammered into her body. Another Sri Lankan domestic worker was beaten to near-death, her head shaved, and a hot iron applied to her skull.
Bangladeshi girls and women employed in the Middle East as domestic workers are perhaps among the most abused. Human Rights Watch conducted a survey among Bangladeshi domestic workers in Oman and found almost all of them have been abused by their employers, including physical and sexual violence. International media have highlighted the plight of Khaleda Akhtar, a young woman, who returned home with bandages all over her body. Her employer, a husband and wife duo, had tried to burn the 28-year old woman twice. She survived only after she found shelter in a ‘safe home’ run by the Bangladesh Government.
Asia Begum, also from Bangladesh, spent four months in a Gulf country without ever receiving any wages. Another young woman, who declined to be identified, told Middle East Eye that though employed as a domestic worker, she was subjected to constant sexual violence. Women’s Development Deeply, a women’s rights platform, has reported about Jahanara who was forced to work for over 20 hours a day. When she wanted to return, the Arab recruiting agency that had hired her, whipped Jahanara 50 times “as punishment”.
Violence against domestic workers in the Middle East is not exactly news. More than three million people, most of them women, work there as domestic workers. The majority of them come from four countries: the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, and Bangladesh. Nearly 250,000 Bangladeshi women are among those living in the region, in near servitude.
In the past ten years or so, the world’s attention has been drawn to the plight of these women. Due to adverse international coverage and the UN’s intervention, a few laws have been enacted and others have been revised to improve their condition. No significant improvements have taken place, which is attested by the growing number of suicides among domestic workers. The situation is so dire that several governments, including Bangladesh, have been forced to setup ‘safe homes’ for the assaulted women. Very rarely, if ever, any of the abusers are prosecuted. Admitting its failure, the UN’s labour organization, ILO, has blamed the governments in these countries for their reluctance to implement the changes now codified in law. Very little, if ever, is reported by the local Arab media about the abuse taking place in the hands of the rich and powerful, primarily because the media outlets are almost entirely owned by the same abusers.
The overall attitude in the Middle East towards migrant workers – male and female – is one of extreme arrogance. The idea of workers rights is as foreign to them as the practice of simple civility. This was best illustrated by a Kuwaiti female blogger Andos Al-Qattan, best known for providing fashion tips to rich Arab women. After Kuwait promulgated a law granting domestic workers weekly holiday and forbidding the confiscation of their passports, Al-Qattan wrote it was unfair to demand weekly holiday for these women. Neither was it fair to expect these women to hold onto their passports. In an Instagram post, she complained, what happens If they run away?
Without a hint of irony or remorse, she announced, “I don’t want a Filipino maid anymore.”
Recently, some of the key exporters of domestic workers, such as the Philippines and Sri Lanka, have taken measures to curb such exports. After a Filipino woman was hanged in Saudi Arabia, the Philippines decided to impose a total ban on the export of its domestic workforce. Such measures have resulted in new negotiations between the concerned governments.
The Bangladesh government is not unaware of the precarious condition in which Bangladeshi women working in the Gulf and Arab countries find themselves. However, there is no genuine care or concern, let alone a legal framework for their protection under labor law. In 2016, the government took the initiative to host in London a Global Forum on Migrant Workers Rights. The issue of domestic workers was included in the work agenda of the forum. The gabfest did not produce much, except the usual expressions of concern and some unspecified assurances. At that time, Human Rights Watch had cautioned that, despite its apparent commitment to protecting female workers, the Bangladesh Government seemed more interested in finding placement of greater number of domestic workers in employment abroad.
In a recent interview with German Radio’s Bengali service, the Secretary of the Ministry of Expatriates Welfare and Employment seemed almost dismissive of the complaints of abuse of domestic workers. She claimed, about 80 percent of workers are just fine, the problem is with the remaining 20 per cent. When translated into plain numbers, 20 percent stands for nearly 50,000 women. I hope it is just the Secretary, not the entire government, who thinks it is okay to ignore the rights of so many people.
The Secretary also argued, the complaints made by the domestic workers taking shelter in safe homes are baseless. “Not true,” she declared. One wonders, if untrue, why so many women are rushing to seek shelter in these government-run safe homes? More than 50 women have recently returned home in body bags. Why they chose to commit suicide, one would like to ask the Honourable Secretary. In arguing why these women face abuse, the Secretary said most of them don’t speak Arabic, nor have professional training. She has hit the nail on its head. Sure, being unskilled they lack negotiating skills and can’t bargain over the terms of their employment. This obviously begs the question, when you know the real reason for continuing abuse, why do you allow our women to be exported without language and professional training?
The plain truth is that the government won’t move a muscle unless there is real pressure. Consider the situation with garment workers. Measurable changes have taken place with regard to their safety and wellbeing in recent months, all due to pressure from abroad and by unionized labour at home. Although domestic workers have begun organizing in Bangladesh, they still don’t have any comparable clout or bite. The domestic workers movement need to involve the major civil society groups into forming a broader coalition around the issue of workers rights.
While such a political coalition is still to be formed, there is something we in the media can do to help. We can not only highlight the abuse faced by these women but also humanize them. They are not mere statistics but real people with names and identities. By telling their stories, we can lend them a voice and help generate a national outrage now sorely missing.