It is just 2 minutes 28 seconds long, but about as chilling as it gets. Hiding from her abusers inside a toilet, a Bangladeshi maid in Saudi Arabia recorded herself as she made a desperate plea to be taken home, saying she had been assaulted and starved by her Saudi employers.
In the video posted on her Facebook page, 25-year-old Sumi Akter said she was physically assaulted by her employers, who had poured hot oil on her arms. "I perhaps won't live longer. Please save me. They locked me up for 15 days and barely gave me any food. They hit me and then burned my arms with hot oil," Akter said in Bangla as she wept and held up scars on her arms.
"They took me from one home to another one. In the first home, they tortured me and hit me repeatedly and then took me to another one where I experienced the same." In the video, Akter is seen holding the phone close to her face as she apparently hides from her employers, secretly recording her plea for help. She also alleged that she was sexually assaulted by her employers.
"Just take me away from here," she pleads in desperation.
The most harrowing aspect of it all is that her story is far from an isolated one. In the last two years, almost two thousand women in situations similar to Sumi have returned home (as she too hopefully will) to Bangladesh, completely drained of the hope and optimism with which they had left the country in search of that 'dream job'. Many of them have opened up about their experiences, which tend to be eerily similar.
Khaleda Akhter, 28, returned home to Rajshahi in January 2019, having spent months inside a Bangladeshi-run safe house in Saudi Arabia. Her story, as recounted to the media upon her return, is indicative how even when things initially seem good for the women migrant workers in the kingdom, it can all go downhill pretty quickly as well.
Life in Saudi was good for Akhter, to begin with. She worked long hours but had a stable and safe job, cooking, cleaning and looking after her sponsor's children. She was paid on time, allowed to call her family back home and given the freedom to leave the house when she pleased. The abuse for her began when her Saudi sponsor, a policeman, died five months after she arrived.
"The Saudi man who sponsored my visa was good to me and treated me properly," she said. "But after he died, his wife started to hit me. And when the wife finished with me, her other family members would later join in."
For Akhter, the abuse went from being punched and slapped to attempts by her employer to burn her alive.
"I remember the trickle of petrol going down my back," she says. "I thought I was dreaming. Then I started to feel the heat. That's when I started screaming and panicking. It just made no sense. Why would they do this to me? I had to run away."
Akhter had been banned from using her mobile after the death of her sponsor, so had to call her broker in secret. He ignored her calls and only responded telling her to flee.
One night, Akhter waited till the family was asleep, gathered her few possessions and ran out of the house. "My heart was beating," she said. "I knew if they caught me, I'd face hell from them."
She walked for miles in the desert heat before being stopped by a Saudi police patrol. "They asked me where I was going and what I was doing on the street. I tried to explain to them that I had had enough, but when they heard 'Bangladesh' and 'safe-house', they knew exactly where to take me."
Holy Land, Unholy Men
It was in 1962 that King Faisal, while still Crown Prince, abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree. Over fifty years later, migrant workers in the purportedly modern society that the kingdom has become continue to suffer extreme forms of labor exploitation that sometimes rise to slavery-like conditions. Or indeed, worse. Their lives are further complicated by deeply rooted gender, religious, and racial discrimination. This provides the foundation for prejudicial public policy and government regulations, shameful practices of private employers, and unfair legal proceedings that yield judicial sentences of the death penalty.
Saudi Arabia has a long, infamous history of not just denying legal rights to foreign domestic workers, the overwhelming majority of whom tend to be women, but also outright abuse and exploitation. Women migrants cleaned, cooked, cared for children, worked in beauty salons, and sewed custom-made dresses and gowns.
There is public sentiment in the kingdom, and elsewhere in the Gulf region, sympathetic to the plight of migrant workers. Even the kingdom's highest Muslim religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, has acknowledged that migrants suffer "exploitation and oppression." His comments, published in 2002 in the Saudi daily al-Madinah, included the observation that "Islam does not permit oppressing workers, regardless of religion. As we ask them to perform their duty, we must fulfill our duty and comply with the terms of the contract." The Grand Mufti went on to criticise intimidation of migrant workers, and said that it was "illegal and a form of dishonesty" to withhold their salaries or delay payment of wages under threat of deportation. He counseled that Islam prohibits "blackmailing and threatening [foreign] labourers with deportation if they refuse the employers' terms which breach the contract."
Over 12 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs in Saudi Arabia, constituting more than 80 percent of the private sector workforce. Many of them suffer abuse and exploitation. The kafala system, or visa sponsorship, ties migrant workers' residency permits to "sponsoring" employers, whose written consent is required for them to change employers or leave the country under normal circumstances. Be that as it may, the kingdom has long stood as the principal destination for Bangladeshi economic migrants, who in recent years have represented an engine of growth for the country's fast-growing economy thanks to the billions of dollars they send back home each year to the families in the form of remittance.
The kingdom accounts for 2.1 million Bangladeshi migrants abroad, out of a total of 8 million. That's a quarter of a population segment that sent back $16.4 billion in the 2018-19 fiscal. Which is probably why the government, despite reports of the widespread abuse they are facing in KSA, has ruled out the prospect of banning female workers from going to Saudi Arabia, the country's largest source of remittances.
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen acknowledged earlier this month that Bangladeshi women continue to suffer abuse while working in Saudi Arabia, admitting that his government has set up shelters for victims in the kingdom and regularly reports abuse to Saudi officials. But he said he was reluctant to prevent women from pursuing jobs there.
"Bangladesh does not discriminate when it comes to workers and we refuse to let women be left behind," Momen told reporters. Which as a way to put some 'spin' on the story may have worked fine, but surely won't help him much when it comes to designing policy around an issue that by now is clearly too real, and too pronounced to be wished away.
"I don't want to stop those women who want to go, because, in our country, men and women are equal. We do not want to keep women as second class citizens," the foreign minister continued.
In that same week, the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program (OKUP), a Bangladeshi migrant rights group, released the results of a study they did among 110 returnee women showing that the majority had not been able to effectively or safely make money in the kingdom.
Among the women interviewed, 86 percent said their Saudi employers didn't pay their salaries while 61 percent said they had been physically abused. Fourteen percent of interviewees said their employers sexually abused them.
And coming home to Bangladesh isn't necessarily a guarantee that abuse will end for the women, OKUP found. Some who returned were beaten up by the brokers who originally sent them to Saudi Arabia for speaking up, the group said. Asked about OKUP's findings, Momen downplayed the number of victims coming home, saying that the workers were returning "because the number of jobs has gone down" in Saudi Arabia.
At about the same time, Brac released new figures showing that 1,300 Bangladeshi women had returned from Saudi Arabia in 2018 because of sexual and physical abuse at the hands of their Saudi employers. So far this year, 900 women have returned for the same reasons, the NGO said.
Out in the open
Although the foreign minister may act like he is in the dark, for reasons of diplomacy or otherwise that are best known to him, other parts of his government have shown themselves have a finger on the pulse of an issue that is deeply sensitive to Bangladeshis.
The Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment (MEWOE), after investigating the 111 cases of returning female workers in August, found that 35 percent of them were victims of sexual and physical abuse, while 43 percent received irregular wages.
The report identified 11 fundamental reasons why Bangladeshi migrant women fled their workplace, including physical and sexual abuse, inadequate food, no leave, and irregular salaries. While the return of migrant women has been previously reported, this is the first time ever that Bangladesh authorities addressed the reasons behind it. The report, prepared by the ministry, was submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on MEWOE on September 26.
It represented a welcome shift in the government's mindset. Earlier this year, the same ministry (MEWOE) sent a delegation to Saudi Arabia and said it found no evidence that women faced abuse while working in the Gulf kingdom. But groups like Brac welcomed the September findings, which came in the face of increasing public sentiment against female migration to Saudi Arabia.
Rothna Begum, a senior woman's researcher for Human Rights Watch who focuses on the Gulf, called on the Bangladeshi government to use this as an opportunity to "educate" its citizens of the dangers faced by women working in Saudi Arabia. She also said that research HRW had previously done in 2015 and 2016 showed that Bangladeshi domestic workers inside Saudi Arabia had faced various types of abuses, now confirmed in the Bangladeshi government report.
Shariful Hasan, programme head for Brac's migration unit, said that his NGO had been raising the alarm about Bangladeshi female migrants returning from Saudi Arabia because of abuse for years.
"Our work has shown that women are coming back from Saudi Arabia because of abuse, non-payment of salaries, work overload and denial of sick leave," said Hasan, who has personally worked on the issue for over a decade now, including 9 years as a correspondent for leading vernacular daily Prothom Alo.
Bangladeshi recruitment to the Saudi labour market was suspended between 2009 and 2014. The market was opened again in 2015 through female migrants, as a deal was signed between the two governments. The agreement was signed as other countries, including Indonesia, stopped sending female workers to Saudi Arabia due to reports of abuse. The kingdom dispatched a 19-member team to Dhaka with a mission to hire Bangladeshi women to make up the shortfall. The number of Bangladeshi women going to Saudi Arabia jumped exponentially since then (see chart).
According to Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), a total of 1,278,920 migrants migrated to the Middle East country between January 2015 and September 2019. Of them, 293,588 migrants are female.
The foreign ministry sources said a total of 9,177 female migrants have been kept in shelter homes in Saudi Arabia between 2015 and 30 October 2019. Of them, 8,637 female migrants were sent back. In 10 months of this year, 1,206 female migrants were kept in the shelter home of the embassy in Riyadh. Of them, 93 migrants were ill. At least 16 were pregnant while they came to the shelter homes. Later, 787 migrants were sent back home.
The video of Sumi Akter comes after the body of migrant worker Nazma Begum was repatriated in late October. The 42-year-old Begum had called her son Rajib Hossain repeatedly before her death, alleging torture and asking to be rescued. The official reason given for her death was "an untreated illness." BRAC said this year alone, the bodies of 48 female workers have been brought back from Saudi Arabia. In the last four years, at least 66 Bangladeshi female workers died in Saudi Arabia, 52 of them committing suicide.
According to Brac, Sumi's phone was confiscated after she filmed the video, and she is still believed to be living in Jeddah. Akter's husband Sirajul Islam meanwhile said the family had tried but so far failed to get her back home. Finally amid protests against the ill-treatment of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia in particular where images from Sumi's video were displayed and speakers referred to her plight, the government last week called for the migrant worker to be repatriated. The state-run manpower exporting agency would work to bring Akter back home "as soon as possible".
As Dhaka Courier went to press this week, there was some good news breaking on this front at least: following communications between the two governments, Saudi police took her to the Consulate General of Bangladesh in Jeddah from her employer's home, but the employer was denying her "final exit" pending reimbursement of 22,000 riyal he had paid for her.
Eventually, he agreed to give her the permission to leave after a labour court rejected his plea for payment of the "dues" and she is travelling back to Bangladesh, the Bangladesh consulate said in a statement. The flight carrying Sumi is scheduled to reach Dhaka on Friday morning (November 15), as Dhaka Courier hits the stands.
But that is just about all the good news.
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