They had high hopes for a better life and an opportunity to get their families out of poverty. Many traveled to Saudi Arabia as domestic workers, paid agents to see their dreams come true. But their dreams were crushed when they encountered various forms of domestic abuse, which included sexual harassment. Since they could no longer continue, many of these domestic workers fled their employers and were forced to return home. As of November 2019, 900 domestic workers have returned from Saudi Arabia before finalizing their contracts. And the number of domestic workers who have returned early in the last four years exceeds 6000.
They are not just cases of physical, mental or sexual abuse. More than one hundred Bangladeshi domestic workers died in the Middle East in the first nine months of 2019 – including 36 who committed suicide.
In recent years, many online videos have emerged that tell various stories of abuse towards these domestic workers.
In early November, the video of a Bangladeshi worker in Saudi Arabia who makes a desperate call to go home while hiding from her abusers inside a bathroom went viral.
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuawVYtXjYQ (/ embed)
Sumi Akter, 25, says her employers have physically and sexually attacked her, that they have poured hot oil on her arms. She was captive for 15 days when she had almost no food.
After her return to Bangladesh, another domestic worker described that she had been treated as a slave:
(…) After arriving in Saudi Arabia, I was first sold to a landlord. I escaped from that house after a lot of domestic abuse. Then they caught me and resold me to a company at 6 lakh Bangladeshi Taka (USD 7,000). I know that there are a few hundred more girls like me out there who are forced to prostitution. I managed to call home to my husband once and told him everything. Then I contacted the Bangladesh Embassy in Saudi Arabia and finally, I was rescued.
(…) After arriving in Saudi Arabia, they sold me to an owner. I escaped from that house after much domestic abuse. Then they captured me and sold me again for 600,000 Bangladeshi Takas (US $ 7,000). I know there are hundreds of girls who have been forced into prostitution. I was able to call my husband home once and told him everything. Then, he contacted the Bangladesh Embassy in Saudi Arabia, and they finally rescued me.
BRAC is known as the largest non-governmental development agency in the world, which also works with migrant workers in Bangladesh. They published a short film about Bangladeshi migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, which chronicles the abuse that many face:
(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0eMNa10zDHg (/ embed)
The only remedy for this abuse is to report the police, which is difficult due to language problems. In addition, according to the Bangladeshi ambassador to Saudi Arabia, many victims are traumatized and want to go home quickly and many do not want to stay for litigation. Typically, no action is taken against the abuser. According to the Bangladeshi ambassador, the Government of Saudi Arabia has been informed of these cases.
Entry of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia
Since the 1970s, a large number of Bangladeshi migrant workers have traveled to Saudi Arabia to look for work. However, although the history of female workers who join the Bangladeshi migrant workforce is much more recent, their current numbers are substantial. Since 2015, there are more than 200,000 Bangladeshi domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.
Cases of corporal abuse against members of a population of migrant workers estimated at 9 million in Saudi Arabia have attracted public attention for years. Before, Indonesia and the Philippines were the main sources of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. But in 2015, due to cases of abuse and torture, Indonesia banned the sending of female workers to Saudi Arabia. Sri Lanka and the Philippines stopped sending workers before. The Saudi labor market has been closed for Bangladesh since 2008. However, in 2015, Saudi Arabia offered to hire workers from Bangladesh, with a 2: 1 male ratio over women. The Bangladeshi government agreed to the proposal and set an official base salary of 800 Saudi riyads (US $ 213) per month for women workers – much less than Filipinos and Indonesians earned.
A report by Saudi Gazette states that domestic workers in Bangladesh were the most wanted in Saudi Arabia, since their hiring was cheaper.
Bangladesh will not prevent the sending of domestic workers to Saudi Arabia
There has been much debate in the country after the increase in domestic workers returning to Bangladesh. Columnist Syed Ishtiaq Reza criticizes the sending of women to Saudi Arabia in order to boost the economy:
The country's economy is indeed enriched by exporting manpower abroad. The economy of Bangladesh depends heavily on these foreign currency earnings. But the question is, should we continue to turn a blind eye to these abuses for the sake of the adverse impact on our economy it can bring? My question to the nation – What are the legal rights of these abused female workers? What platform they can lean on to defend themselves and their rights and finally get justice?
The country's economy is certainly enriched by the export of labor. Bangladesh's economy relies heavily on these foreign exchange earnings. But the question is: Should we continue to look the other way in the face of these abuses because of the adverse impact it can have on our economy? My question to the nation – What are the legal rights of these abused workers? What platform can they use to defend themselves and their rights, and finally achieve justice?
Muntaha Jahan tweeted:
সৌদি আরব থেকে গত ৩১ অক্টোবর দুপুরে গৃহকর্মী পারভিন আক্তারের লাশ দেশে আসে। তাঁর মৃত্যুসনদে লেখা ছিল ‘আত্মহত্যা।যদিও এটি মানতে পারছেন না পরিবারের সদস্যরা। তাঁদের দাবি, আরবে যাওয়ার পর থেকে তিনি অসংখ্যবার ফোনে নির্যাতনের অভিযোগ করেছিলেন।
সৌদিতে কোনো নারী যেন কাজে না যায়?? pic.twitter.com/U98B3logXr
– মুনতাহা জাহান (@montahajahan) November 3, 2019
On October 31, the corpse of domestic worker Parvin Akter returned to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia. His death certificate mentioned “suicide.” But his relatives do not believe it. They say that many times she complained about abuse in her workplace.
I don't want more workers to go to Saudi Arabia, never again. ??
Dr. M R Karim Reza asked the Government why they are not doing enough to change the situation:
বর্বর সৌদি রাজ্যে নারী গৃহকর্মী প্রেরণ বন্ধ করার জন্য প্রয়োজনীয় ব্যবস্থা নিচ্ছে না কেন সরকার?
– Dr. M R Karim Reza (@Rezaderma) October 28, 2019
Why is the government not taking measures to stop sending domestic workers to the barbarian Saudi Arabia?
According to Selim Reza, secretary of the Expatriates Welfare Ministry, the Bangladeshi government has established safe houses in Saudi Arabia for battered women and has taken steps to make a list and prosecute “bad employers.”
In the midst of all this, Bangladesh is not ready to stop the export of labor to Saudi Arabia, the Foreign Minister said. Journalist Ishrat Jahan Urmi wrote on Facebook:
## (..) Today, the Foreign Minister mentioned that thousands of workers are going to Saudi Arabia. I've asked – “How many have complained that we should stop the market? What is the percentage? ”
## The dead bodies that have returned had death certificates mentioning the cause of death as “suicide” or “heart attack”. The investigation stops there. The Saudi nationals are above law.
## A Saudi landlord has to pay expenses and fees of 170,000 BDT (USD 2,000) to get a Bangladeshi maid. They deem that they have bought a slave and can do anything with her.
## Many sexually abused workers return home only to find that her family doesn't want her back (stigma against raped women). This year the BRAC safe home program helped around 1300 female returnees.
## Above all we have our privileged society. (..) They think that these poor women are greedy and they go abroad for anything. These people are plenty in this society.
Against all these odds, we want that the export of female workers to Saudi Arabia be stopped. I don't know whether this cry would be heard by many. But what more can we do?
## (..) Today, the Foreign Minister mentioned that thousands of workers go to Saudi Arabia. He asked – “How many have complained that we must stop the market? What is the percentage?”.
## The bodies that have returned had certificates that mentioned that the cause of death is “suicide” or “heart attack.” The investigation stops there. The Saudis are above the law.
## A Saudi owner must pay expenses and fees of 170,000 Bangladeshi Takas (US $ 2,000) to have a Bangladeshi maid. They believe they have bought a slave and can do anything.
## Many hardworking victims of sexual abuse return home only to know that their family does not want them back (stigma against raped women). This year, the BRAC Safe House program helped nearly 1300 returnees.
## Above all, we have a privileged society. (..) They believe that these poor women are greedy and that they go abroad for anything. These people abound in this society.
Against all odds, we want the export of female workers to Saudi Arabia to stop. I don't know if many will hear this scream. But what else can we do?