By Fayeka Zabeen Siddiqua and Md Shahnawaz Khan Chandan
The Daily Star | March 03, 2017
After three months as a migrant domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, Ejjatun Begum from Barisal realised one thing clearly – she had gotten herself into a trap. She finally understood that the local middleman, who had lured her with the prospect of making a fortune, miles away from her home, was a profit-oriented liar. He had taken from her Tk 350,000 as ‘commission’, promising her a monthly salary of Tk 20,000. All of this was a lie.
There was no turning back from here – she realised that too.
For Ejjatun, the first three months were not all that bad. But in the fourth month, she learnt that her employer had confiscated her passport. He refused to pay her any salary, since he thought that he had “bought” her for Tk 300,000 from the recruiting agency. She was beaten and abused every time she demanded her salary.
After she fled her abusive employer, the police found her and returned her to the agency office. The office immediately informed the employer who sold her off to another employer. For the next few days, Ejjatun was sent back and forth to her employer, and the cycle repeated itself – she would leave the torture only to get caught by the police and sent back to her abuser. Finally, however, she was able to make a call back home and inform her family of her condition, begging them to take her back. Her family contacted WARBE DF, a civil society organisation that works for migrant rights, to help bring her back. After several meetings with the recruiting agency where constant pressure was exerted on them, the WARBE DF was finally able to bring Ejjatun back home.
She returned home empty-handed, with nothing but this horrid experience.
Bangladesh has been one of the major exporters of unskilled and semi-skilled workers in the Middle East and Southeast Asian countries. Unlike Ejjatun, there have also been many women whose quality of life has improved after being employed as domestic workers abroad thanks to decent employers and trustworthy recruiting agents. However, the numbers who allege that they have been treated like modern day slaves by their employers are no less significant.
We have started prioritising the export of female workers to these labour markets only since the last couple of years. Semi-skilled and skilled Bangladeshi female workers are employed in the garments sector and service sector in different countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, Maldives and Mauritius. But the trend of sending female workers abroad has reached an unprecedented rate recently. This upward trend began when the United Arab Emirates opened its labour market to Bangladesh exclusively for female domestic workers after three years of a labour ban. In October 2014, the UAE and Bangladesh signed a MoU which stated that the UAE will employ 1,000 female workers from Bangladesh every month mostly in the category of domestic help, cook, nanny, gardeners, drivers, etc. In 2016, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia also requested 400,000 workers from Bangladesh, at least half of whom would be female domestic workers.