Abuse of Bangladeshi women workers in the Middle East is an everyday story. Only on May 18, five women rescued from Saudi Arabia described a horror story of being kept in near slavery conditions, beating and starving. In this first part of a two-part series, journalist John Krich explores why this continues to happen without any accountability
When a Bangladeshi woman working as a maid in Saudi Arabia wanted to return home last year for her son’s funeral, her employers refused to let her go - even though she was being forced to work without pay, and past the length of her two-year contract. Worse, her passport was being held by migrant labour recruiters and the fellow villager who had helped broker her Saudi job had vanished from sight.
Such so-called “middlemen” have long been a problem in Bangladesh, where grinding poverty is driving a growing number of rural women into domestic service in the Middle East. Lacking proper channels for recourse, many suffer in silence. But stories like this come amid a growing push to bring the Bangladesh’s uncounted and unregulated middlemen into the legal mainstream.
“It’s high time to end this game, where middlemen and authorized recruiting agencies cooperate with a wink, so when a woman gets in trouble overseas, they can pretend it’s the other’s responsibility,” said Sumaiya Islam, director of the Bangladeshi Ovhibashi Mohila Sramik Association, which supports the country’s migrant domestic workers.
Bangladesh, the world’s eighth most populous country and among the least developed, has 7.5 million citizens living outside the country - the fifth highest national total, according to a 2017 report by the United Nations Population Division. Amid rising demand from the Middle East for female domestic workers, finding and processing migrant labour has become a big business in the country, with 1,300 recruiting agencies licensed by the government, and many others operating outside the law.
More than 500 licensed agencies specialize in finding domestic workers, according to Noman Chowdhury, a top official of the Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira). Yet nearly all are based far from the rural areas where most potential migrants live, and rely on a network of unregulated, unauthorized “dalals,” who act as middlemen, identifying and introducing potential migrants.
“In the villages, where nearly all these women come from, they don’t trust city people,” said Sumaiya. “If they see a neighbour building a new, large house with a salary sent from overseas, they will do the same and find the dalal - no matter how many stories they hear about women who are cheated.”
The first step in the cycle of migration for most Bangladeshi women begins with freelance operators working on commission. These middlemen - male and female - are usually fellow villagers, friends or relatives. Some are trusted, but most gain business because they are merely close-at-hand.
“They are adept at filling the women with false hopes and dreams,” said Tapati Saha, a program analyst at the Bangladesh office of UN Women, which advocates gender equality. “Many times, there are not any jobs waiting for them. And if the women try to redress their grievances, the middlemen take no responsibility. As there is usually no written proof, they don’t have to acknowledge anything, and little can be done.”
People working to help female migrant workers say the women are often unable to read, access the internet or understand legal codes. According to Sumaiya, desperate phone calls from Bomsa members in Saudi Arabia - a key employer of migrant domestic labour - have included one from a prison where a domestic worker was falsely accused of stealing gold from an employer who had not paid her, as well as Fatima, whose child had died.
“Cheating, trafficking, smuggling, selling body organs -- [some of] the middlemen do all of this,” said Sumaiya, citing an oft-repeated claim (which UN officials would not confirm). “The trouble is we have no way to differentiate between the bad and the good.”
Her preferred solution is to authorize, supervise and regularize the informal recruiters. For two years, such an approach has been championed in petitions, media and government meetings by BOMSA and two allied women’s organizations.
This article was first published on Nikkei Asian Review and is being reprinted under special arrangement.