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 last part of a two-part series, journalist John Krich finds out what the recruitment industry is doing to fix this
Noman Chowdhury, a 35-year veteran of the recruitment industry, works with both governmental and international agencies to improve protection for women migrants.
But he admitted: “It’s true that most of our members would not be able to fulfill the Middle East’s demand for female domestic workers without the middlemen who bring them to us.”
Until last year, there was a quota requiring two females for every male contracted, to meet demand. “Proper recruiters don’t take money from the women, they get their profits from the employers,” said Noman. “But if middlemen take them directly to government training courses then we can’t say whether they are charging a lot or a little.”
Under these unsupervised circumstances, some dalals are said to demand gratuities of up to five times migrant workers’ first month’s pay, in addition to costs for permits, visas, medical exams and travel expenses. This often puts women in debt from the start of their employment. The Bangladesh government has established banking channels that can help by providing loans, but surveys show that few women use them, preferring to sell land or family jewels to finance their trips.
“The middlemen are able to operate because women more easily put their trust in other women,” said Tapati Saha, a program analyst at the Bangladesh office of UN Women. “And while there was a stigma attached to women who tried to leave their traditional duties a decade ago, now it is far more accepted that their actions are beneficial, that they are acting with determination as heads of the family.”
But determination is not often matched with knowledge. “Few of them would travel alone to recruitment agencies in Dhaka or be able to find their way to them,” Tapati said. Even if they are presented with a contract to sign, it is likely to be in Arabic and English, which few migrant workers understand.
Noman said BAIRA is trying to counter the influence of the middlemen -- reaching into rural communities with job fairs and information. He also founded one of three private training centres in the country that offer better preparation for female migrant workers than a 21-day course required by the government’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training. “We have developed more effective audio-visual materials to reach the women, and some of them stay with us 24 hours a day for up to 45 days,” Noman said.
Among the common challenges awaiting female domestic workers, he cites “homesickness, change in food (because rice is often not available), too great workloads, verbal and sexual abuse.” He has helped to push the Bangladesh government to demand higher wages and an obligatory day off each week for women working in Middle Eastern countries - although holidays, he admitted, “are often useless since the women are not allowed to go outside without accompaniment.”
Noman also cites the relatively low number of 4,500 complaints from about 400,000 women sent overseas last year as proof that the system is becoming more responsive. While acknowledging that the number may understate the real level of the problem, he noted: “This is only a complaint rate of 1% … though even that percentage is too high when we are talking about human beings.”
Noman said Baira is seeking to create a blacklist of abusive employers and wants to see broad action to improve conditions for migrant workers through an agreement between source and destination countries, based on newly-proposed Standard Terms of Employment drawn up by UN Women in conjunction with other agencies. “We all have to work together, all the sending countries and all the agencies, to build a consensus on such standards,” he said.
Noman also argued that time may resolve the most pressing problems in the female migrant worker industry, which is a relatively new phenomenon in Bangladesh. “While this is an opportunity for our country to help eradicate poverty, we must recognize that women’s migration is less than a decade old,” he said. “We are still a baby in this. Every day, we are learning to better protect our people.”
The flow of migrants from countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka has been spurred in part by the sporadic withdrawal from the Middle Eastern market of former major labour suppliers such as Indonesia and the Philippines (which just banned its nationals from travelling to work in Kuwait after the widely publicized murder of a Filipina maid there). And they will continue to react to ongoing cases of abuse in spite of promised reforms in a traditional system known as kafala that makes migrant workers completely beholden to their sponsoring families.
However, activists said that efforts to improve conditions overseas are likely to be ineffective unless the abuses committed in Bangladesh by middlemen are brought under control. Tapati argued, for example, that BAIRA’s planned blacklist, though well-intended, would confront only the very worst behavior by employers without addressing the underlying causes. “How can we practice being ethical if the employers on the other hand aren’t ethical?” she said.
The role of middlemen must be better regulated and made transparent, argued Sumaiya Islam, director of the Bangladeshi Ovhibashi Mohila Sramik Association, even as she admitted that ending the abuses would be difficult. “We don’t have the manpower in our country to eradicate all these people,” she pointed out. “Yet most of our members are crying out for this to end their physical and mental torture.”
This article was first published on Nikkei Asian Review and is being reprinted under special arrangement