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Middle East ‘El Dorado’ turns sour

  • Published at 01:02 pm June 4th, 2018
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Our people deserve better Photo: REUTERS

Without delineated laws and immediate legal support, overseas work isn’t worth it

Of late, there have been several reports about the plight of Bangladeshi female workers who went to different Middle Eastern countries for work. Several returnees from Saudi Arabia have spoken of long hours, little break, inadequate food plus relentless sexual abuse while recounting to the media about what they have termed a “nightmare period” in their lives.

On the contrary, many women from Bangladesh are still working as domestic help and in other sectors in gulf plus other Asian nations.

The issue which is being feverishly discussed is the mistreatment of female workers. Frankly speaking, to understand the whole “overseas work” phenomenon, an in-depth look into the culture of going abroad is essential.

Sexual favour had always been an unwritten clause

Now this may come as surprise to many who are under the impression that women workers who are going overseas in recent times are facing sexual abuse.

The truth is, women who went in the past to work as domestic maids often knew they might have to offer something extra. This demand was never mentioned to anyone. I talked to a woman, Sakhina Akter, now in her 60s, who went to a gulf nation as part of a team in the mid 80s to work as a domestic help.

“We also worked extended hours and often had to provide ‘other’ favours but the reason why we did not come back is because the salary was paid regularly, at the end of the month.”

A slap now and then, or a push accompanied by verbal abuse were common, she says, adding: But back in the 80s, domestic maids often faced similar treatment, working within the country.

Mistreatment here with low wages was less appealing to similar situation with more pay overseas. In addition, working abroad always carried that mystique as people coming back home were given special treatment, deemed by others as the “lucky ones.”

The main motivation was the regular payment plus the fact that the women workers knew they were in a legitimate working environment, despite several unsavoury aspects which contravened tenets of labour law.

To extend our periphery, women workers from Bangladesh also went and still go to Dubai and other major Asian cities to work as dancers or, in the lingo of the human resources exporting agencies: Entertainers. The description of the dancer, given to a prospective candidate is fairly prosaic: Dancing at clubs where people come for dinner and a few drinks. 

This rather innocuous description belies what actually is expected of the woman in question. Sometimes, there is an added line stating that if a girl wants, she can provide some companionship to the men of her liking.

Just a year ago, I interviewed a failed/disillusioned actress of Dhaliwood, who was contemplating a proposal to go to Thailand to work as a bar dancer.

“It’s a three month contract. If I want, it can be extended,” she said. 

The manpower agency had also specified that all tips she received from the patrons of the club could be kept by her. The word “sex” was never mentioned though it was clearly hinted. The girl in question knew it very well.

Dancing is the acceptable social veneer. Many such young women who fail to break it into the glamour world, are tempted to take overseas jobs as bar dancers as sort of a last resort to make some money before they come back home with the hope of starting anew.

In reality, some return home, go back to their villages, wipe out all traces of life as a dancer and try to start a new life; many others cannot come back, ending up as bar sex workers with dancing performed merely as a face-saving, law-evading charade. 

The present day scene of horror

The main reason why so many cases are now being reported is because the suffering of workers has increased to abnormal levels with no certainty of a regular income. All those who spoke to the media have one common complaint: They were either not paid at all or, given a fraction of their owed salary.

We may not be wrong in stating that the salary-related woes have opened up a can of worms.

Realistically speaking, the situation has waded into such abomination simply because in the earlier decades, those who worked overseas as maids or domestic help, never opened up to the media about physical abuse or other unwanted demands.

This silence has proved deadly, leading to grotesque violations of rights, eventually ending up in irregularities in payment.

Sakhina Akhter’s batch used to get half day rest period with the punishments limited to the occasional slap, punch or, in the worst cases, meal withdrawal for a day. Since no protest was raised then, either by the women in question or by our government, the situation now is worse, much worse.

Recent returnees, with horrific accounts, have spoken of rape, starvation, confiscation of passport, forceful prostitution, and impregnation.

In fact, the BBC did a story a few years ago underscoring the torment of maid workers who were made pregnant by leading male members of the house and then sent back to Bangladesh without an abortion or compensation.

Getting over the ‘El Dorado’ obsession

Since the poverty stricken early years of the 70s and 80s, Bangladesh has made remarkable progress in economic development. 

Yet, somewhere in our minds there is still the highly damaging belief (a lasting legacy of colonial period psychological manipulation) that foreign is better. Maybe the time has come to draw a line as to where we should or should not work.

Surprisingly, some foreign news agencies, reporting on the abuse of workers from Bangladesh, have stated that women go overseas to avoid the grinding poverty they face.

Most of the workers who go abroad end up spending between Tk2.5 lakh to Tk5 lakh ($3000-$6000) so it’s common sense that those who can manage that amount of money are certainly not living at the sharp end of deprivation.

Again, what I find in the usage of such extreme phrases is blatant stereotyping. 

In the first two decades, men and women, struggling in a rickety post-liberation socio-economic picture, went overseas to accumulate some money so they could have a solvent life after returning.

Now people go not because they can’t have three meals a day or do not have a roof over their heads, but because there exists a flawed perception that life will radically metamorphose into conspicuous abundance when they go abroad to work.

Coming back to the reported mistreatment of women workers from Bangladesh, a state level discussion with labour laws clearly stated needs to be held.

Unless gulf nations can ensure total safety, stringent punishment of unscrupulous manpower agents/brokers, and police action against human rights abuses on imported domestic help, there is no rationale for sending people overseas.

As for the many women and men who feel that racking up a loan or getting money by selling land to pay for an overseas job is like striking gold, they should listen to reason.

Until clearly delineated laws on overseas work exist with assurance of immediate legal support in another country, it’s simply not worth it.

Spending money to come back scarred, shattered, and traumatized -- our people don’t deserve this, not at a time when we are eyeing middle income status. 

Towheed Feroze is a journalist, teaching at the University of Dhaka.