Our overseas workers sometimes face the worst treatment imaginable
While on my regular duty at the Bangla Tribune, I came across a disturbing yet revelatory report on women workers who are committing suicide while working abroad.
Many women, faced with inhumane treatment, have come back to the country to narrate tales of horror. Not too long ago, BBC did a disturbing news report on a woman worker who faced regular sexual exploitation in a Middle-Eastern country.
When the woman in question became pregnant, she was sent back to Bangladesh.
The woman could have undergone an abortion and the story of her ordeal would have died there but when she was sent back, the pregnancy was already in its seventh month.
There are countless women who endure mental torture and sexual exploitation while they are abroad, though taking one’s own life is a very recent phenomenon.
Suicides are forgotten, probes rarely done
To bring economic solvency to her family, Shahnaz went to Saudi Arabia in 2018, but before she could fulfil her desire, the woman took her own life.
Her dead body was brought home last January. Her family does not know why she committed suicide; in fact, there is little effort to find out why women workers abroad are taking their own lives.
As per the expatriate welfare desk at the Hazrat Shahjalal Airport, 44 women workers took their own lives after they went to work abroad.
Though the government bears all cost of bringing back the dead and provides financial assistance for burial, there hasn’t been any full-blown probe to find out the causes which drive someone to take this path.
What is most disquieting is that many families do not want to take back the dead bodies and others don’t even apply to have dead bodies brought back to Bangladesh.
Therefore, there isn’t an accurate number for the people who die while working overseas.
According to a Bangla Tribune report, in January and February, 23 dead bodies had come back from overseas and of them, seven had committed suicide. In the last three years, 294 female workers died overseas.
Of the total number of dead in the last three years, 44 committed suicide while 110 had strokes. The most number of dead, standing at 112, were from Saudi Arabia.
Last year, a woman called Kalpana committed suicide in the embassy’s safe-house. Officials say that she was mentally imbalanced but the cause of her psychological condition was not known.
Demons triggering the desperate move
When a person decides to take his/her own life, it’s usually due to an unending period of desolation and depression. The reasons can be many but whatever the cause, a disturbed mental condition is a major factor -- a state of mind in which a person feels unable to deal with the angst.
Since a thorough investigation has not been done, we can only speculate based on the account of many returnees who have spoken of gruesome working hours, physical torture, and sexual exploitation.
Interestingly, when I spoke to Saleha, a woman who had worked in the Middle-East in the late 80s and early 90s, startling information emerged.
“Sexual demands had always been part of the agreement of working overseas though it was never mentioned openly,” said the woman, now in her 60s.
“We were told discreetly that if we could ‘please’ the owner or the employer, there would not be any problem … and those wanting to go abroad had to understand what the euphemism meant. But we never spoke about it to anyone because the demands were not deviant and, most importantly, the wages were paid on time.”
Saleha also said that while the occasional slap was the punishment for small mistakes, starvation, heavy beatings never happened.
One also needs to understand the precarious sociological position of women maids or helping hands within Bangladesh in the decades after independence when survival was the most important factor. In a society where people lived in austerity, the domestic help endured regular mistreatment.
They faced beatings from their women employers here and sexual exploitation was rife, especially in the 70s when thousands of young women came to Dhaka to flee the famine in the villages and work just for three meals a day.
Compared to that, overseas employment was heaven since it paid a lot more.
However, female workers who have gone abroad in the last 10 or 15 years are speaking of different, more extreme forms of punishment, which includes withholding of the major meal of the day, locking up in dark rooms, and demands of perverted forms of physical pleasure.
Nasima says that after landing in Saudi Arabia she was kept in a locked house by her recruiting agency where she along with others faced inhumane torture.
After five months, she was given an appointment and had to work in a family of 11 members.
“From cooking to cleaning, I had to do everything without any break and if I felt tired, the owner used to beat me with a stick for small mistakes. I was left half-starved and deprived of proper medical treatment when ill,” she lamented.
The third-party recruiting agency is another macabre dimension to the entire working overseas culture. Many workers are recruited not directly by the employer but through an agent working as a medium.
These agents have been known to be ruthless in their behaviour.
Executive Director of Expatriate Women Worker Association Sumaiya Islam says: “No one goes to Saudi Arabia to die, they are killed in some way or the other; the torturous working conditions, behaviour of employers force women to take their own lives.”
What should the investigation focus on?
There has to be an in depth probe to find the causes which lead to a mental breakdown. Is it the torture or the aberrant sexual demands which many say are being hushed up?
Whatever the cause, it is grave enough for workers to feel helpless and hopeless. The best way to detect it should begin with psychologists talking to workers who are coming back with tales of suffering.
In those harrowing stories is the common link or the clue that will help us understand why the pursuit for a better income and the dream of an improved life ends in suicide.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.