Monday, 30th October 2017

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The tough get going

On a recent trip to Dhaka, I had the opportunity to meet a large number of women from the villages of Bangladesh, en route to several Gulf countries. These women, ranging in age from 20 to 50, had their contracts in hand and the requisite government clearances to depart. They were attending a government training course meant to equip them with the basic skills they would need to work as domestic workers.

By Jael Silliman
  • Published 5.03.16
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On a recent trip to Dhaka, I had the opportunity to meet a large number of women from the villages of Bangladesh, en route to several Gulf countries. These women, ranging in age from 20 to 50, had their contracts in hand and the requisite government clearances to depart. They were attending a government training course meant to equip them with the basic skills they would need to work as domestic workers.

I attended a session that the Bangladeshi Ovhibashi Mohila Sramik Association - a non-government organization that works on migrant rights - had partnered with the technical skill institute to teach the women about their rights and how they can best face difficult situations. These include physical and mental violence, sexual overtures and assaults by employers, the withholding of wages and other exploitative work conditions. Bomsa also provides them with its hotline number and contact information if they need to report abuse.

I was amazed at the courage of each of these women. They were ready to board a flight, cross the seas, and work in an entirely alien environment about which they have little knowledge,with no foreign language skills whatsoever. It would be the equivalent of my agreeing to get into a spaceship and take up a job to clean the International Space Station with no prior training or understanding of my job or the working conditions, or the least comprehension of what it is like to live and work in space! These women were simply shown the most basic appliances they are likely to use when they arrive at the homes abroad. They were shown a stove, a cooking pot, a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner, but there were not enough appliances at Bomsa to teach them how to operate any of these machines. None of these women spoke a word of Arabic or English; most of them were illiterate.

Many were aware that life in the Gulf would pose serious challenges, as they were familiar with other migrants who had returned from the region. They also knew about the stigma that society attaches to those women who are "foreign returned" - as is the case across the subcontinent. Whereas men who migrate come home with money and to a hero's welcome, female migrants become suspect, as they are not under the 'protection' of male family members when they are away. Especially when these women come home with a lot of money, there is an increased suspicion about how it was earned. Yet the lure - and perhaps the dire necessity - of earning a salary of about 16,000 taka a month (almost four times the wage they would earn as domestic workers in Bangladesh, and almost three times the wage of a garment worker in the nation), is sufficient to make them overcome their fears.

Their courage is staggering, as is the sheer number of those who undertake these often perilous journeys. An estimated 214 million migrants, including migrant workers, refugees, asylum-seekers, permanent immigrants and others, live and work in foreign nations. Increasingly, it is women who form a large percentage of these migrant workers. Women from many South Asian countries migrate for domestic work; this is the most unorganized among the unorganized sectors and has practically no protections or standardization. Further, each of these women is often alone and finds it difficult to meet other domestic workers.

Bomsa operates a 24-hour hotline for women migrants who find themselves in emergency situations. The hotline receives something between four to 20 calls a day. While we sat in the Bomsa office, a few calls came through; from the front line workers we heard about the challenges that migrants face, and those that Bomsa faces in responding to their concerns. Sexual abuse, the withholding of wages and extremely long work hours were the most common complaints. An agonizing call was from a young woman who spoke of how the grandfather in the home where she worked had molested and impregnated her; she said she was now in her second trimester. Since abortion is illegal in Saudi Arabia, her employers' family had tried to induce abortion on several occasions. Since they were unable to terminate the pregnancy, they had decided that it would be best to terminate her employment and send her home. The young woman wanted to stay on and work. She knew that the ostracism she would face if she returned home pregnant would be hard to endure. She had been contemplating suicide.

Bomsa sought to fortify her and let her know how she could best manage her situation. In the past, the NGO has assisted women in similar circumstances to get medical help and offer the child up for adoption.

Bomsa is well aware of its inability to fully respond to such calls for help from overseas. The NGO is able to contact the agents in Bangladesh and report such situations of abuse, but does not have the authority to ensure that the latter respond to the migrant workers' grievances. Bomsa sees the need to set up a desk for migrants at the various embassies to respond to the special needs of these workers. To date, it is just the Philippine government which has such a dedicated desk and actively protects the rights of its migrant workers.

Of grave concern for these workers is the fact that there are no programmes in place to deal with deaths that occur while they are on assignment. When a worker dies, the body is sent to the morgue, but usually without identification papers. Most deaths are listed as due to heart failure, but there is no verification of the actual cause of death and nobody to take responsibility for the same. Thus, hundreds of bodies of migrant workers from South Asia lie in morgues across the Middle East, literally. The families back home are often unaware of the death, and just know that a family member is missing. However, there is now a policy in place for those workers whose bodies are identified to be sent back to Bangladesh, where their families receive three lakh taka in compensation. Earlier this used to be a very lengthy process. Bomsa has worked with the requisite governmental agencies to streamline it.

As the flow of migrants continues to increase, driven by their desire for better economic and social opportunities, other reasons - such as conflict, violence, persecution, extreme and uncertain weather conditions, climate change and disasters - also cause large-scale movements and alter existing migration patterns. South Asia continues to witness an outflow of migrants, many of them in the most vulnerable categories. It is, therefore, crucial that governments which depend so heavily on their remittances be better advocates of the rights of these workers.