Bangladeshi women 'sexually and physically abused' by Saudi employers

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Aden - Yasmine El Tohamy - Although her case may seem extreme, it's not an isolated incident. According to the Bangladeshi NGO, BRAC, about 1,300 female workers fled Saudi Arabia in 2018 due to abuse and exploitation. The Ministry of Expatriates Welfare and Overseas Employment (EWOE) interviewed 111 women who returned to Bangladesh in August 2019. 

Their testimonies revealed that 35 percent of returnees had left because of sexual and physical abuse. Other reasons included food and rest deprivation, denial of sick leave, and withholding of salaries.  

The outpouring of abuse cases in recent years is tightly correlated with the number of migrant workers who leave their poverty-stricken homes and look for a better life in the rich Gulf states.

According to government figures, more than 300,000 female workers have travelled from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia since 1991. Approximately two-third migrated only since 2015 (as many as 83,000 in 2017 alone) when the two governments signed a bilateral deal, ending a seven-year ban on employing Bangladeshi migrant workers.  

Not all of the victims get to share their stories though. Al-Jazeera reports that in the last four years, of at least 66 Bangladeshi female workers who died in Saudi Arabia, 52 committed suicide.

For desperate women with nowhere to turn and seemingly no way out, this can seem the only option. Many Bangladeshi women working in the Middle East have experienced having their passports confiscated by employers to keep them from leaving.

920994dadf.jpg A pre-ban United Nations report recognised that the employment conditions of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia may be 'comparable to slavery' 76e6af4351.jpg

A pre-ban United Nations report recognised that the employment conditions of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia may be "comparable to slavery", with often long working hours, poor remuneration, no access to social security, inadequate food and isolation. 

The report stated that part of the reason for the exploitation might be that workers feel powerless and scared to approach the authorities and often can’t speak the local language. Their fear isn’t baseless, in fact, an employer's authority over foreign workers is backed by official laws.

Read more: 'Kafala is slavery': Protesters march for domestic workers' rights in Lebanon

For instance, Human Rights Watch highlights that the restrictive kafala system is applied in the Middle East (although the extent varies across countries). Kafala ties migrant domestic workers' visas to their employers and prohibits them from working for a new employer without the current employer's permission, even if their employer is abusive.

On top of this, many Middle Eastern countries provide only limited protection for immigrant domestic workers or even explicitly exclude them from any protections under their labour laws.   

Bangladeshi workers' accounts of abuse are among the most extreme Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have documented.

leftQuots.png Bangladeshi workers' accounts of abuse are among the most extreme Human Rights Watch and other NGOs have documented rightQuots.png

Cases have been documented of forced labour, trafficking, torture, and suicide as a result of abuse. But workers from other Southeast Asian nations migrate to the Gulf too, seeking jobs and better pay. How come they are not experiencing exploitation and abuse?   

It appears that their governments simply take better care of their compatriots. Human Rights Watch labels Bangladesh an "outlier" in Asia for failing to protect domestic workers' rights adequately. While Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Nepal have vocally denounced abuses abroad and increased protections and salary requirements for their migrant workers, Bangladesh has, until September this year, denied any allegations of abuse of workers in Saudi Arabia.   

Most governments prohibit recruiters from charging migrant workers recruitment fees – Bangladesh allows licensed recruiters to charge up to 20,000 BDT (259 USD).

Most governments require employers to agree to monthly minimum salaries – Bangladesh has one of the lowest at about 16,000 BDT which is 200 USD, compared to the Philippines' 400 USD.

Also, most embassies in the Middle East provide shelter to domestic workers who flee abusive employers while Bangladeshi embassies do not. Bangladesh began sending workers to Saudi Arabia in 2015 as other countries, including Indonesia, stopped, due to reports of abuse. These are only some of the harmful policies prevalent in Bangladesh.   

However, while Bangladesh is guilty of neglecting its citizens, Saudi Arabia is responsible for the atrocities taking place.

leftQuots.png While Bangladesh is guilty of neglecting its citizens, Saudi Arabia is responsible for the atrocities taking place rightQuots.png

As the Human Rights Watch report states, "the government of Saudi Arabia has the primary responsibility to promote and protect the rights of the country's large migrant worker population in a much more aggressive and public manner, consistent with its obligations under international law."

For now, its laws and regulations facilitate the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable migrant workers, and the existing protection schemes are insufficiently communicated and enforced.   

Surely, it is a primary responsibility of sending and receiving countries to protect migrant workers and create procedures to aid them in distress and penalise abusive employers.   

The US and its allies also have a role to play here. They can, and should pressure their partners to introduce relevant policies and make sure they are implemented as this is a matter of basic human rights.

The EU has a particular influence on Bangladesh, being its largest export destination, and is indeed pushing Bangladesh towards strengthening workplace safety and improving labour rights.

The US should follow suit, and take advantage of its strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia not only to have a say in Middle East geopolitics but also to defend and promote democratic values and human rights. 

Amira Khan is a political analyst and writer for Modern Diplomacy specialising in the Middle East region

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