The Stories of Female Bangladeshi Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia

Nujhat Jahan:

According to Bangladeshi authorities, nearly 50,000 female workers went to Saudi Arabia until the end of September this year [Mahmud Hossain Opu/Al Jazeera]

Umme Kulsum, a 14-years-old teenager from Brahmanbaria was brutally assaulted in Saudi Arabia by her employer and died in August 2020. Kulsum and her family took help from a recruiting agency and broker who sent her to Saudi Arabia by faking her original date of birth. In 2019, she was sent there to work as a domestic laborer which is a very common dream of many poor households as a means of improving their financial condition. But the reality was different. She was beaten mercilessly, her legs and arms were broken, eyes were damaged too and she was left on the road until Police came and admitted her into a hospital. She died on August 9 and her body arrived in Bangladesh on September 12.

On November 12, 2019, a video of Sumi Akter went viral on social networking sites. In that video, Sumi alleged that she was tortured sexually and psychologically by her employer in Saudi Arabia where she worked as a housekeeper. She was locked up there for 15 days without proper food and her hands were burned with hot oils. She was finally given a phone and she secretly made the video and sent it to her husband. Sumi, a 25-years-old female from Panchagarh went to Saudi Arabia in May 2019 with the help of a recruiting agency. Later she found out that she was sold to her employer at TK 4 lakh. She was brought back to Bangladesh after her video created outrage amongst the public.

Nazma Begum is a 30-years-old woman from Manikganj who went to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid. She was sexually abused by her employer. When she rebelled against the abuse, she was murdered brutally. Before her death, she contacted the Bangladesh Embassy there to seek help. But no help came.

These three stories of three different women reflect the modern-day slavery culture of Saudi Arabia and its consequences. Saudi Arabia is a popular work destination for Bangladeshi women who belong to poor families. The economy of this country is heavily dependent on remittance sent by foreign workers. Not only that, these workers choose to go abroad t change their fortune and a better future. Most of the women from poor families in Bangladesh earn their livelihood by working in readymade garments. Unfortunately, despite being one of the leading countries in this sector, Bangladesh fails to pay an equal salary to women working in the garment sector. As a result, many opt to travel to middle eastern countries, especially Saudi Arabia to change their economic condition.

Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by Shariah Law has always been in controversy for its restrictive and inhumane practices. Modern-day slavery or locally known as the kafala system is more of a custom than law there. It includes imposing heavy labor on domestic workers, controlling them, sexually, physically, and mentally torturing them. Many of these domestic workers are from Bangladesh, mostly females. There are many recruitment agencies that send suitable females to Saudi Arabia, sometimes by forging their identification documents. These women go there with high hopes of turning their fortune. But the reality is harsh and the condition is even worse than one could imagine. They are not even paid for their labor. Instead, they are treated as slaves in Saudi households. Some are burnt, some suffer horrible physical injuries, some are raped and sexually abused for days and some are murdered and then given the name of suicide. Such barbarism at this modern time is unimaginable. Female domestic helpers face trouble due to language barriers. They fail to seek police protection due to the same problem. Victims suffer from psychological problems and some choose to end their lives out of shame and trauma. Some of them are further sold as prostitutes to local landlords. What concerns more is the fact that this practice has been going for many years and no proper action or decision is made yet regarding the issue. 

In 2019, according to government data, 3,658 Bangladeshi migrant workers’ dead bodies reached Bangladesh from many countries. BRAC, on the other hand, estimated that 3,838 dead bodies were brought back here which is a record in number. BRAC analyzed the data from the Expatriate Welfare Desk at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka and found out that 22 female migrant workers died in Saudi Arabia this year alone. Wage Earners’ Welfare Board reveals that 64 bodies of female migrant workers have reached Bangladesh from different countries between January and September this year. The actual number of female migrant workers returning home from Saudi Arabia is unpredictable. But according to embassies and various media reports, for the last five years, the number could surpass 10,000. According to an investigation report of the Expatriates’ Welfare and Overseas Employment Ministry, among 110 female returnees from Saudi Arabia, 35 percent suffered physical and sexual abuse and 44 percent of them were not paid regularly.

When we estimate such numbers, we should realize that these are not just plain numbers but human lives. Bangladesh does not keep records of the burial of migrant workers in foreign lands, otherwise, the number would see a tremendous rise. As a country, Bangladesh is liable to take necessary steps for these people. The concerned embassy is trying but their initiatives are just not good enough. Besides, this is a clear violation of human rights. Moreover, these local recruiting agencies continuously manipulating poor people to send them as migrant workers using illegal ways. These agencies are not monitored effectively either. No human being deserves such poor luck. Unfortunately, there is still no effective measure taken by the concerned authority that would end the sufferings of Bangladeshi female migrant workers in middle eastern countries.



About the writer:

Nujhat Jahan likes to write on contemporary criminal and feminist issues with great passion. Her educational background in Criminology has given her a broad base from which to explore and evaluate several issues. She believes in bringing a positive change in the minds of the readers through her writings.

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