How Bangladeshi migrants’ Saudi dream came crashing

In 2015, Saudi Arabia dispatched a 19-member team to Dhaka with a mission to hire Bangladeshi women as workers, ending a long employment ban. The deal signed between the two countries brought cheer to millions of potential migrants. Greedy agents spread out across the impoverished parts of the country to lure economic migrants.

In the days that followed, the number of women going to Saudi Arabia witnessed a steady rise. Remittances poured in, creating a happy narrative: the rise of women. More than four years later, it’s a totally different story.

When Dalia Akhter, 25, left for Saudi Arabia in July 2018, Concorde Apex, a Dhaka-based manpower company, painted a rosy picture for her with an offer of 1,000 riyals a month ($266 today. The job was to take care of an old Saudi woman. She took the plunge, leaving behind her two-year child and husband in Dhaka. Soon afterwards, she woke up to the harsh reality: long working hours, rude behaviour and physical abuse by the Saudi family. “I had to work from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day without a break,” Ms. Akhter said in an interview from her home in Old Dhaka. Her insufficient knowledge of the Arabic language made her unfit for survival. She said she was beaten with a stick for failing to understand their language. “That’s the first time I felt I was trapped.”

Ms. Akhter was supposed to work as a caregiver for one family member. Days later, a toddler was added to her everyday responsibilities. On the other hand, the promised salary was cut to 800 riyals a month. As her work conditions grew harsher, she sought help from the manpower company in Dhaka, but the man on the phone blamed her instead, for going to Saudi Arabia unprepared.

Over 12 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs in Saudi Arabia, constituting more than 80% of the private sector workforce. Many of them suffer abuse and exploitation. The kafala system, or visa sponsorship, ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for them to change employers or leave the country under normal circumstances.

From bad to worse

One day, Ms. Akhter mustered the courage and refused to work for the abusive family. But she was unable to find an immediate path out of her misery. Five months later, her employer “sold” her to another Saudi family, but her conditions went from bad to worse. Physical abuse was a routine affair. The second employer broke her leg with a stick for “failing” to live up to their expectations.

Ms. Akhter was a victim of a system in which employers confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will. Workers who leave their employer without their consent can be charged with “absconding” and face imprisonment and deportation, according to the Human Rights. “While it’s true that many women can’t cope with the new environment, no human should be treated the way they’re treated. It’s the perfect definition of modern-day slavery and many workers are just trapped in it,” said Shariful Islam Hasan, head of the migration programme at BRAC, a non-governmental organisation.

About 200 women migrants return from Saudi Arabia every month with broken lives, according to BRAC records. “There’s no protection for foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and there’s no punishment to abusive employers,” Mr. Hasan said.

About one in 10 migrants are women. Many are uneducated and poor and they often receive false promises of salaries of about 20,000 taka ($237 a month by middlemen, Thomson Reuters Foundation reported, citing a study.

Thousands of women migrant workers come home empty-handed each year, but only 318 received compensation — averaging 9,200 taka each — from Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training in 2018. Some 83,000 Bangladeshi women went to work in West Asia in 2017 — a four-fold increase in two years, following the signing of a labour agreement between Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia in 2015.

The trend is changing. More and more workers are shunning the kingdom as details of violence and abuse are coming into sharp focus. Ms. Akhter, who jumped off a two-storey building in Saudi Arabia to escape torture and suffered a fractured vertebra, now spends 12 hours a day in bed. She came back home nearly empty-handed, as she was not paid for nine months. “Now I’m too weak to work,” she said as her voice trailed off on the phone.

(Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka

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