Bangladeshi female migrant workers are seen here at Shah Jalal International Airport in Dhaka on their way home on July 4. Activists says thousands of female workers have returned home from various Gulf states over past three years due to abuses including physical torture, rape and withholding of pay. (Photo by Piyas Biswas/ucanews.com)
In her makeshift bamboo and tin kitchen, Sabita Das* exudes warmth, boiling rice to feed rickshaw pullers nearby. Against the backdrop of a bubbling vegetable curry, she sighs as she recounts the sacrifices she has made for her children.
Sabita sought to change her family's fortunes by seeking work in Persian Gulf states twice in the past two years, only to return exploited, abused and traumatized.
The 48-year-old Hindu widow and mother of three paid 60,000 taka (US$706) to a so-called recruiting agency for a cooking job in Dubai in January last year.
But her dream of making a good fortune came crashing down there.
"At first I was taken to a desert and kept with a group of women. Then the agents sent me to work in a house to work as a housemaid," Sabita said.
The employer and his wife were verbally and physically abusive, and she was poorly and irregularly paid. She fled the house and returned to Bangladesh six months later.
Back home in northwestern Nilphamari district, her two sons rebuked her for "spoiling money" — she was considered a burden for squandering money and failing to bring an income into the home. She moved to the capital, Dhaka, and found a cooking job.
Once again, she paid 40,000 taka to another recruiting agency for a job — this time in Saudi Arabia — in January this year.
Then hell fell upon her.
"The employer was an alcoholic and he beat and raped me while his wife was away during weekends," Sabita recalled. "The room [where] I stayed had no lock, so he intruded now and then to do whatever he wanted."
Sabita endured these sexual assaults for nearly five months, until the wife came to know about her husband's abuses. The couple quarreled and the wife left for her father's residence with Sabita in tow, only to return within days.
"He started abusing me again. I lost my patience, so I fled to the local police station and then to [the] Bangladesh embassy. I returned home on May 12," she said. "I was paid far less than what I was promised."
She received just three months' pay instead of five, at a rate of 14,000 taka per month — far less than the promised 20,000 taka.
Back home, Sabita's sons refused to accept their mother and the social stigma that came with her. In Bangladesh's conservative society, sexual abuse or rape is considered a "loss of honor" for the victim and the family. Sabita was forced to move once again to Dhaka, where she cooks meals for day labourers to eke out a living.
In June, officials from Building Resources Across Communities (BRAC), an NGO in Bangladesh, spotted Sabita and offered her 100,000 taka in support.
"My sons were angry with me as they say I have spoiled their money, so I gave [them] the full amount I got from BRAC. Now I work myself to pay for my own expenses, and for my 10th-grade daughter in [the] village," she added.
An increasingly common trend
The trauma and misery that engulfed Sabita is far from an isolated incident; cases like hers have become increasingly common in Bangladesh in recent years.
Over the past three years, about 5,000 female migrant workers like her have returned home due to various forms of abuse and exploitation, according to BRAC.
In 2018, about 1,300 female workers returned home from abroad, mostly from Gulf countries. The majority of the victims returned from Saudi Arabia.
"BRAC formed an emergency cell to help victims returning home after abuses. We offered them emergency support like food, clothes, medical assistance and money," said Shariful Hasan, head of BRAC's migration program.
"Most of the returnees said they endured sexual abuses, physical torture and withholding of pay. They have lost everything and now their families don't want to accept them, so many are facing social ostracism and a mental trauma," he said.
Hasan alleged that in many cases dubious recruiting agents entrap women with fake promises of overseas jobs, putting them in danger.
"Once they land in a foreign country, they have their phone and passport taken away, and [they are] cut off from the embassy. This is a serious workers' rights violation, but those behind this ordeal mostly remain out of touch and don't face punishment," he said.
A way out of poverty
In this Muslim-majority South Asian nation of 160 million, one in every four Bangladeshis live in poverty and more than half of those in extreme poverty, according to the World Bank. There is no end to the job searching, both inside and outside country's borders.
Amid a lack to employment opportunities, especially in poverty-stricken rural areas, millions of poorly educated, unskilled and semi-skilled Bangladeshis have resorted to overseas job markets to make a living.
According to the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment, there are about 8 million Bangladeshi expatriate workers around the world and the majority of them are based in Gulf nations. Saudi Arabia is home to more than 2 million Bangladeshi workers. More than 172,592 Bangladeshi women have been sent to the oil-rich Gulf state.
Remittance from expatriate workers is a lifeline for Bangladesh, which receives about $15 billion from overseas migrant workers annually, according to Bangladesh's central bank.
From 1991-2017, Bangladesh has seen a total of 696,000 female workers sent abroad, mostly to the UAE, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia, according to state-run Wage Earners' Welfare Board (WEWB).
WEWB director-general Gazi Mohammad Julhas said the government takes abuses committed against female workers seriously, but claimed most of the abuse victims went aboard illegally or used improper channels, making it difficult to identify and help them.
"We have set up safe houses in Saudi Arabia for victims of abuses and a cell in the embassy is active to get in touch with victims promptly. If we find workers who went abroad legally and experience abuses, we take initiatives to bring them back and compensate [them]," he said.
However, he admitted the board as yet has no plan for the rehabilitation of returnees.
Negligence towards women
Abuse of female workers in Gulf states, especially Saudi Arabia, shows utter negligence toward women's rights and dignity, says Rita Roselin Costa, convener of the women's desk at the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh.
"What has happened to Bangladeshi women is saddening and disgraceful, but no one expects better from a state that does not bother with women and human rights," Costa said.
"Often employers consider employees slaves as they think they have bought them [because] they pay them."
The government must offer proper orientation to workers before sending them abroad, maintain a database to monitor their movements, and take quick action when they face abuses, she said.
Dejected, and still emotionally raw from the sexual abuse at the hands of her employer, Sabita Das urged Bangladeshi women not to follow the same dangerous path in seeking work overseas.
"It is better to do a low-pay job and live in poverty at home than going abroad for so-called fortune," she said.
*Her name has been changed to protect her privacy.