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The New Arab

Bangladesh shuts recruitment agencies after rampant Saudi abuse claims

Activists have urged action from the government after videos surfaced online [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 December, 2019

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A government spokesman said that the agencies that were shut down had failed to provide safeguards to the migrant workers and in some cases sent them back to their employers.
Bangladesh on Tuesday said it had shut down 166 recruiting agencies hiring people to work in Saudi Arabia after a spate of sexual abuse and torture allegations at the hands of employers in the Gulf kingdom.

Since 1991, some 300,000 Bangladeshi women have travelled to Saudi Arabia, according to the Dhaka government, mostly to work as household staff.

But a string of them have returned to Bangladesh in recent months levelling allegations of sexual abuse and torture and even that recruiters had sold them as sex slaves.

Last month videos secretly shot by Bangladeshi female workers were shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media and sparked protests across Bangladesh.

In a Facebook video which was shared thousands of times and prompted protests in Dhaka against worker conditions, Sumi Akter alleged "merciless sexual assaults" by her Saudi employers.

"I perhaps won't live longer. Please save me. They locked me up for 15 days and barely gave me any food. They burned my hands with hot oil," the 25-year-old Akter said.

Akter's video comes after the body of migrant worker Nazma Begum was repatriated in late October.

The 42-year-old Begum called her son Rajib Hossain repeatedly before her death, asking to be rescued and alleging torture, he told AFP, adding that she died of an untreated illness.

Read more: Emirati boss caged migrant workers 'until they supported the UAE football team'

Both women said they were promised hospital janitor jobs but were tricked into being household maids.

Government spokesman Munirus Saleheen said that the agencies that were shut down had failed to provide safeguards to the migrant workers and in some cases sent them back to their employers.

"Our campaign will continue," Saleheen told AFP.

Their closure followed talks between Bangladeshi and Saudi officials in Riyadh. 

Both countries also decided to update an online database of the female workers to ensure their safety, a statement issued by the Bangladeshi expatriate welfare ministry said.

Saudi police have also agreed not to hand back any Bangladeshi woman who escaped from a Saudi employer to her workplace, it said.

The ministry also said that the Saudi Department of Protection and Support "will take prompt action if a female worker falls in danger".

Dhaka last week said it was also trying to repatriate another 32 women who filmed a joint distress call from a Saudi detention centre after they ran away from their employers.

 

Millions of Asians travel to the Gulf to work, according to Bangladesh's government, and human rights groups say many suffer exploitation and abuses with no channels for redress across the entire region.

Bangladeshi migrant rights group Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program said last month that 61 percent of 110 women they interviewed who returned home, many from Saudi Arabia, claimed they were physically abused.

Some 14 percent said they were sexually abused, the group added. 

Read more: Why Qatar should lead Gulf states in abolising the Kafala system for migrant labourers

Dhaka-based BRAC, one of the world's largest charities, said this year alone, the bodies of 48 female workers were brought back from Saudi Arabia.

Bangladesh's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has called for the government to take immediate action.

"The stories of torture that we heard from these women were inhumane. Bangladesh should avoid sending housemaids and look at other professions," said Kazi Reazul Hoque, chairman of the NHRC, an autonomous public body.

"I used to work for 18 hours a day. At the end of the day, I never had any energy to do anything but collapse and go to sleep. Despite this, I did not get paid for three months. I used to get shouted at whenever I asked for my salary," said Nasima Akter, 24, who returned from Saudi Arabia in February.

"I thought working in Saudi Arabia would make me rich. But if this is the kind of pain you have to go through for that, it’s definitely not worth it."

Domestic workers and other low-skilled workers from poor countries are routinely abused and mistreated in Saudi Arabia and the region, due to exploitative labour laws, common racist attitudes and poor enforcement of standards.

Human rights groups have repeatedly urged Gulf states to reform their labour laws affecting domestic workers, who mostly come from south Asian and African countries and a lack of legal protection leave them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

But the abuse of Asian migrant workers goes beyond the borders of the Saudi kingdom.

Kuwait

Most recently, a domestic workers abuse scandal soured relations between the Philippines and Kuwait after a shocking discovery of the corpse of Filipina maid Joanna Demafelis in a freezer.

Her murder brought global attention about the alleged mistreatment of domestic workers in Kuwait, and condemnation from leading human rights organisations.

The crisis deepened after Kuwaiti authorities in April expelled Manila's ambassador following the emergence of video footage showing a Philippine embassy staff member helping workers escape employers they had accused of mistreatment. 

Kuwait and the Philippines signed a deal in May, following a huge diplomatic rift, that will see Manila lift a ban on its nationals travelling to the Gulf state for work.

Read more: Gulf migrant workers are being abused in complete silence

The accord signed in May said that workers will be allowed to keep their passports and mobile phones - which are often confiscated by employers. 

It stipulates that contract renewals should be approved by the Philippine Overseas Labor Office, instead of being automatically renewed and employers must provide domestic workers with food, housing, clothing and health insurance.

About 262,000 Filipinos work in Kuwait, 60 percent of them in domestic labour, according to Manila.

More than two million Filipinos are employed across the Gulf.

United Arab Emirates

Similar abuse has also been reported in the United Arab Emirates, which Human Rights Watch slammed in 2014for its rampant abuse of domestic workers.

There are around 750,000 domestic workers in the UAE, making up nearly 20 percent of the expatriate workforce, according to official statistics, however most of them are abused by their employers. 

”Most [workers] said their employers confiscated their passports. Some accused their employers of having physically abused them and confined them to the homes," the report, which was based on interviews, said.

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"Many said their employers had failed to pay the full wages due to them, had forced them to work excessively long hours without breaks or days off, or had denied them adequate food, living conditions, or medical treatment," it added.

Qatar

Meanwhile in Qatar, Doha has vowed to investigate complaints published by a Human Rights Watch report citing protests by migrant workers over their poor working conditions. 

The director of the Qatari government liaison office said the Gulf state would hold officials responsible for breaking the law accountable.

Qatar “is committed to the changes we have made to our labour laws, Saif al-Thani said on Twitter, stressing in another tweet directed at executive director of Human, Sarah Leah Watson that an investigation would take place.

The comments came after a HRW report published earlier this month said hundreds of migrant workers in Qatar staged strikes to protest against what they described as poor working conditions and threats of pay cuts.

Although some labour reforms have been implemented over the past year, the Qatari authorities have not repealed what the rights organisation has called an “exploitative sponsorship system” which fuels abuses and gives employers excessive authority over workers. 

Qatar committed to reform its laws and practices to meet international labour standards in October 2017, vowing to improve conditions for thousands of migrant workers in the tiny Gulf state since its selection as the 2022 World Cup host.

Among the reforms are setting a temporary minimum wage, introducing a law for domestic workers, setting up new dispute resolution committees, mandating the establishment of joint labour committees at companies employing more than 30 workers for collective bargaining, establishing a workers’ support and insurance fund, and ending the requirement for most workers to get an exit permit through their employer to leave the country.

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