A recent study on women migrant workers across 22 countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America finds them experiencing serious gender-based violence and harassment ranging from insults to intimidation, physical abuse and sexual assault.
The study conducted by the Global Alliance against Trafficking in Women (GAATW) was aimed at documenting the nature of violence, harassment and exploitation women migrant workers face and how they deal with such abuses.
GAATW and its Bangladesh chapter found that a segment of Bangladeshi domestic woman workers decided to migrate abroad after being victims of gender-based violence at home. Another segment of Bangladeshi women workers were forced to migrate abroad by their family members to earn for their families.
The study found that female domestic workers are vulnerable to abuse and fail to get redress as their job is in the informal sector. According to the study, gender-based violence cannot be considered in isolation from the patriarchal ideas about women's place in society, the value of their labour, and the abuse that women experience throughout their lives.
Many female domestic workers narrated horrible stories of sexual violence, often perpetrated by male family members living in the house. In addition to sexual abuse, domestic workers frequently reported long working hours, substandard living and working conditions, and insufficient food. Many worked throughout the week, without a day-off, and had to continue working even when they were sick. Migrant women in Thailand garment sector reported being paid less than the legal minimum wage of 310 baht or US$10 per day, with some being paid as little as 160 baht, or US$5.0 per day. Women garment workers in Brazil said that due to piece-rate payment schemes, they had to work 18-hour days in order to make just enough money to survive - an amount only two-thirds of the national minimum wage. They also complained that they were paid less than men for doing the same work. The study said that women workers wanted decent work, rights at work and rights as migrants.
According to Bangladesh's Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), over 0.84 million Bangladeshi female workers migrated abroad since 1992. About 98 per cent of them migrated to the Middle Eastern countries as domestic help. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) alone recruited over 0.3 million female domestic workers from Bangladesh.
A good number of domestic workers are returning home from the KSA and other Arab countries after being victims of sexual assault, torture and non-payment of salary. An NGO reported that between 2015 and the middle of 2018, nearly 5,000 female workers returned to Bangladesh with horrifying experiences, involving torture and exploitation by their Saudi employers.
Most of the women, after returning to Bangladesh, termed the agency office in the Middle East a 'torture cell' as they were beaten, throttled and made to starve for weeks. They also claimed that they were tortured until they agreed to work with the same employer and on the same conditions until they could manage money to return home. About 52 per cent of the women said their families had to pay the agency office between Tk 20,000 and Tk 200,000 for their journey back home.
There is no separate or dedicated office for dealing with arbitration cases for migrant workers. As a result, their claims remain unfulfilled. In many cases, the compensation settled by the arbitration is quite low. Citing the data of BMET, the study showed that about Tk 2.9 million was received in compensation through arbitration for 315 woman returnees in 2018 which meant that each woman got only Tk 9,200. But each of them spent Tk 10,000 to Tk 100,000 for their migration.
The study showed that some 57 per cent of the women paid migration cost to go abroad with jobs although it was declared earlier that woman workers do not need to pay for government-sponsored overseas jobs. Moreover, majority of outbound woman workers - nearly 64 per cent -- did not receive job contracts before their departure. Some 25 per cent received fake training certificates from sub-agents even though they did not take part in mandatory pre-departure training course, provided by BMET. About 11 per cent of the respondents were under the age of 25 years. But the minimum age for women overseas workers is 25 years fixed by the government.
Manpower analysts say it should be ensured that migrants get easy access to justice and due services. They say the hapless woman migrant workers should be properly compensated taking into account all losses including physical and psychological abuse. They also suggested that a monitoring team could visit the female workers at least once a month and try to enforce appropriate working conditions for them.
Mention may be made that maltreatment of domestic female employees by their Saudi employers is a longstanding and disturbing problem for the Saudi government. Citing a number of cases since 2010, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have called on the Saudi authorities to protect these workers from abuse by means of systemic reform. The government, on its part, should identify the recruitment agencies which are corrupting the system targeting vulnerable females, and bring them to book for stern action.