Bangladeshi women workers in Saudi Arabia are in the crosshairs for the inhuman treatment meted out to them. As the stories of physical torture, sexual abuse, and irregular wages are being mouthed by returnees, media outlets in the country are taking stock. However, the voices that spoke out and the rights groups and labour organisations who took note of the situation and are willing to push for safe migration now face a tough hurdle trying to draw the attention of the relevant authorities.
After foreign minister AK Abdul Momen's comment on the news of death of 53 women workers, which he thought was a 'meagre number', the prospect for bargaining in favour of safety of the workers in Saudi Arabia seems dim.
According to the statistics of Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), 47,283 Bangladeshi women went to Saudi Arabia for work till September of this year. But around 900 of them, according to the estimation of the
Migration Programme at Brac, have returned this year with stories of abuses and wounds.
Shariful Islam Hasan, programme head of Brac Migration Programme, told The Business Standard in reference to the Embassy of Bangladesh in Riyadh that "around 13,000 female workers returned from Saudi Arabia in the last four years and Brac helped 1365 of these returnees in 2018 and 900 women this year till October." The Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment recently admitted that 35 per cent of the returnees had left because of sexual and physical abuses.
The stories of these returnees, or of those who couldn't come back alive from Saudi Arabia, surfaced in the recent years paint a clear picture of maltreatment by the employers.
Brac's Shariful Islam Hasan said that, 53 female workers died in Saudi Arabia this year till October while in the last four years, 153 female workers died in this Gulf state. In reference to the Bangladesh Embassy, Islam Hasan said that 98 of the deceased committed suicide.
Sadly, Al Jazeera misquoted Islam Hasan when they ran a story on the subject. The Al Jazeera report said that 66 women died in Saudi Arabia, including 52 cases of suicide, whereas Islam had pointed out to them that the number of the cases of suicide was 66. "They may have taken the number of suicide to be the total number of deaths," he said.
While maltreatment of our women workers in the Gulf state continues unceasingly, official moves so far seem inadequate.
Many in Bangladesh, including some parliament members, have demanded a ban on sending our women to Saudi Arabia while others asked the government to take measures to ensure safe migration.
Dr Tasneem Siddiqui, a professor of Political Science and Chair of the Refugee and Migrating Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) of the University of Dhaka, says that she believes the demands are reflective of their sympathy for the workers. "The sympathy they are showing for these workers are understandable. But the demand to stop sending our women to Saudi Arabia is not a pragmatic one," she points out.
"Every citizen has the right to go abroad for work and many women are doing fine working in Saudi Arabia. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure safety of our female workers working abroad. Do not put a ban on it, rather make it safe," Dr Siddiqui added.
In the fiscal year 2018-19, as per the BMET statistics, Bangladesh earned a remittance of around $3110.39 million from this Gulf state. While Bangladesh earns her lion's share of remittance from Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is gradually encouraging her indigenous workforce to replace migrant workers as a preparation for the post-oil economic challenges.
As a result, in Saudi Arabia, many migrant workers are living in fear of job losses. So, Bangladesh's predicament, as far as Saudi remittance market is concerned, encompasses more issues than that of the plights of the female workers.
According to the Brac Migration Programme data shared by Mr Shariful Islam Hasan, 21,000 expatriate workers have been deported back to Bangladesh from Saudi Arabia this year till October while the deported figure was 24,272 last year.
He said that he extracted this data was from the expatriate welfare desk at Hazrat Shahzalal International Airport.
"This figure only takes into account the people who has returned empty handed- those who were deported from Saudi Arabia. But, in actuality the numbers of returnees are much higher since this data refers only to the deportees," said Mr Hasan.
An increasingly complicated job market in Saudi Arabia necessitates Dhaka to engage with Riyadh to resolve the issues diplomatically.
But the afflictions of our female workers in the Gulf state create a paradox for Bangladesh. Perhaps the authorities are in two minds whether to stand resolute in favour of our exploited workers or to flower the relations with Riyadh without the mention of their suffering for the greater good of this remittance market.
When TBS approached Professor Dr Siqqiqui with the issue whether Dhaka can engage Riyadh diplomatically without upsetting the Saudi remittance market, she said with poise that negotiations over the women workers exploitation was possible because Saudi Arabia was not recruiting women workers from other countries now, and it would serve our interest because our women need jobs.
But what do we achieve in the long run by sending unskilled women to Saudi Arabia? We need to address some skill related issues, since proper training of the aspirants for the targeted jobs as well as knowledge of the language and culture of the destination country are the imperative. Skilled migration increases income and decreases exploitation. But as the side effect of sending unskilled workers abroad, the reputation of our workers is being tarnished and exploitation is soaring.
Another reason behind the unbridled exploitations is the Kafala system. The Kafala system allows the employers to take away their passports to deter them from changing their jobs.
But according to the law of Saudi government, a housemaid can change her job location three times. The experts on migrations believe that if the government ensures proper communications with the women workers on weekly and monthly basis, the exploitations could be stopped.
Professor Dr Siddiqui recommends the government to utilise professional Bangladeshi Diaspora working in various regions of Saudi Arabia in terms of maintaining communications with the women workers. She insists that "the government must ensure the safety of the workers by intensified surveillance, phone conversations and appropriate actions no matter how trifling are the abuses."
Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen snubbed the critics who readily favoured a ban on sending female workers to Saudi Arabia and asked them to manage jobs for these workers. But the minister cannot deny that ensuring jobs for the unemployed population is one of the important responsibilities of the government, not of the critics. At the same time, ensuring safety of the population is also the responsibility of the government.