In late August, when an unusually high number of Bangladeshi women returned home from their jobs in Saudi Arabia in a single day, the government commissioned a study of the causes.
Their findings: 38 of 111 women who flew home on Aug. 26 said they had been raped by their employers.
Forty-eight others said they had not been paid the full salaries they were promised.
Twenty-three alleged they were not given enough food.
Only 16 returned upon conclusion of their two-year work contracts, while others cited a variety of reasons including illness, visa expiry and family matters.
“The report really depicts a horrific picture,” Anisul Islam Mahmud, chairman of a parliamentary committee on overseas workers, said of the research, commissioned by the Expatriate Welfare Ministry and carried out by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), an NGO.
“We can send workers to Saudi only after ensuring their security,” he added.
“The problem has been identified in the ministry’s report. Now we can expect a solution,” Shariful Hasan, chief of BRAC’s migration program, told BenarNews.
“A strong monitoring system should be structured in Saudi Arabia,” Shariful said. “The government should discuss with the Saudis to ensure that every woman has a mobile phone to contact authorities should there be any problem.”
‘I have bought you’
One of the returnees told her story to BenarNews, saying she had been sexually assaulted for about two and a half months before fleeing to police in Saudi Arabia.
Because she did not have proper immigration documents, she spent 41 days in prison until she was able to return to Bangladesh with 110 others in August.
“‘I have bought you and will do whatever I want,’ he used to say as he beat me,” said the woman, whose identity is not being revealed to save her from social stigma.
“I fainted due to the beating and they used to sexually abuse my unconscious body. I understood it after regaining consciousness. They used to do it almost every night,” she told BenarNews.
The victim said she was in Saudi Arabia for 16 months and had been sold by her original employer to another homeowner.
“I lived with the first owner for about 13 months, but he did not pay the promised (U.S. $235 monthly) salary. Moreover he used to have me work in relatives’ houses. When I objected, he handed me over to another family,” she said.
She said the second homeowner abused her physically.
“They told me that they bought me so they could do whatever they wished,” she said, adding she was sick from the abuse and was receiving medical treatment as a result.
She said her employers lied about sending money to her home in Bangladesh, and added that her mother paid a broker $705 so she could return.
The woman’s mother said her family has been bankrupted.
“She went to Saudi Arabia, leaving behind her 8-year-old daughter in hopes of a better future, as her husband did not look after her. She spent $470 to go there and returned sick,” her mother told BenarNews.
Another returnee who also requested her name not be revealed told of abuse suffered in Saudi Arabia.
“I had to come back within five months, as the homeowner and his son used to sexually abuse me. They did not give me enough food or salary or allow me to talk to my family in Bangladesh,” she told BenarNews.
‘They have taken action’
Selim Reza, secretary of the Expatriates’ Welfare Ministry, said the Bangladesh government was focusing on making sure female workers in Saudi Arabia were safe.
“Steps are being taken to blacklist the bad employers and sue them,” he said.
The government was also providing “safe houses” in Saudi Arabia where abused female workers can take shelter, he said.
Ahmed Munirus Salehin, another senior official at the ministry, said Saudi officials were aware of the complaints.
“Expatriate welfare Minister Imran Ahmad visited Saudi Arabia recently and raised concerns to authorities there. The Saudis said that they have taken actions against the offenders,” he told BenarNews.
Bangladesh began sending female workers under an agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2015, but many returned alleging abuses by their employers.
In July, the expatriate ministry reported that suicides among Bangladeshi women employed as domestic workers in the Middle East has been rising. At least 118 Bangladeshi maids died in the Middle East in the first nine months of 2019, including 36 who committed suicide, according to BRAC.