Although women from Kerala have been migrating as domestic workers for over two decades, it is only now that the Malayalam media has begun to carry stories about their situation. Shocking revelations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse – at the hands of both Arab and Malayali employers – have begun to surface. Tragically, they generally have no recourse to justice, and if some, scarred by their experiences, don’t want to go back, there are plenty of new recruits waiting to take their place.
The story of Usha, 39, is revealing. She has been thrice to Kuwait and is waiting in her Kottayam home for her next placement there. The very first stint she did was with a Kerala family. The wife was a full-time nurse and the family bread-winner. The couple had two children, a boy of six and a girl of five months. “I suffered everything at the hands of that family, except for physical abuse,” she recalls. The boy was “extremely spoilt”, according to her. Once he kicked her so hard in a sleepy state that her front tooth was broken.
The pay she received was a pittance. A year later, she found that she had no money to buy even a few gifts for people at home, or clear her debts. Once back home, she vowed not to return. But her two sons were still in school, the house needed repairs and her husband – a driver in Kuwait – got her another job through an agent there.
Her new family was extremely strict. Even phoning home was not allowed. She was promised a salary of Rs 5,000 (US$1=Rs 55) a month but the actual amount deposited in her bank account was less. “When my mistress’s sister and two kids also started staying in the same flat, I asked for a raise and got a salary of Rs 6,000,” she elaborates. Looking back Usha feels those years were the worst in her life. The fact that she had no ready cash – her salary was sent home by cheque – added to her feelings of abject humiliation. A point came when she couldn’t take it anymore. Recalls Usha, “When I told my employers I wanted to return home, they immediately called my husband and demanded he buy my return ticket. I was given 13 dinars few hours before boarding the flight – which was insufficient to even make a call to my husband from the airport.”
Leela, 53, went to Qatar in 2006, as a nanny and domestic worker. Her mistress, too, was a Malayali nurse with two kids, the youngest a year old. “I was responsible for all the cooking, cleaning and full-time care of the infant. I bathed her, fed her and she even slept with me. The mother worked in a local hospital and her work shifts left her with little time or energy to attend to matters at home,” she says.
Today, Leela is back in Kerala and works as a maid thrice a week for a doctor in Changanasserry. She is planning to return to the Gulf shortly, hoping things will be better this time round, “I’d advise any young woman willing to migrate to ensure two things – one, she must know who her employer is and, two, she must have a relative/contact she can trust in that country.”
The stories of Usha and Leela are not uncommon. Ask Elsy, 43, and Molly, 39, and they will enumerate hardships like 15-hour working days, complete isolation and the total surveillance.
Then there are other traumatic dimensions of such migration that rarely surface. For instance, in Molly’s case, it wasn’t the experience at work that demoralised her but the grim reality of being abandoned once she was back home. “My younger sister who had come look after my three kids stayed on permanently. She and my husband decided to live together during the five years that I was employed in Kuwait,” she says.
Informed about the affair, Molly did come home on a 45-day break, and her worst fears were confirmed. Today, she is an employee of the Kochi branch of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). The home she helped build with money earned during her five-year stint in Kuwait is now occupied by her sister. What is worse, she cannot even return to the Gulf because her husband in a fit of anger burned up her passport. “I have plenty of company,” Molly remarks wryly, referring to her colleagues, who have found themselves similarly abandoned.
Pushpi, the manager of this SEWA branch, says, “It’s ironic but true. Migrant women workers are often more insecure about their status in the families they leave behind than in the families that employ them abroad.”
While little can be done to secure personal relationships, it is clear that the uncertain conditions of women migrant workers need urgent redressal. Says Praveena Kodoth, Associate Professor, Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram, “There is uncertainty in the arrangement. Who is the employer? What are the terms and conditions of payment? Answers to these questions are dictated by the legal framework of the Gulf countries.”
In the United Arab Emirates, for instance, under the Kafala (sponsorship) system, all native Arabs have the natural right to sponsor a non-native. Some of them ‘sell’ this right to a Malayali agent who, in turn, is repaid by the woman migrant he hires. “He gets back the amount he paid for sponsorship rights by re-collecting his fee from the migrating woman labourer. Invariably, he becomes her de-facto employer with all kinds of de-facto rights,” explains Kodoth.
The agents get to call the shots, they choose the employer and also help the woman jump jobs without proper documentation because, in a way, they control ‘the informal labour market’. But things can be even worse for the woman if her employer takes possession of her passport, which is generally the case with Arab employers. In case the employed women flee the workplace, their employers are supposed to hand over their passports and other papers to the Indian Embassy. But this is rarely done, and the fugitives are then, eventually, at risk of falling fall prey to those who control the informal job market.
Is there a way out of this maze? According to scholars, emigration procedures need to be urgently relaxed so that these women workers are not forced to circumvent the rules. Secondly, Indian embassies should be more pro-active. It is not difficult for the government to adopt supportive measures. Unfortunately, so far, whenever the State has intervened, it has only made the system more bureaucratic. When the State demands more paper work it makes it easier for unscrupulous agents to step in.
The consequences of illegal migration are, of course, extremely traumatic. Rosie, a widowed resident of a coastal village near Thiruvananthapuram, left her three daughters and migrated to Qatar 12 years ago. She ran away from her first employer, an Arab, after three years of unspeakable abuse. She has since been surviving with the ‘help’ of a Malayali agent who gets her employment in Malayali households in the Gulf every three months. One of Rosie’s friends reveals that she does not step out in daylight because her Arab employer has reported on her and she is on police records. Sometimes she speaks to her daughters – all inmates of a convent in her village – on a borrowed cellphone. Rosie has reportedly applied through the Indian Embassy for a royal pardon after which she may be deported. Such pardons are granted by the monarch once in 10 years.
Caught between a rock and a hard place, Rosie today lives an uncertain existence. She wants to come home desperately. But it’s anybody’s guess when she will be able to do this.
(Names of women have been changed in the sensitive cases.)