By Renu Kshetry, Womens Feature Service
Ramita Tamang, 31, from Dhading district in central Nepal has had her share of agony. Three years ago she had gone to Jeddah City in Saudi Arabia where she was employed in a large household and had to work for 20 hours a day from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. But if the inhuman working hours weren’t enough, the ignominy and trauma of having been imprisoned for 22 days in a foreign land, when the young widow could not furnish legal documents to support her stay in the country, will haunt her for the rest of her life. The young mother was eventually released and returned to her four children in Nepal in July 2009.
“I did not have a single rupee when I was arrested. After being released from the prison I stayed in the shelter home at the embassy for 21 days,” Tamang recalled, narrating her story upon her arrival at Kathmandu’s Tribhuwan International Airport.
Having spent her savings in trying to save her husband from a fatal kidney ailment, Tamang was forced to seek employment abroad. She had sold whatever valuables she had had at her disposal and used up all the money she got. Entrenched in debt, she felt only working abroad would ensure that her children get an education. So she took a loan of Rs 20,000 (US$ 25) from a local landlord by placing few grams of gold as collateral and flew off to Saudi Arabia after paying the sum to a local agent.
“The mental and physical torture cannot be explained in words,” said Tamang. “I lost not just my money but my self confidence, too.”
Tamang is not the only woman who has fallen victim to unscrupulous recruitment procedures and an inhuman and abusive work environment. Meena B.K., 36, from Jhapa district in eastern Nepal, is back from Saudi Arabia but still carries the burden of the horrors she faced in the home where she had worked. She is pregnant and states that she was sexually assaulted by her 50-year-old employer. A mother of three, Meena too had left for Jeddah City as a housemaid last year. Unable to endure the abuse she experienced, she finally managed to flee the household after 10 months. Like Tamang, she was flung into a Saudi prison when she was caught without any papers. She had requested the officials at the Nepalese embassy to make arrangements for an abortion in Kathmandu and she got the procedure done before she left for her home.
Ironically, both women did not get any money for their hard work.
Reacting to reports of inhuman treatment of Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf countries, the government had imposed restrictions in 1998 on women applying for jobs in the informal sector in the Gulf. More recently, it took the decision to ban women from going to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to work as housemaids. The fallout was that most Women Migrant Workers (WMW) aspiring for lucrative jobs abroad avail of employment opportunities through agents based in India and Bangladesh. According to a National Institute of Development Studies (NIDS)-UNIFEM study (2006), there are approximately 40,000 Nepali WMWs in Gulf, most of whom are domestic helpers.
When women like Tamang and Meena seek help in a crisis from the Nepali embassy in the country of their employment, it is often discovered that their process of migration is actually undocumented in the country of origin because of the involvement of non-Nepali agents – they mostly do not use proper channels or submit the documents.
Even recruitment agents and employers make the most of such a scenario and women workers can be passed on from one local recruiter/employer to another in a foreign country and left with no valid work permits or travel documents or even ‘valid’ employers. As a result, when they flee under duress, they have no papers to call their own and the Nepalese embassy has no documentation of their recruitment and movements.
Of course, that is not to say that there are no documented workers with valid work permits. But the distinction between regular and irregular migrants is so fine that it is practically non-existent. According to a press release issued recently by the Nepalese Embassy in Saudi Arabia, housemaids who do not meet the requirements of their employers are “sold” to someone else and thus passed from one household to another. The release states: “A majority of these women are raped, sexually assaulted, physically assaulted and have endured inhumane behaviour.”
According to the official, as of July 2009, there were 35 women still taking shelter at the embassy who are waiting for their turn to get back home.
Speaking about the problems of women migrants, Sharu Joshi, Regional Programme Manager for Migration, UNIFEM, said that the absence of labour laws in this sector coupled with their undocumented status, lack of information and skills, increases their vulnerabilities exponentially. They remain at risk at different stages of the migration process: Recruitment, entry, stay, and work.
Ironically, Nepal introduced the Foreign Employment Act 2007 with the intention of dignifying women’s labour and checking their exploitation abroad. But, tragically, the Act has not been implemented in earnest and it is still extremely hard for Nepali women to arrange for visas from Nepal.
According to Joshi, the effective implementation of the Act and Regulation can reduce substantially the cases of human rights violation and abuses of WMWs. “In addition there has to be proactive talks between the governments of the country of employment and origin…. We need to come out of denial and address the problem head-on.”
The Nepalese ambassador at Saudi Arabia, Hamid Ansari, pointed out that even though the embassy has already sent letters to the government to check the movement of women into the Gulf region, their numbers are increasing with each passing day. “We have not been able to do much diplomatic work on these cases,” he admitted.
According to an official at Ministry of Labour and Transport Management, in Saudi Arabia, it is estimated that among 2,00,000 Nepali labourers, 10,000 are working as housemaids; in Qatar some 5,000 out of the total of 3,00,000 Nepalis are housemaids (2009).
These women end up being either fired or, unable to cope with the psychological burden of toiling away, day in and day out for a meagre salary or nothing at all, leave their workplaces voluntarily.
Another reason why Nepali domestics suffer is because they are not adequately trained. Failure to carry out their responsibilities – when they don’t know how to use modern kitchen appliances, for instance – earns them censure and even physical punishment. Sexual exploitation is also rampant.
The Gulf countries have tried to do their bit to control exploitation of migrant labour – there are now labour courts where exploited and poorly paid workers can lodge their complaints. But most Nepali domestics cannot venture out of their households.
Secretary at Ministry of Labour and Transport Management, Yubaraj Pandey, pointed out that since this is a very sensitive issue it has to be addressed with care. “The ministry has requested the foreign ministry to look into this issue diplomatically to hold talks with India regarding checking at the border,” he said. But this issue seems to be stuck somewhere between politics and diplomacy.
Innumerable hapless, faceless women, in the meanwhile, continue to court danger by opting for undocumented migration in their desperation to earn some money and support families back home.