Doomed in the desert: How Indian women become modern day slaves in the Gulf

newsimageHundreds of domestic workers are stuck in Gulf countries, forced to work for little or no money, their freedom restricted. On February 16, Geethamma Ajayan’s husband passed away in Kerala. But she couldn’t attend his final rites. Two months before that, her sister had passed away, and even then, Geethamma couldn’t make it. The 53-year-old woman is held up in a room in Hail, some 600 km from Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh. Her employer has confiscated her passport, and her work contract has expired. Which means she cannot get out of the room for fear of arrest by the police, and she cannot travel back to India either. A domestic worker from Alappuzha district in Kerala, she migrated to Riyadh in 2015 to pay back the loans she took for her daughters’ weddings. She was promised Saudi Riyal 1,200 per month as she was working double shifts. But for the past year, she has not been getting paid. Geethamma is in fact struggling for food on a daily basis. Along with Geethamma, five other women – four from Kerala and one from Tamil Nadu – are also locked up in the same room by their employer – a company in Saudi that gave them jobs as as cleaners in a hospital. “We are totally stuck here,” Geethamma tells TNM over phone from Hail. Their work contract has expired, so none of the women can step out for fear of arrest by the police. And with no money and no documents, the five women are increasingly more anxious about how they will find their way back home. “All of us have not been paid for the past year. Whatever money we had earned and saved is also depleting. Even day to day food and water is scarce,” she added. Geethamma and her friends are just six of the hundreds of domestic workers who are stuck in Gulf countries, forced to work for little or no money, their freedom restricted. Indian workers stuck in exploitative conditions abroad One of the indicators of forced labour, according to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), is passport retention by the employer. ILO says that forced labour is any work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace or threat of a penalty, and which the person has not entered into of his or her own free will. It is a violation of the basic human right to work in freedom and freely choose one’s work. Rafeek Ravuther, director of Centre for Indian Migrant Studies in Kerala, tells TNM that the number of Indian women domestic workers being exploited in Arab countries is always high. “In 2016, I had to handle 86 such cases from Saudi Arabia. Of the 86, we were able to bring back the majority, but some are still there. We hope to bring the rest of them to safety soon,” Rafeek says. “When we say exploitation of women domestic workers, it is mainly the seizure of passport which restricts their freedom of movement, and non-payment of salary,” he adds. Rafeek says that irregular migration pathways often lead to exploitation. Illegal migration leads to exploitation In 2017, the eMigrate system gave clearance to 3,91,034 Indians to work in 18 Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) countries. However, social workers claim that the number of Indians working abroad is much higher than the eMigrate data, as many move abroad through unofficial ways. eMigrate system is an official recruitment channel initiated by the Indian government in mid-2015, to have fair recruitment practices. It is an online registration system for foreign employers (FEs) who want to recruit Indian workers, including nurses. Under the system, FEs will have to register in the eMigrate system and the filled registration application will be vetted by the Indian mission. The demand for recruiting Indian workers will be raised by the FEs through eMigrate, which embassies and MEA will verify and channel through registered recruitment agencies in India. Hubertson Tomwilson, a lawyer and migrant rights activist who heads a group named Lawyers Beyond Borders (LBB) under Migrant Forum in Asia, says that crooked agents, irregular migration pathways, and some inhumane employers put the poor women who migrate for domestic work in trouble. “I have come across many cases of women being trafficked from India to different Gulf countries on false promises. Even those who come through official channels like eMigrate are subjected to abuse… Then think of those who are trafficked and ‘sold’,” Hubertson says. How the Kafala system aid