(London) – Bangladesh should improve protection for its domestic workers migrating to the Middle East, Human Rights Watch said today. Bangladesh is hosting the Global Forum on Migration and Development on December 10-12, 2016, a meeting of governments to share best practices and collaborate on migration policy.
Bangladesh has become an outlier in Asia for actively seeking employment of domestic workers in the Middle East but failing to protect their rights adequately and setting low salaries. Other domestic workers’ countries of origin such as Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Nepal have vocally denounced abuses abroad and increased protections and salary requirements for their migrant workers.
“Bangladesh is hosting an important global conference on migration, yet has an abysmal record protecting its own citizens,” said Rothna Begum, Middle East women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Bangladesh should seek the best opportunities for its workers but not at the cost of leaving them without meaningful protections.”
In recent years, Bangladesh has increased recruitment of female domestic workers to the Middle East, including signing bilateral agreements with Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Hundreds of thousands of Bangladeshi women are in the Middle East, more than 100,000 of whom migrated for work from January to October 2016 alone, according to Bangladesh’s Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training.
Middle East laws and policies facilitate abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers. The restrictive kafala system, applied across the region to a varying extent, ties migrant domestic workers’ visas to their employers. They cannot work for a new employer without the current employer’s permission, even if their employer is abusive. Many Middle Eastern countries, including Oman, also explicitly exclude domestic workers from the protections under their labor laws. Where some regulations exist, they provide only limited protection.
While many employers of domestic workers respect their rights, other workers face serious abuse and exploitation, including physical abuse, non-payment of wages, and confiscation of passports to keep them from leaving.
Human Rights Watch issued a report in July 2016 on abuses against migrant domestic workers in Oman, based on 59 interviews with workers, dozens of whom were from Bangladesh. Almost all of the Bangladeshi women said their employers had confiscated their passports. Many said their employers did not pay them their full salaries, forced them to work excessively long hours without breaks or days off, or denied them adequate food and living conditions. Some said their employers had physically assaulted them; a few described sexual abuse.
Bangladeshi workers’ accounts of abuse were among the most extreme Human Rights Watch documented in Oman, including cases amounting to forced labor and trafficking. “Asma K.” told Human Rights Watch that she paid an agent in Bangladesh US$750 for a job in the United Arab Emirates, but the UAE recruitment agent “sold” her to a man who confiscated her passport and took her to Oman. He forced her to work 21 hours a day for a family of 15 with no rest or day off; deprived her of food; verbally abused and sexually harassed her; and withheld her entire salary. After she pleaded to leave, her employer sent her to the agency in Oman, but she said that, “the agency beat me that night 50 times with a stick.”
Bangladesh should ensure that it provides the highest protections for its workers abroad, including by increasing oversight over its own recruitment agents, offering protections for its workers in host countries, and aiding workers in distress.
Most Middle East governments prohibit recruiters from charging migrant workers recruitment fees, whereas Bangladesh allows licensed recruiters to charge women migrant worker recruits up to 20,000 BDT (US$259). But some Bangladeshi women who spoke to Human Rights Watch in Oman said they had paid recruiters up to one lakh Bangladeshi taka (US$1,265) for work abroad. An International Labour Organization study found that domestic workers are recruited through a chain of sub-agents that connect to recruitment agencies in the capital. Recruitment fees combined with loans with high interest rates, as well as low or unpaid salaries, can trap workers in exploitative situations, as workers feel bound to stay to recoup their money and pay any debt.
Bangladesh should create procedures for domestic workers to register allegations of deception, overcharging, and abuse by agents at foreign missions and upon return. Bangladeshi missions and government should investigate and sanction sub-agents and recruiters for abuse.
Other than Kuwait’s minimum monthly salary of 60 Kuwaiti dinars (US$200) for domestic workers, no other Middle Eastern country sets minimum salaries for such workers. The embassies of other countries of origin require employers to agree to monthly minimum salaries, but Bangladesh has one of the lowest at about 16,000 BDT (US$200), while the Philippines insists on the highest of US$400. Recruitment agencies in turn often advertise domestic workers with differing salaries based on nationalities, rather than on skills and experience, to employers, resulting in discrimination on the basis of nationality.
Bangladesh should raise its minimum salary for domestic workers and create mechanisms to enforce minimum salaries and other benefits. For instance, Indian embassies in the Gulf require employers to provide almost US$3,000 as a refundable security deposit, which is used to pay for return flight tickets or unpaid salaries when an employer is abusive.
Most country-of-origin embassies in the Middle East provide shelter to domestic workers who flee abusive employers, including while they seek assistance and decide whether to file claims against their employers, but Bangladeshi embassies only offer shelter in some countries. Where there are no shelter provisions, women have very few places to turn to when they leave their abusive employers’ homes. Bangladesh should ensure its embassies provide shelter and increase capacity to assist such workers.
“By setting cheaper salaries and weaker protections the Bangladesh government is exposing workers to potential abuse,” said Begum. “Bangladesh should coordinate with other countries of origin to raise and harmonize minimum salary demands and other protections to benefit all workers.”
Bangladesh should also ratify the International Labour Organization Domestic Workers Convention, a treaty that requires countries of origin to cooperate with other countries to ensure protection of migrant domestic workers as well as to take measures to prevent abuse and fraudulent practices in recruitment, placement, and employment Human Rights Watch said. It has been ratified by 23 countries, including the Philippines.
“Bangladesh should call on Middle Eastern governments to reform their laws and policies to better protect domestic workers,” Begum said. “Migrant domestic workers cook, care, and clean for families in the Middle East, and their rights should be protected.”