Jobs abroad come with package of pain

Thousands of domestic workers going abroad in search of a better life end up facing harassment by employers
Graphic: Varghese Kallada
Graphic: Varghese Kallada

Chennai

Lured by the prospect of a better life, hundreds of women, predominantly from hinterlands of Tamil Nadu are going abroad as domestic workers. However, once they reach foreign shores, their dreams of earning a decent salary to provide for their children back home are shattered. Having been cheated by the local agents, these women, most of whom are not well-educated, are made to work long hours without food or rest, no salary and often, are subjected to severe physical abuse from their employers.
30-year-old Meghala, a resident of Madurai who went to Oman as a domestic help, returned with burn marks in her right hand, as a result of abuse by her employer. Having taken up a job in Oman to help her family, after her husband, a lorry-driver, lost his leg, this mother of two said that she was not given a single penny for the three months she had worked — sometimes for 24-hours at a stretch. Instances of women, who had gone to the Middle East as domestic help only to return with debts and injuries, are on the rise.
Antonyammal B, a social worker with National Domestic Workers Movement (NDWM), said the agents, most of whom operate illegally, scout for widows or women abandoned by their husbands, who have children to raise. “Most of these women are illiterate and are unaware of the laws, of their own country as well as the nation they will be heading to. Moreover, the agents promise a lucrative salary and are the ones who obtain the visa (mostly tourist visa) and passport for these women. On reaching the employer’s home, the passports are taken away. 
Most women don’t even know their passport number, which makes it difficult to bring them back,” she explained, adding that there is a well-oiled illegal nexus at work. “Once the domestic worker lands on foreign shores, she is received by the local agent’s representative in the other country and sent to the employer’s home. The employer pays a huge sum, which is shared by the agents and a pittance is given to the domestic worker,” revealed Antonyammal. 
Nass Shaukat Ali, Social Worker based in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, said 99% of the domestic workers gained a backdoor entry to these countries. “This is dangerous as anything could happen to these women and nobody would have an idea. Moreover, Saudi Arabia has a different culture — most women find it hard to adjust. There is also a huge communication gap,” he noted.
It is not only the women, stranded in these countries, who are traumatised. Their families too find themselves at the receiving end. The children are often left with their grandparents, who have the task of bringing up their daughter’s offspring in their twilight years. 
Many families said that their complaints to local officials yielded no results. Ponnuraj, brother-in-law of 35-year-old Balkhis, who went to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker, said, “The agent had cheated us. When we complained to the collector’s office, we didn’t get any response.” According to R Geetha, National Coordinator for Construction Workers Union, strict action should be taken against illegal agents. 
“Many domestic workers, searching for work abroad, don’t know if the agent is licensed. This has to be clarified and a list of licensed agents circulated, through village panchayats. A proper work contract, with clauses against bondage and harassment, should be signed. A separate welfare board for domestic workers should also be set up,” she concluded. 
SUFFERING IN SILENCE
Stranded in Saudi
Yasin, a 26-year-old domestic worker in Vellore, is eagerly awaiting the news of her mother, Nasreen. After marrying off her four daughters, 45-year-old Nasreen was looking for a job in the Middle East to pay off the debts she had incurred while marrying off her daughters. Her eldest son had abandoned the family. “An agent from Vellore said he would get my mother a job as a domestic worker in a household abroad. Early this year, she left for Saudi Arabia with three other domestic workers. When she landed in Saudi, she was sent to work in a hotel owned by her employers. She complained of being made to work for long hours, with hardly any food or sleep. When she brought this to the employer’s notice, she was abused and brutally attacked by the employer’s sons. During a trip to Mecca with the family, she ran away and found her way to the Indian embassy,” said Yasin, who has studied only up to 5th standard. The family, worried about their mother’s situation, had appealed to the Collector and even approached the Ministry of External Affairs. “We heard that the agent received two lakhs by sending my mother there. The last time I spoke to my mother, she said she would be leaving for India soon with three other domestic workers. But later, she pointed out that her employer has lodged a complaint against her. With no proper means of reaching her, we really don’t know what is the situation now or what will happen in the future,” she rued.  
From breadwinner to prisoner
26-year-old Sasikala’s life took a nasty turn, after her husband Dharmaraj was hacked to death due to a family feud, a decade ago. Her elder sister Kalaiselvi said, “With two sons (in Class 5 and 6) to care for, Sasikala was finding it difficult. In 2015, she was assured of domestic work abroad, through an agent in Tiruchy. She was in Kuwait for six months, after which she was sent to Saudi Arabia.” A month ago, Kalaiselvi received a call from her sister, which sent the family into depths of desperation. “Sasikala said she has been arrested and sent to prison, after the employer (who also took her passport) complained that she had eloped. We know that is not true. In the past, my sister was pressurised to re-marry but she always refused, saying that her focus was to earn and give her sons a better life. We don’t have any way to contact her. We are approaching the officials locally to help us bring her back,” said Kalaiselvi, in a pained tone.
Back in dire straits
Sornam Yesumani, a 55-year-old from Aralvaymozhi near Kanyakumari, was forced to look for a job after her husband Yesumani (57), a peon, was home-bound due to age-related issues. “Kathrivel, an agent from Nagarcoil, took Rs. 25,000 to get me a job in Malaysia. I left in February 2016. The employer provided only one meal a day. There was way too much work and no salary. I complained to my family, who filed a police complaint. Due to the pressure, he brought me back in May. We are worse than before — we have lost our savings and have nothing but pain and abuse to show for it,” she rued.
Oppressed and depressed
Ponnuraj, a coolie and brotherin-law of 35-yearold Balkhis, said the domestic worker is now in Saudi Arabia. “Balkhis, who had studied up to 5th standard, was the second wife of a man, who abandoned her and their two children — a son and a daughter. An agent in Tiruvannamalai, a lady, got her passport done and she was sent to Saudi on tourist visa on May 5 this year with four other women. Within 10 days, she complained that she was made to work for hours without rest or food. The agent had taken two lakhs from the owner and promised us Rs. 30,000 but we only got Rs. 17,500. Balkhis’ passport has been taken away by the local agent there. We have filed a complaint with the Collector’s Office here but there was no response. We really don’t know who to approach now,” he added, worriedly.
‘No salary, no way out’
Selvi, mother of five from Pachur (near Thanjavur), was looking for a job that would help her put food on the table for her family, after being abandoned by her husband Velankanni. Having spent Rs. 80,000, Selvi landed an opportunity as a domestic worker in Kuwait, through a Tiruchy-based agent. “Once she went to Kuwait in 2014, she called us and complained about working for long hours with no salary. After a few months, she was sent to work for the employer’s relative in Saudi Arabia, again without any payment,” said Selvi’s father Thangasamy. While running from pillar to post in order to bring back his daughter, Thangasamy is also taking care of his grandchildren. He concedes that making ends meet is difficult. “I used to work as a coolie but due to age-related ailments, I stopped working. We have a cow and we are surviving by selling milk. My wife works in the nearby homes as domestic worker and we are managing to scrape by,” he said.
EXPERT SPEAK
Prof S Irudaya Rajan from Centre for Development Studies, Project Director for Tamil Nadu Migration Survey 2015, said the perception of migrant domestic workers earning more abroad is untrue. “Domestic workers going abroad are given an inflated wage figure, which is very different from what they actually get in hand. A comparison shows that a domestic help in Chennai, working for 2-3 households, will earn more than those going abroad. Further, going as a domestic worker to Middle Eastern countries means hard work, lack of labour laws and more importantly, staying away from their family, which, from an overall perspective, is not worth the pitiful earnings. For those looking for better opportunities, migration within the state is always an option and the risks are much lesser. For those who still want to work abroad, a compulsory pre-departure training should be imparted, like it is done in Philippines. This orientation will enable people to aware of the country they are going to and know what they are getting into. While migration will lead to a decline in poverty, the current system only trades poverty for exploitation – escaping one trap to land into another,” he said.

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