Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bangladeshi Women Workers in Lebanon: Sorry tale of torture, abuse

The Daily Star (Bangladesh), Saturday, February 11, 2012

She had long been dreaming of leading a decent life.
In May last year she flew to Lebanon to take up the job of a maidservant as a way of making her dreams come true.
But within a few days on the job, 22-year-old Hasina Begum's dreams turned into nightmares.
Her employer, a young lonely Lebanese landlord, demanded from her
something more than just what she had been hired for. As she dismissed his indecent proposal, she was confined to the house, tortured and molested.
“Those memories still make me cry.… It is better begging in Bangladesh than working in Lebanon,” she said, pointing to the marks of injury on her body.
“I was hardly given any food. In solitary confinement in a room, I had no idea what Lebanon looked like,” Hasina told The Daily Star about her atrocious enslavement for three months.
As she could not take it any more, one day she somehow managed to escape from the house.
Failing to trace Hasina, her family members in Bangladesh contacted the local recruiting agent that had sent her abroad. The agent later arranged her repatriation.
In a small makeshift room in Charwalai village of Manikganj, she still suffers pain from the injuries to her eyes.
A Bangladeshi manpower broker of the recruiting agent had arranged her job. The broker, though, took away her passport and job contract. Now she cannot even file a complaint with the authorities concerned and seek compensation.
She took out a loan of Tk 1 lakh to pay the expenses of landing the foreign job. She now feels the money only brought pain and sorrow into her life.
Returning home empty-handed, she had to borrow again to survive. Her “lofty” dreams have trapped her in a vicious cycle of borrowing.
Like Hasina, many more female migrant workers often become victims of rape, sexual assault and torture and are also deprived of labour rights in the East Mediterranean nation.
The list of such victims might be a long one, but nobody has the exact data.
According to different migrants' rights bodies, several hundred Bangladeshi maidservants returned from Lebanon in the last two years after facing oppression and exploitation.
They fear there could be hundreds more languishing in Lebanon, which currently employs the highest number of housemaids from Bangladesh. Of around 2 lakh female Bangladeshi migrants there, about 60,000 are domestic help.
Rahima, a teenager from Faridpur, was beaten regularly and denied food and rest by her employer in Beirut. After undergoing 45 days of dreadful torture, she ran away.
Wandering around the city, she met a stranger who promised her shelter and a job. But he later violated her and left her on a street.
The Red Cross then picked her up and dropped her at Caritas Lebanon Migrants' Centre, which in partnership with the rights body Okup arranged her repatriation on August 29 last year.
“She was ill, both physically and mentally. She could not even remember her address when we sheltered her in Dhaka,” said Okup Executive Director Shakirul Islam. Later she was sent home to Faridpur.
Another victim, Rumki, from Savar returned home on January 7 with a broken hand and stitches on both feet, said her husband Ranjit.
She jumped off the third floor of her work place to commit suicide after suffering through months of torture and abuse by her employer.
“She appears to be mentally ill and cannot speak normally,” added Ranjit.
In Lebanon, the most common problems the expatriate workers face include non-payment of wages, extended working hours, forced confinement at the workplace, inadequate weekly leave, seizure of identity documents and physical and sexual abuse, according to a report published by the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2010.
Unable to withstand the abuse, many of the maidservants even commit suicide.
The HRW, in another report in August 2008, said 95 expatriate housemaids have died in Lebanon since January 2007. The respective embassies of the dead classified 40 of them as suicidal deaths while 24 others died falling from high-rise buildings, often trying to escape from the clutches of their employers.
Joynal Abedin Joy, chairman of Bangladesh Migrants' Foundation, said the authorities in Lebanon mention accidents or heart attacks as reasons for the deaths, though the workers actually die of severe torture or by committing suicide.
Referring to the body of a maid servant brought to Manikganj from Lebanon a few months ago, Taslima Akhter of the female migrants' rights body Bomsa said accident was shown as the reason behind her death. But obvious injury marks on her body hint at something different.
Bangladeshi women in Lebanon have been working in very vulnerable conditions, mainly due to the fact that Lebanese labour law guarantees only the local workers of their rights such as weekly day off, working hour limits, paid holidays and compensation, said Shakirul Islam of Okup.
Besides, Bangladesh does not have a mission in Lebanon to look after the women workers, he pointed out.
According to an official of the expatriates' welfare and overseas employment ministry, there are an honorary consular and two welfare officers. The labour attaché posted in Jordan is also responsible for Lebanon.

Note: Actual names of the victims have not been used.
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