Missing in the Gulf: Trafficked Indian Domestic Workers Flee Abuse

By Rejimon Kuttappan

After being lured to work in Gulf countries, many Indian domestic workers disappear every year. Some have been found, others not.
“Once, I was sitting on a chair and having food. I didn’t hear them calling me. They lost patience and the husband came running to me, hit me on my head with his hands and kicked me. I fell down,” said Sindhu Prassanna, recalling her traumatic experience working as a maid for a Saudi family in Abha, the capital city of the southwestern province of Asir. Prassana is now safe back home in India with the help of a local NGO and Indian authorities.
In Prassana’s accounts of her ordeal, she said that she was regularly beaten and abused by the couple she worked for, even for the smallest things. She worked almost 19 hours a day—from 4am until 11pm—and was only allowed to eat stale food and leftovers. “I worked for nearly six months and had to return empty-handed,” she said.
Prassana was introduced to the unofficial agent who got her the job through her neighbour, in the hope of making some extra money in the Gulf. “I was not aware of official recruitment channels. I trusted the agent,” said Prassana, who lodged a complaint against him with local authorities. She was first taken to Dubai and then transferred to Abha, where she was given a 90-day visa. After her relatives filed a missing person’s complaint, she returned home in March.
According to Rafeek Ravuther, director at the Centre for Indian Migration Studies (CIMS), an NGO that focuses on helping missing migrants, CIMS came across 86 missing cases in 2016. “Out of the 86 cases, 13 are still missing in the Gulf countries. The rest, with the help of Indian officials and social workers, we were able to trace, rescue and bring them home,” said Ravuther, who was involved in the rescue of Prassana.
Like Prassana, 47-year-old Susheelama Achari, travelled to Saudi Arabia in 2015 to work as a maid through an unofficial agent, hoping to earn some money to support her family. “I was sold by my original employer to many houses to work as a temporary housemaid. I worked in 11 houses,” she added. Achari said that she was sometimes locked in a dark room with no light and allowed only five hours of sleep a day. “For silly reasons, my employer used to slap me,” she said. After working without pay for more than a year, Achari returned to India in March with the help of Saudi police that were working in cooperation with Indian embassy officials. “I still have to get nine months of salary. But I am not worried over it. At least I am back and safe,” she said. “I had to undergo a lot of physical and mental abuse.”
Achama Varghese, 45, another Indian woman who migrated to Kuwait from Kerala in September 2015, was denied medical treatment by her employer while working as a home nurse. “I had some debts to be cleared. I was working as a home nurse in a nearby town,” she said. “So, when I got an offer from an agent, I trusted him and migrated to Kuwait only to suffer.” After seven months on the job, she was diagnosed with diabetes. As her health deteriorated, her employer refused to take her to the hospital for treatment. “I had to flee from there and take shelter in the Indian embassy,” Varghese added.
Varghese was hospitalised in Kuwait for months before she returned to India in March.  “My husband cannot work because his right hand is paralysed. He is suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. That’s why I migrated,” she said. “Now, we both are sick and struggling without any income,” she added.
But not all woman have made it home safely. Sindhu Saraswathy is one of the scores of Indian domestic workers who have disappeared after taking jobs in Gulf countries. In October 2016, Saraswathy went to Saudi Arabia to work as a maid to help her family. She made her last call home on 22 January. Her 70-year-old mother Saraswathy Krishnankutty is struggling to file a missing person’s complaint with local authorities because she does not have the necessary documents to do so.
Gulf countries have long been criticised for the treatment of domestics workers and the implementation of the Kafala system, a “sponsorship system” that ties the legal residency of workers to their employers. They also cannot quit their jobs except with the written consent of their employer.
It is usually difficult for domestic workers to prove abuse and even when they can, employers rarely face criminal charges or get indicted by the courts, according to Human Rights Watch. HRW interviewed several women working in the Gulf, who said that their employers confiscated their passports, withheld their salaries, forced them to work without rest and no days off, and subjected them to psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. In some instances, the abuses amounted to forced labour or trafficking. Some Gulf governments have made efforts to improve the situation of domestic workers, but not enough to guarantee their basic rights, according to rights groups.
Ravuther said that the United Arab Emirates was used as an entry point for trafficking across the Gulf, as the entry is easy when compared to other Gulf countries. “Women can be taken to the UAE easily on a tourist visa and then ‘sold’ to employers in other countries,” Ravuther said. In a bid to fight this, the Indian government has launched several campaigns to educate potential migrants, especially women domestic workers, on the need for safe migration. Several videos and official tweets advised Indians to migrate only through official recruitment agencies and to get in touch with the Indian embassy once they arrive in the foreign country.
(Extracted from www.middleeasteye.net)

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