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.
Geethamma (second from right) and her friends
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 aids abuse
According to Hubertson, to an extent the Kafala system is what leads to exploitation and enslavement of migrant workers.
“We should reform Kafala system in a way that it benefits the employer and the employee,” Hubertson says.
The Kafala (Sponsorship) System emerged in the 1950’s to regulate the relationship between employers and migrant workers in many countries in West Asia. It remains the routine practice in the Gulf and also in the Arab states of Jordan and Lebanon.
The sponsorship system’s economic objective was to provide temporary, rotating labour that could be rapidly brought into the country in economic boom, and expelled during less affluent periods.
Under the Kafala system a migrant worker’s immigration status is legally bound to an individual employer or sponsor (Kafeel) for their contract period.
The worker must be sponsored by a Kafeel in order to enter the destination country and remains tied to this Kafeel throughout their stay. The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment nor leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from the Kafeel.
The Kafeel must report to the immigration authorities if the migrant worker leaves their employment and must ensure the worker leaves the country after the contract ends, including paying for the flight home.
Experts say that a majority of the migrant domestic workers – mostly women – are subjected to abuse and rights violation in all the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, where the Kafala system is followed.
Data tabled in the Indian Parliament reveals that in 2017, 2,470 Indian women domestic workers in the six Gulf countries have lodged complaints at their respective embassies about their employers. In 2016, the number of complaints stood at 2,612, and in 2015, the number of 1,971.
The Kuwait problem
The data reveals that, compared to other countries, the number is always high in Kuwait, where the government has issued a ban on recruitment Indian women as domestic workers. In 2017, while the number was 950, it was 1,194 in 2016 and 983 in 2015.
A migrant rights activist in Chennai says that the high number of cases in Kuwait reveals that when there is a ban, people are trafficked and they are exploited.
“When rules are strict, people try to bypass them. And eventually, without any protection, they land in a kind of situation where they will be prone to exploitation. Rules should be made in a way that people are protected, not exploited,” says Sr Valarmathi Josephine from National Domestic Workers Movement (NWDM).
The NWDM regularly handles cases of domestic workers who are exploited in foreign countries.
According to an official from the Indian embassy in Kuwait, when the Indian government put rules in place for hiring domestic workers from the country in the eMigrate system in 2015 – including a financial guarantee from the employer – the Arab employers in Kuwait were reluctant to follow them. Therefore, they decided to impose a ban.
“However, we were aware that Indian women are brought to Kuwait illegally for domestic work. And as we all know, those who land illegally are more prone to exploitation,” the embassy official tells TNM.
In September 2017, the financial guarantee was lifted by the Indian government in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. According to the Indian embassy official, this created confusion in Kuwait, where suddenly, the local media announced that Kuwait was lifting the ban on recruitment of Indian women.
“Then we came to know that there was a huge flow of domestic workers into Kuwait,” the official says.
Padma’s story of slavery, freedom
Balle Padma Pande hails from East Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh, and migrated to Bahrain in 2009, from where she went to Kuwait in 2009. Today, she is back in India – her hands are empty, but her body is marked by burns and bruises. Padma was kept under house arrest for nearly seven years by her employer, who beat her up every day citing trivial reasons.
“They provided only a little food every day, just to keep me alive so I could work. On many nights, I slept with hunger pangs. There was no hope at all. I thought I would die there,” Padma recounts.
“I was a slave. Really, a slave,” she says.
On November 11, 2017, finally Padma found a way out. She managed to find the spot where the employer hid the key to her prison, and early in the morning of November 12, she opened the door and ran away.
Weak from lack of food and unwell, Padma was not able to walk for very long and fell unconscious on the road. Someone who found her there informed the police, and she was admitted to a hospital. From there, the Indian Embassy and the local police took up her case.
Now back in India, Padma is fighting to get the money she is owed by her employers. She was earning around Rs 10,000 per month, which she got only for the first two years (2009-2011). She has given power of attorney to a lawyer with the Kuwaiti Human Rights Society, to claim her salary dues of 10,000 Kuwaiti Dinar (around Rs 21 lakh).
She has also filed a criminal case for physical and mental abuse. Her sponsors, two Kuwaiti nationals, have been jailed, says a senior official in the Indian Embassy in Kuwait.
What India is doing to tackle modern day slavery
According to the Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, the Indian Missions receive complaints from women workers, particularly domestic workers, on account of poor working conditions, non-payment or delay in payment of salaries, and denial of other benefits such as medical facilities, refusal of leave or denial of exit/re-entry permits for visits to India, denial of final exit visas to the workers to return to India after completion of the contract, maltreatment by the employers etc.
The minister also added that incidents of confinement, physical abuse, abandoning of workers by their sponsors have also been reported.
According to the minister, most of the complaints pertain to female workers, who do not have proper employment contracts and have migrated illegally, in violation of government norms for recruitment of Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) workers from India.
The Indian government has taken several measures to safeguard the interests of Indian women who emigrate to the Gulf countries, but are these measures actually helping women avoid exploitation?
Firstly, women below 30 years of age – except for nurses – who have an Emigration Clearance Required (ECR) passport are not allowed to emigrate to ECR countries, irrespective of nature/category of employment.
Since August 2016, India has made it mandatory for all women with ECR passports, who are looking to emigrate for employment to 18 ECR countries, to get emigration clearance only through six state-run recruitment agencies. These include NORKA Roots and Overseas Development and Employment Promotion Consultants (ODEPC) of Kerala; Overseas Manpower Corporation Ltd. (OMCL) of Tamil Nadu; Uttar Pradesh Financial Corporation (UPFC) of Uttar Pradesh; Overseas Manpower Company Andhra Pradesh Limited (OMCAP) of Andhra Pradesh; and Telangana Overseas Manpower Company Limited (TOMCOM) of Telangana.
Every foreign employer desirous of directly recruiting a female ECR worker is required to deposit a Bank Guarantee equivalent to US $2500 in the respective Indian Missions.
Embassy attestation has been made mandatory for direct recruitment to ECR countries, of all women workers with ECR passports. Government of India also signed a Domestic Service Workers Agreement with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in January 2014, on Labour Cooperation for Domestic Workers’ Recruitment.
But what is the rehabilitation plan?
However, survivors like Padma say that unless India works with emigration destination countries to solve the issue, things will not change.
And a lot more needs to be done for survivors, Padma says. Although she is now out of trouble, she is currently struggling to cope with the trauma of what happened to her, and to come to terms with her new situation.
“Survival is quite difficult here. There is no proper rehabilitation programme here. I don’t know what to do,” Padma says.
Unfortunately for Padma, and several others like her, the Indian government says the primary responsibility for rehabilitation is not theirs. They say, it is up to the respective state governments.
“The government stands ready to work closely with them (the state government) in this regard. The government has been sensitising the state governments from time to time to generate awareness among the returning migrants about the resettlement, rehabilitation and financial support schemes available with the state governments. In addition, the returnees can also avail various schemes of the central government,” VK Singh, the Minister of State at Ministry of External Affairs, said in the parliament.
Arul Antony from National Doemstic Workers Movement in Chennai said that to ensure safe, orderly and regular migration, India has to take a pro-migrant stand at the formulation of UN’s Global Compact on Migration (GCM).
In September 2016, the UN General Assembly decided to develop a Global Compact on Migration for safe, orderly and regular migration.
“Even though, the GCM is a non-legally binding one, it is a significant opportunity to improve the governance on migration, to address the challenges associated with today’s migration, and to strengthen the contribution of migrants and migration to sustainable development,” Arul said.
Currently, the GCM is at consultation phase in UN. In February and March, two consultations were held. In April first week, the third consultation was held and a zero draft with 22 objectives have been formulated for the welfare of migrants, which includes reintegration and rehabilitation plans too.
“During the first and second negotiations, what we understand is that reportedly India has not taken a pro-active stand for the welfare of migrants. During the negotiations, they were keen on the language used in the zero draft and the terminology. India is the leading source country of migrant workers and the highest remittance receiving country in the world. So, India should work seriously in the GCM,” Arul added.
“On the ground, Indian government is not addressing migrant workers issues adequately. It has to change,” Arul added.