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Nail torture case shines light on Asia's migrant maids

By Mel Gunasekera

COLOMBO, Tuesday 14 September 2010 (AFP) - L.P. Ariyawathie said she got a taste of what was in store for her just weeks after leaving her native Sri Lanka to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia.

At first, she said, her employers mocked the basic Arabic she had learnt during a 15-day training course before she left for the Gulf. Then, events took a more sinister turn.

"The torture started when a plate was broken by accident. (My employer) asked me whether I was blind and tried to prick something in my right eye," the 49-year-old said.

"When I covered it with my hand, they pricked a needle on my forehead above the eye."

Ariyawathie returned home from Riyadh last month, traumatised after what she said was months of beatings and abuse. Doctors had to operate to remove dozens of nails and needles driven into her forehead, legs and arms.

The Saudi authorities have questioned the mother-of-three's account.

But the case has brought into focus how some foreign employers treat the thousands of poor women from South Asia and beyond who work overseas, lured by the promise of better wages to help support their families back home.

Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, although cruelty and ill-treatment -- from withholding wages and travel documents to overwork and sexual abuse -- have been documented worldwide.

A recent Channel 4 television documentary said many of the more than 15,000 domestic workers who come to Britain each year are enduring a modern form of slavery, with a charity claiming one in five people they see reports abuse.

Joynal Abedin Joy, a charity worker in Bangladesh, said rapes, beatings and brandings were "routine" in Lebanon, although the government in Dhaka said it was unaware of any pattern of abuse.

"Last week a girl came back from Lebanon," Abedin told AFP. "She was bald. Her employer had shorn her hair because she refused to have sex with him. In 2009 alone, dead bodies of 11 Bangladeshi girls came from Lebanon.

"Most had torture marks on their bodies. I know of a girl who called her home for help. Two days later, her Lebanese employers informed her family that the girl had died due to a heart attack."

Nargis Begum, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi, said her employers in Beirut gave her electric shocks, beat her with chains and leather belts and burnt her with hot irons over five months, during which she was also raped.

"Ninety-five percent of the Bangladeshi girls I met there told me they were raped at their work place. They don't tell their families out of fear. They endure it and accept their fate," said the mother-of-two.

Maya Gurung, 35, left Nepal in 2004 for a job as a cleaner in Kuwait. She said she was forced to work up to 20 hours a day and was often made to survive on scraps of leftover food from her employers.

Her attempts to leave were dashed because the recruitment agency had taken away her passport. She became pregnant and had to quit her job after a man she met a local church offered to get the documents back in exchange for sex.

When she appealed to the police for help, she was jailed on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant.

Gurung managed to return to Nepal last year but her family shunned her and she now lives in a shelter in Kathmandu.

The wages earned by domestic workers form a significant part of the billions of dollars in remittances sent home to developing countries every year.

Unions, activists and human rights campaigners say migrant workers need greater protection, as individual governments are failing to include them in labour laws -- or where they are, their rights are still limited.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is working towards new guidelines for such employees, including written contracts and complaint mechanisms, as well as guarantees on minimum wages and working hours.

In the meantime, lawmakers like Sri Lanka's Ranjan Ramanayake have called for government action, describing the plight of the country's female migrant workers as a "social issue" and suggesting Saudi Arabia should be blacklisted.

"I'm ashamed to say this but the truth is we have become international pimps... by sending or rather selling our mothers, sisters and daughters to be enslaved or abused," he said.

Campaigners in Bangladesh, Nepal and India also want their governments to do more.

"Migrant workers have simply not been on the political agenda in Nepal," said Sharu Joshi Shrestha, from the UN Development Fund for Women.

"They are seen as unimportant because they can't vote. This is Nepal's main source of income, bringing in 210 billion rupees (2.8 billion dollars) a year. But just a fraction of the national budget is spent on helping these people."

Gurung herself added: "None of this would have happened had the proper systems been in place. As a woman alone, with no money, no passport and no embassy to turn to, I was completely powerless."

The National Domestic Workers Movement, which campaigns for the estimated 92 million domestic workers in India, is running awareness courses for women considering employment overseas and wants the migrant work sector regulated.

Returning workers share experiences while women are warned about some unscrupulous agents who charge exorbitant sums to arrange placements, travel and visas, plunging already poor families into crippling debt.

"The Sri Lankan maid is not an isolated case," said Sister Sally Michael, the movement's regional coordinator in the southern state of Kerala. "There's so many cases like it. It's a serious issue."

MySinchew 2010.09.14

 

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