On a recent flight from Mumbai, I was surprised to see around 10 women and two men from a South East Asian country board the flight.
The women were clearly not very highly qualified and during the flight, the men helped them since they could not speak English or Arabic.
Closer observation led me to believe that they were travelling to the GCC as domestic workers and the men were their ‘minders’.
It was not a case of human trafficking – they were cheerful and seemingly quite excited about their prospects, leaning across the aisle to chat and laugh with each other animatedly despite the men trying to shush them. Clearly, they were taking a circular route to a GCC country to avoid a ban on their recruitment by their own government to prevent their exploitation.
I have seen domestic workers leave Bahrain also – at one time, it was a major scam, according to migrant worker rights activists. Women would be recruited in villages (mainly from Andhra Pradesh, a southern Indian state) and brought to Bahrain to work in households. There is usually a three-month training and probation clause built into the contract by the recruitment agents and invariably, the women would either refuse to work anymore after the probation, or be sent back by the employers because of poor quality of work, and fly home.
Where is the money in this? Well, the recruiters usually paid the women’s family to hire the women. They would charge the family a percentage for the paperwork and visa – and also the employer in Bahrain. When the domestic worker returns at the end of the probation, the agency has to place another worker with the employer or lose the recruitment fee. The visa and paperwork charges (paid twice over) are non-refundable.
The trouble was, the women who flew back and forth had no say in the matter and never saw the money which exchanged hands in their name.
It is because of such malpractices that the Indian government passed a law that required a deposit of a fixed number of months salary, a proper contract guaranteeing a minimum salary not less than BD100 and the LMRA also requires a deposit of BD500 for every domestic worker recruited to cover any air fare cost and legal charges in case of dispute.
Does that make recruiting a domestic worker exorbitant like some MPs have been claiming in Bahrain’s Parliament? Not really, when you see it as the price to pay for ensuring that worker rights are respected. Indeed, it is because of the army of domestic workers who keep our home front ‘tickety-boo’ that we are all able to contribute to the greater progress of the world.
We have a long way to go towards changing our attitude towards domestic workers. It is not menial work that requires scant training or respect. And, we need to know how to plan their work schedule so that they don’t end up working manic hours and get days off and personal freedom too.
Just like the garment and fashion industry was forced to clean up their slave conditions in sweatshops because of consumer pressure and worker rights’ groups, we need to be fighting for domestic workers to get their due.
If you think BD1,500 is a steep price to pay for a two-year contract, you clearly need to do your dishes and make your beds yourself.