Fate of female domestic workers proves slavery alive and well
The campaign against slavery started in 1837, with the British announcing, through the Slavery Abolition Act, an official end to slavery within the empire, except for a few Indian native states. Slavery was abolished in the US at the end of its civil war in 1865. Brazil followed shortly, as did most other countries. In Nepal, during the Rana regime, Chandra Shamsher declared an end to slavery by providing relief to bonded labourers (kamaras). This official end was institutionalised after the first and second People's Movements that abolished the kamaiya and haliya systems of bonded labour, respectively.However, despite official decrees, slavery is alive and thriving, not only in Nepal but throughout the world, in different forms and under different names. One such form exists as the kafala system in Gulf countries. Both employers in the Gulf, as well as the authorities of the countries of origin, are party to the continuation and sustainability of this modern form of bonded labour. Under this practice, workers from foreign countries enter Gulf countries for work under a sponsorship system referred to as kafala. Upon receiving a contract to work, these modern bonded labourers have no option but to abide by the rules and conditions forced upon them by employers. For a conflict-affected country like Nepal, these effective "slaves" are now the main earners of foreign currency. They are also a prime source of the cheapest means of production in the labour-deficient Middle East.
It is clear that both employers and country of origin benefit from the kafala system, but do these workers benefit at all? In a recent visit to Doha and Beirut, I witnessed how many Nepalis are forced to live under slavery-like conditions by our own state. It was almost impossible to meet any woman who worked as domestic help in Doha, as its laws do not allow a breach of the privacy of households. However, I did hear frightening stories of abuse and violence within private homes guarded by high walls.
This system allows the "sponsors" to dictate the lives of the migrant workers, who are completely at their mercy. If any female worker tries to leave the fortress within which she is confined, or disobeys the rules, she can be immediately labelled as "illegal" and imprisoned, even tortured. It was shocking and painful for me to learn that if these female workers manage to be released from incarceration via deportation, they are put into a detention centre in Kathmandu, run by the immigration department. Even when they return home, they are treated like criminals simply because they did not leave Nepal with the correct travel documents.
The recent case of the raped and murdered Sita Rai is an example of the abuse and violence awaiting Nepali migrant women within their own country at the hands of their own police and government officers. Another distressing fact is that if any of these women manage to escape and encounter countrymen claiming to be their rescuers, they are not safe either. Some of these self-proclaimed saviours become agents of exploitation and abuse, taking advantage of the vulnerability of these women. At all levels and by all actors, Nepali migrant women, who are simply trying to make better lives for themselves and their families, face abuse and exploitation.
Eager to get a response from the Nepal government on this situation, I met with the Nepali ambassador in Doha. I was hoping to get information on the available support mechanisms for Nepali migrant workers in Qatar. It came as a surprise when I learned that the ambassador himself was the proud architect of legislation that bans women under the age of 30 from travelling to the Middle East for domestic work. Our enterprising ambassador, who graduated from a section officer to an Agricultural Bank official to a diplomat with the blessing of a political party, had the power to decide that only women above 30 years of age will prove to be more tolerant of abuse while still doing back-breaking work.
However, I managed to meet with some women working for cleaning agencies in Doha, and it was gratifying to see that they had managed to establish themselves as independent agents despite the odds; and the number of these empowered migrant women was not insignificant. Their experiences made it clear that providing information and skills to all migrating workers is a pressing necessity.
Furthermore, it is equally important to provide information about what awaits them in destination countries, including the type of work, to facilitate their integration. Most importantly, these workers require information on the support systems available in case they encounter problems in foreign countries.
My next destination was Beirut, where 12,000 Nepali women are employed as domestic workers. Upon arrival, we met a Nepali man who told me that he had been declared illegal the moment he landed in the airport in 1998. Subsequently, he was forced to live for several days on the streets without food or drink. To my surprise, the next day, this very man introduced me to a so-called Nepali businessman whose agency was responsible for bringing him to Beirut illegally. This man also introduced us to a few women who congregated in Dari (the meeting place of Nepali migrants in Beirut). In a small teashop, more women started to drop in. We could see these women were taking life decisions independently. However, it was painful to see how different agencies were trying to control them and divest them of their hard-earned money. The absence of any kind of support and follow-up mechanisms from the government was enabling different agencies to exploit these women's vulnerability and insecurity.
Several women shared their stories. They spoke of their relief in finally being allowed time off by their "madams" to take a break on Sundays; of receiving US$125 to $250 a month salary, more or less regularly. Amid the diversity of the stories, one common theme was that if they had found decent jobs in Nepal and were treated equally at home and outside, they would never have ended up in a foreign country.
According to them, not all women workers enjoy the freedom to come out on Sundays. Many women live their lives within closed doors, day in, day out, many with bruises on their bodies. Some are murdered, but these killings are marked as suicides by forensic doctors. Who will investigate these crimes in a foreign land, committed against women who are considered disposable?
This revelation made me reflect on the nightmare occurring in two different continents, where female migrants are killed by their employers and the murders are passed off as suicides. It is high time the government responded to the situation, rather than sweeping these issues under the rug by establishing toothless committees that only perpetuate impunity.