“Please save me”: Is modern slavery still present in the Gulf?
Illustration Credit: Sophie Young @studyqual

“They are torturing me and beating me. Please save me.”

These haunting words will be forever etched into the world as they were cried last year into a pair of headphones by a Bangladeshi maid– hiding in the bathroom of her Saudi Arabian employer. Sumi Akter is one of the thousands of women, from Bangladesh, Indonesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka and more, who migrate to Gulf countries in search of better economic opportunities.

However, these supposed ‘opportunities’ hide a more insidious side, with reports from escaped maids highlighting the rampant abuse at the hands of their employers and the agencies that prey on them.

This practice is certainly not new as one of the recent high-profile cases that captured the world’s attention was that of Indonesian housekeeper, Tuti Tursilawati. She was sentenced to death in 2011 for killing her employer and executed in 2018. The New York Times reported that “she was defending herself from sexual assault.” She is one of many.

The emotional, physical, and sexual abuse detailed by foreign maids at the hands of their employers have been reported by local NGOs and academic journals. One academic journal by Romina Halabi reports that treatment of maids included “physical attacks ranging from rape to slapping” and “poor living conditions” which many are not able to escape from.

Employers will also withhold their passports and deny them access to medical care, which means that maids are completely dependent on their employer and often helpless to speak out against their abuse. 

When looking at the legality behind migrant workers in the Gulf, there must be a consideration of the Kafala, or sponsorship system- as well as the criticisms that come with it. Given that the Kafala system is understood as an employment outline, it also includes a feature in which migrant workers’ immigration status is legally bound to their sponsor/employer. Without written permission from their sponsors/employers, migrant workers cannot leave the country or transfer employment. 

In many cases, these migrant workers are being exploited. Passports are confiscated, long hours are worked, without days off or even short breaks, and wages are used to control workers by giving late or no payment. There is also a common practice of restrictions on communication and travel, as well as inadequate accommodation and a lack of privacy.

An article by Migrant-Rights.org highlights how the media have linked employment conditions under Kafala to ‘modern-day slavery’. The article goes on to state that the “Kafala is a system of control. In the migration context, it is a way for governments to delegate oversight and responsibility for migrants to private citizens or companies.”

This lack of accountability by governments comes at the cost of many migrant workers’ lives, of which are typically female maids from Africa and South Asia. 

But because of exactly that, blame cannot be exclusively targeted towards Gulf governments; it needs to be strongly shared with those countries in Africa and South Asia. In ensuring that little to no monitoring of the agencies which arrange the sponsorships takes place, many of these migrant workers (from poverty-ridden regions) are sold dreams and misinformed about the system by these agencies.

The Middle East Eye explains how agencies take advantage of these women by going to lengths of recruiting in rural communities to directly recruit workers and then making them pay extortionate admin fees. 

Despite some countries having laws and regulations that outline passport confiscation as illegal, sponsors are hardly held to account. As mentioned in the Migrant-Rights.org, today’s labour market is a “system developed in small societies with closer webs of interpersonal relations lacks adequate checks and safeguards”.  

Although the horrid treatment of female migrant workers in Gulf countries has been reported, there has been little progress made to stop the trade. Maids have become a commodity, something their home countries of increasingly profit from, emphasising how the economy is prioritised over the treatment of these workers.

Halabi reports that “countries such as the Philippines, with growing populations and economic instability, continue to send female domestic workers abroad because the financial benefit of remittances cannot be ignored.” With many countries simply not providing economic support for these women at home and profiting off a global modern slavery market of maids, it seems that these women will not see justice.

Even when countries, such as Indonesia impose a ban to stop this, the practice still continues, with poverty being the biggest motivator. Coupled with findings that “if escaped maids file police complaints against their sponsors, they are often arrested for running away, or are accused of lying,” many maids find themselves trapped in a continuous cycle.

The lack of accountability for abusers and the lack of support for victims from their home and host countries creates a vicious culture that allows modern slavery to endure.

As suggested by the Human Rights Watch, there needs to be increased enforcement of checks and accountability by both Gulf and home countries. The Gulf needs to abolish the Kafala system and create a whole new system where the rights of migrant workers are actually protected.

Home countries need to have effective safeguarding in place for their citizens and counter these exploitative agencies that prey on vulnerable people. Until there is a substantial change, many female migrant workers will continue to be exploited.