Slavery is alive and well in Arab lands
Bangladeshi workers are just one section of the exploited labor force that find themselves appropriated into domestic household work
In the course of building a new country following the oil boom, Saudi Arabia has imported millions of hired labourers over the years. The law dictates that the workers have to be under the sponsorship of local Saudis. While many of these workers enjoyed a trouble-free stint during their contracted period of employment, others were less fortunate.
This is the story of Ahmad, a Bangladeshi national. This was his second visit to the country. During his first stint, he was employed by a five-star hotel when he was approached by a Saudi businessman who offered him a position with his company at a much higher salary. The Saudi told him he was in possession of more than 100 labour visas from Bangladesh and if Ahmad wanted to get the job, then he would have to resign and return to Dhaka to process his new employment visa.
A father of two young daughters, Ahmad realised the opportunities and the financial blessings of this new offer and accepted without much hesitation. He left his previous place of employment, returned home and soon returned to the kingdom under the Saudi gentleman's sponsorship.
As Ahmad relates: "When I arrived, my sponsor made me work in his office for the first two days. Then he abruptly told me that he needed me to work around the house. I told him that regardless of my qualifications, I would be willing to work anywhere and on any job as long as my salary remained the same.
"For the next six months, I worked as a domestic helper around his house, driving him and his family, cleaning the house and doubling up as a gardener and a guard. I was beginning to get perturbed and anxious, not because of the nature of the job I had to do, but because he had yet to give me any portion of my salary.
"During this time, my father passed away and the only consolation I received from my employer was that this was the fate for all of us.
"When the six months were over and with my family in dire financial straits, I went to him once again and demanded that he pay me my salary for the past six months. He told me that he would, as soon as he returned from Switzerland where he would be vacationing with his family. He promised me he would be gone for only two weeks and would settle accounts upon his return.
"And besides, what was I so concerned about. Wasn't he feeding me and providing me with accommodation? I explained to him that my family was getting desperate and with Eid approaching I wanted to do something special for them. ‘After I come back', he assured me. Perhaps it was my faith in the goodness and honesty of Saudis that had kept me going for so long.
"Those were very difficult and lonesome days, especially after hearing my wife telling me that my two young daughters were the only ones without new clothes for Eid. With my father dead, there was not enough money to go around. But there was not much I could do except feel less of a man, incapable of meeting my family's needs.
"He and his family returned after six weeks of vacation and not two weeks as he had told me earlier. When I confronted him, he apologised, saying he could not pay me my past dues now as he had spent a lot of money during his trip. ‘Europe is expensive, you know' was his reply to my pleas.
"He then told me that if I was unhappy and wanted to transfer to another sponsor I would have to pay him 10,000 riyals (Dh9,794) for a release! If I couldn't come up with the money, he would turn over my passport to Jawazaat (Passport Department) for deportation. I was petrified. From where would I get this money?
"I have to tell you that this discussion absolutely shook my faith in the honesty and integrity of Saudis. To take advantage of poor people like me, he and many others prey on our trusting nature, not thinking for a minute about our obligations to loved ones back home.
"With desperation overcoming me I ran away, my passport still in his possession. I had my Iqama (residency document) with nine months validity and managed to secure another job. They pay me my dues on time. But I have learned since then that my Saudi sponsor did indeed turn over my passport to Jawazaat. And every moment I live in fear that one day he would walk in as a customer and turn me in.
"Why don't you take your case up with the Labour Court," I suggested, managing with great difficulty to hold back my fury and disgust at the loathsome actions of such Saudis who manage to openly flout labour laws and exploit workers to the point of slavery, and get away with it.
"Who will listen to my story, Mr Tariq? I am just a poor Bangladeshi and he is a connected Saudi. The authorities would immediately put me in shackles and deport me on the next flight home."
By Tariq A. Al Maeena