* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Many women have limited options to solve problems with employers or leave exploitative situations
For the past five years, one of our strategic thematic directions has been ‘Access to Justice’. Through this programme, we want to learn from abused migrant workers, especially women, how they understand ‘justice’, what they need in order to access justice and how they cope with the injustice they have experienced. We have found that many women do not associate ‘justice’ with the traditional understanding of laws, courts, convictions of perpetrators, or financial compensation. Often the women explain that they just want to be treated with respect and have the opportunity to move forward with their lives and find new safe and decent work.
Since early 2015, we have been coordinating a collaborative project with members and partners from South Asia and the Middle East that aims to identify and address barriers that trafficked and exploited migrant workers from South Asia face in countries of origin and destination when accessing justice. As part of this project, earlier this year we held a focus group with ten Bangladeshi women migrant domestic workers in Jordan, together with our partners from Solidarity Center. In order to provide a space for the women to meet and speak about their opinions and experiences with accessing justice, we considered only a few guiding questions, such as what they would advise a friend who faces problems or rights violations; how they wish that such violations were resolved; and where they would turn for help in case of need.
Many of the women discussed how limited their options are to solve problems with employers or to leave exploitative situations. Some suggested that the best advice is to run away from an abusive employer, regardless of the immigration consequences and the loss of documentation, income, or other benefits owed to them. They were not aware of how to contact any support organisations but would rely only on the Bangladeshi Embassy if they needed help. However, they were concerned about how much assistance they could expect from state institutions. They knew of women who had run away from an abusive employer and sought assistance, only to be sent back to the recruitment agency and to the same employer or placed in a new exploitative situation. By contrast, they had heard from Filipina domestic workers that the Philippines Embassy supports and cares for its citizens abroad through direct assistance and by supporting skills training and other types of workshops, which they wished the Bangladeshi institutions would similarly provide.
One measure that the women felt would be helpful was if the recruitment agency would check in with them regularly, for example, once a week or once a month. In this way, they could inform the agency of any problems and hopefully receive assistance. Furthermore, the women believed that this type of support would discourage exploitation or abuse because it would show the employer that the domestic workers have rights, have ways to assert those rights and have someone to turn to for help. They also wished that they were allowed to change employers more easily and that their passports and work permits were not held by the employers, which makes it difficult for them to move freely.
As for measures to prevent abuses in the first place, participants added that the pre-departure training in Bangladesh often is not useful. Some Bangladeshi domestic workers pay an agent or another middleman to receive a certificate without attending the training at all. Some of the women who had attended a training said that they only learned a few words in Arabic, like the names of food or kitchen tools, which was not enough to help them adjust to their new jobs and did not include sufficient information on their rights or how to seek assistance. One woman said that she didn’t know how to make coffee; in fact she didn’t even know what coffee was when she arrived in Jordan and immediately got in trouble with her employer. Another woman described struggling with the diet changes and how she was unprepared to change from having rice with every meal to bread. These kinds of differences in lifestyle are important to prepare for and to try to find means of accommodation.
These experiences point to systemic flaws in the migration and employment systems for Bangladeshi migrant domestic workers in Jordan. Through such conversations, it is clear how difficult it is for women to leave exploitative situations or receive assistance. The Access to Justice Programme aims to address these challenges through evidence-based advocacy at the local, regional and international levels in collaboration with our members and partners and by incorporating the perspectives and experiences of migrant women themselves.