The ordeal of Kasthuri Munirathinam in Saudi Arabia has once again brought to light the plight of thousands of Indian housemaids in the Gulf countries. Fifty-eight-year-old Kasthuri, who hails from Vellore in Tamil Nadu, had her right arm chopped off allegedly by her female employer while she was trying to flee the upmarket Riyadh apartment, her workplace for the last five months, on October 8, 2015.
The inhumane act had generated strong reactions from all over the world. External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, expressed India’s concern soon after the incident came to light. “Chopping of hand of Indian lady -We are very much disturbed over the brutal manner in which Indian lady has been treated in Saudi Arabia,” she tweeted.
Despite a global outcry to bring the culprits to book, Saudi Arabia is now trying to put the blame on Kasthuri for losing her arms. Saudi police claimed earlier this week the domestic worker’s arm had been severed while climbing down from the third floor of the apartment. “She lost balance and fell down, hitting the edge of an electricity generator located on the lower part of the house. All people in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are equal and enjoy all their rights will be guaranteed by the law based on the law of Sharia,” the statement said.
Housemaids and social activists in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates and Oman — believe Riyadh’s move to absolve the perpetrator of the crime will further undermine the safety of domestic workers.
According to some estimates, there are more than 500,000 Indian maids work in the GCC countries, and their hard-earned money is sent home to their families. One maid, who recently returned to India from Saudi Arabia told this correspondent that she had worked for more than 18 hours a day without food and water. The employer and his family members used to beat her up for taking a water break. She was even subjected to sexual exploitation, she alleged, but she had opted to keep quiet for fear of her life.
“Saudi Arabia signed a new deal with India in 2014, which was aimed at improving the condition of housemaids. However, illegal immigration went up in just one year as employers and recruiting agencies found ways to scuttle the deal. The number of runaway cases has also increased during the same period,” an Indian social worker from Saudi Arabia, who deals with labour issues, said on condition of anonymity.
Housemaids run away when the harassment becomes unbearable and seek refuge at the Safety Homes (or shelters) set up by the Indian Embassies. But reaching these Safety Homes is not so easy in bigger countries like Saudi Arabia. “The Indian Embassy runs safety homes only in Riyadh and Jeddah. Workers from other parts of the country have to travel long hours to reach there. It is a risky journey as there are chances of being caught by the police,” the social worker added.
Lakshmi (name changed to protect identity) from Andhra Pradesh had worked in Kuwait as housemaid for two years, starting from 2012. “Those were the hardest days in my life. I was abused and tortured continuously. I fled the house when I realised that I would lose my mental balance. I am lucky to return home alive,” she said over phone.
It must be noted that the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs had laid down new conditions for hiring maids in 2011, but the number of harassment complaints hasn’t come down so far.
The guidelines made it clear that only those who earn more than $2600 (equivalent gulf currency) per month can hire housemaids. The sponsor will have to provide a bank guarantee of $2850 as security deposit to the Indian Embassy. The deposit will be used for any unpaid dues, salary and legal obligations. The monthly minimum salary has been fixed at $280. In addition, the sponsor shall provide free food, accommodation, return air fare every year to visit India and a prepaid mobile phone with SIM card.
The rising number of runaway cases even forced labour officials from GCC countries to streamline the recruitment process. They had agreed in principle last year to introduce a unified contract system, which proposed to limit the working hours (eight hours) and ban employers from keeping the passports of the maids. However, the system has not been implemented so far.
Role of social workers
When institutions fail to connect with the workers on the ground, social workers like P.M. Jabir step in. The veteran migrant rights activist has helped more than 1,000 domestic workers to return home from Oman during the last 25 years.
“When someone informs me about the housemaids in distress, I will alert the Indian Embassy. We bring the worker to the Safe Home,” said Jabir, who is also Community Welfare secretary of Indian Social Club, a registered forum for Indians in Oman.
He said that maids ran away when they lost hope in the system. “Recently a woman fled her employer’s home and sought refuge in a construction company’s labour camp before we brought her to the Safe Home. Runaway workers also face the risk of falling in to the trap of unscrupulous persons.”
However, he believes that the scenario can be changed if the Indian Embassy monitored the conditions regularly. “The authorities should ensure the well-being of housemaids. They should monitor the work environment, timing and salary payment, periodically. It will instil confidence in the workers.”
Jabir stated that the issue shouldn’t end with the deportation of the aggrieved housemaids. “Re-integrating them with the society is a humongous task. No one knows the states of tormented minds. They may find it difficult to get along with the situation back home. Authorities should offer them counselling and help them find a living,” he said.
(T A Ameerudheen is a journalist based in the Sultanate of Oman)