Thrown into abyss of abuse

The recruiting agency that sent 14-year-old Umme Kulsum to a Saudi employer, who tortured her to death, threw many others into similar pits of abuse.

Details of such incidents came to light on Thursday when Rab-3 raided the office of the recruiting agency, M/H Trade International, and arrested its owner Mokbul Hossain and his associate Parvez for activities which are offenses under the Prevention and Suppression of Human Trafficking Act.

While dozens upon of dozens of women have returned to narrate horror stories of the ordeals they faced in the hands of their foreign employers, most of their recruiting agencies stay out of the purview of law. And nested under that umbrella of impunity, a recruiting agency can send countless women to work abroad under circumstances that can only be described as trafficking.

In 2018, M/H Trade International sent a 28-year-old woman from Dhalpur (T. Akhter) to the city of Ha'il in Saudi Arabia, to work as a household help, for the family of Abdullah Khaled Al. She went as a "servant" as her Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training clearance states, which her employer took to mean "slave".

In the list of abuses that she had to endure, the least horrifying thing was that she was physically beaten. And the most horrifying? She was pushed off the roof, resulting in both her legs fracturing, denied treatment, locked in a room and raped in that state, while her fractured limbs seared in pain.

"I had gone to the roof to hang clothes to dry, when my employer's wife pushed me off. I fell on some old furniture in the yard. I crawled out of the gate. I was sitting beside the road and crying when a Bangladeshi man saw me and agreed to drop me to the police station. He dropped me a little way off from the police station, and I crawled to the station on all fours," described Akhter, showing the wounds on her legs which are visible to this day.

"The police just took my statement and then sent me back to my kafalah. Once inside, they whipped me with a belt, and locked me in a room. Then the father and his eldest son came in and took turns to rape me. This happened twice while I was in that state," she said.

Rape, however, was nothing new to her -- she had been raped thrice before this incident, by her employer and his son, and once by the local recruiting agent of M/H Trade International.

The first instance of rape happened five days after she joined work. "I had gone two days after Pahela Baishakh ... and within the first week of joining work I was raped by my employer and his eldest son," she said. "I cried, refused to work and wanted to return home, so they dropped me at the maktab, the local recruiting office, with some Bangladeshi men. There I was beaten badly, and at night a man came to bed with me." She was "disciplined" thus, and returned back to her employer.

In addition to the multiple instances of rape, she was denied food. "I used to cook for them. I cooked chicken and rice, but I was not allowed to eat that. The employer's daughter stood guard over me while I cooked. I was allowed a piece of flatbread every day … I was so hungry all the time that I sometimes picked food from the trash to eat, when I used to go out to put out the trash," described Akhter.

She claimed that the arrested recruiting agent Mokbul knew of her plight. "I stole and used the phone a few times to call my mother and my mother called Mokbul. But he did nothing."

The woman had gone to Saudi Arabia with hopes of sending some money for her family -- her husband is one of the kitchen market labourers who gut and clean fish for fishmongers and at the time she left, she had a two-year-old son. "When I had gone I was told that I am being employed as a nanny to two children. I stayed in that house for three months, and could finally come back home when both my legs were broken and I could not walk anymore," she said. She came back penniless and permanently disabled.

Similar torture was inflicted on the murdered 14-year-old Kulsum. In a video call with her family members made from a hospital bed in Riyadh, the child kept saying over and over again how she can't walk anymore. "How do you go to the bathroom then?" her family member asked. "I have to constantly wear pampers [adult diapers]," replied a frail and sick Kulsum.

In 2017, R. Begum was sent to Riyadh, where her employer, Ibrahim Al Solaimanu, handed her over to the police, and she was jailed for seven months -- but what the charges were, this housewife from Patuakhali does not know to this day.

"I worked for two months. I was sexually abused by my employer -- he used to come to my room after the morning prayers and grope me. He indicated to me that he will pay me for sex. This happened four or five times," said Begum, "and I used to plead with him, tell him this is haraam and that he is like my father."

"I used to be given food only once a day. Food was a fistful of rice and leftover bones to eat at three at night," she described.

"After two months, I asked for my salary, and my employer said he will give me the money after five months. I protested, so they took the long end of the vacuum cleaner and beat me up with that. I was denied food for eight days straight. Soon after I was taken to the police and imprisoned for seven months and one day. No lawyer ever met me," said Begum.

She too claimed that the agency's owner Mokbul knew about this. "I had called him and asked him to change my employer, but he told me to tolerate it," she said.

Begum started crying, "During Eid I even butchered three goats for them, thinking I would be able to take some money back home for my two children, but I have come back empty handed."

Begum claimed that she is still owed Tk 2 lakh in wages and her passport, all of which are with the recruiting agency. "I came back two years and four months ago, and since then he never received my calls, and blocked my number. The one time he did pick up, he pretended not to know me."

Yet another woman, Rahana Begum, described how she was physically abused by the employers chosen for her by M/H Trade International. She was sent to work for the family of Rahim Bin Aziz Al in Riyadh.

"When they beat me they never thought about what they are hitting me with or where they are hitting me," said the woman from Pirojpur. She worked for 11 months, but was paid for nine.

Meanwhile, Mokbul denied responsibility of the abuse the women went through.

According to the Kafalah system, if a female worker comes back without completing her contract, the agency has to provide a substitute worker, or pay $2,000.

All the women interviewed above, came back without completing their contracts -- so this correspondent asked Mokbul, whether he sent women to replace them, even after knowing that their employers were abusive.

He denied doing so. "If a woman came back without completing her contract, we paid back $2,000 that the employer had given for her. The local office in Saudi Arabia either found another worker, or paid on our behalf, and that money was adjusted from our account," he claimed.

Asked if he had receipts to prove that he paid $2,000 for every abused woman who came back without completing their contracts, he said he had no receipts.

The exact number of women trafficked by this agency is still not known, but Additional Superintendent of Police Bina Rani Das from Rab-3 told this correspondent that the number could go into the hundreds. "We will be investigating to see how many women were trafficked by this agency," she informed The Daily Star during the operation.

[This newspaper is not publishing full name of the rape victims to protect their identity]

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