Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Leaving home to become a domestic worker

For women migrants from Bangladesh, education and technical skills can be real game changers.

Sarowat Binte Islam Cameron Thibos
27 March 2017



Yanur Begum, a female worker in the Wool Tex Sweaters Limited in Shewrapara, Dhaka. Asian Development Bank/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Sarowat: I'm Sarowat Binte Islam and I work with for the Manusher Jonno Foundation, a national NGO in Bangladesh. We work on human rights, and workers’ rights is one of our components. We also work on migrant workers' rights issues.

Cameron: Can you tell me a little about the diversity of what Bangladeshi women migrants do in the world? Where do they work? Who are they working for?

Bangladeshi women migrate for employment, for a better life, and for a better income.

Sarowat: Bangladeshi women are working in different countries in the world, and in the past few years, the number of migrant women workers from Bangladesh is increasing. They mostly work in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Most female migrant workers are domestic workers. There are also women working in the garment industry in various different countries. In Bangladesh, many women are working in the government sector, so they have some expertise on this issue. But the majority of women are going for domestic work.

Cameron: Why are women migrating? What are the reasons they migrate? What are they trying to achieve?

Sarowat: The main reason why women choose to migrate is poverty. They want a better life for their children and their family. Because of the Bangladeshi currency, they can earn higher wages for the same work in other countries. They migrate for employment, for a better life, and for a better income. They don’t typically leave for long periods of time: They usually leave for 2–3 years to earn some money, after which they return to Bangladesh.

Cameron: Around how much more do they earn in Saudi Arabia than they would in Bangladesh?

Sarowat: Two years ago, the Bangladeshi government signed a memorandum of understanding on domestic workers. Since then, the number of migrant women workers has increased. But there are problems also. Many women have returned because of abuse, violence, and other problems.

Some women thought they would be entering a similar society to the one they were used to, but once they arrived they discovered that it is difficult to adjust and feel homesick. There are women who, before migrating, had never left their home village, even for a single day. Then they go to other countries, where they feel homesick, and phone calls from their families and children encourage them to return to Bangladesh.

Cameron: What are some of the sacrifices or trade-offs women have to make in order to move?

Sarowat: They have to sacrifice a lot. Their children, for example. Sometimes, their children are not well taken care of. Sometimes they lose their families or husbands. When they return, they might find that their husbands have remarried.

Women also send remittances – often most of their income is sent – and their family usually uses it up.

Women also send remittances – often most of their income is sent – and their family usually uses it up. After being gone for two or three years, a woman might return and realise that there is no money left. Everything that was sent for the past two or three years was spent, and she is again empty handed. Sometimes, the families use the money to buy land, but the land is not in the woman’s name. It’s in her husband’s name, or father’s name, or brother’s name instead.

She can lose her property but also her dignity. The local community doesn’t always receive her well upon her return, as they might think that she was involved in unlawful activities. This can lead to mental trauma, and even after one or two years of being back she can’t re-adjust to her previous society. So she leaves again.

Cameron: What are some of the main issues facing Bangladeshi women when they are abroad?

Sarowat: The main issues are differences in culture, food, lifestyle, as well as language barriers. Another problem that can occur is a mismatch between her expectations and her experience with her employer. When a domestic worker chooses to leave Bangladesh, she dreams of working in a good environment, for a good family. But sometimes, that dream is broken.

Apart from homesickness, she may also face sexual harassment and other abuses. Again, I’d like to repeat that for a Bangladeshi woman who has never left her village prior to migrating, adjusting to life in a city can be challenging and even traumatic. How can she just jump into another society and another country? The training women receive before leaving is not up to the mark. It should be more intensive and give women more practical knowledge about the nature of the work, and how to manage living in a different society.

Cameron: What do Bangladeshi women need to be safe, secure and in control of their lives, both here and when they are overseas?

Sarowat: The main thing is that we should be able to avoid the ‘three D’ jobs (dirty, dangerous, and demanding/demeaning). We shouldn’t have to only depend on domestic work. Women, and the younger generation in particular, are educated and have other skills, like technical skills, and they should be encouraged to use these skills.

Also, we should not only depend on the Gulf States or Saudi Arabia. European states also need caregivers, so why not train the next generation of women with the skills to provide this type of work? Finally, we also need to create jobs for women here, so that women no longer need to go to other countries for employment.

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