Sonia Akhter, 26, a housewife from Jhalakati, went to Saudi Arabia in September this year to work as a housemaid. In the house assigned by the agency, she was not given enough food and forced to do the household work of others which she was not supposed to do. She was forced to work till midnight without a break, and was subjected to various kinds of torture, including physical.
In search of better working conditions, Sonia changed her job three times, without any solution to the problem.
She decided to return home as she was unable to bear the agony any more. But if she returns within two years, she would have to pay a significant amount in fines to the recruiting agency. Even then, she wanted to return home.
Sonia then called the Bangladeshi Ovibashi Mohila Sramik Association (BOMSA) hotline number to seek help. BOMSA contacted the agency and brought Sonia back home on 6 December without any penalties.
Sonia told the Business Standard that she had given up hope of returning home the day she was detained in a dark room.
"BOMSA has given me a new life," she said.
BOMSA works to protect the interests of Bangladeshi female migrant workers. Their work continues to shape the lives of many women who battle against extreme odds in foreign lands, offering both pre and post departure support and training.
In collaboration with BOMSA, a Manusher Jonno Foundation project, Women Voice Leadership, Bangladesh (WVLB), is strengthening the safety of women workers overseas with access to proper information on recruitment processes, potentials, and it provides necessary support to repatriated women workers and their family members.
The support includes enhancement of efficiencies and skills, advocacy for improvement of government and non-government services, and women-friendly policy formulation.
Lily Jahan, BOMSA chairman told TBS, most women migrant workers are often abused because they are domestic workers. If we receive any complaints from female migrant workers of any district, we send it to the concerned agency or if necessary to the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET).
"Most returnees say they have endured physical and mental torture, faced shortage of food and were often sexually abused by their employers or family members," she added.
"We give the BOMSA hotline number to the women workers before going abroad. When a migrant worker returns, sometimes their families do not want to take them back," Lily Jahan said.
"Then we put them in follow-up. We also work to bring back the bodies of deceased women workers and collect their arrears and compensation," she said.
BOMSA builds the confidence of potential migrant workers so they can cope with foreign environments. The organisation also intervenes in problematic repatriation of women workers, and afterwards, provides assistance to them to access loans from the Probashikallyan Bank.
Golap Banu (38) worked as a housemaid in Dubai and Saudi Arabia for nine years but was not able to save a penny. After working in Qatar for two years, she saved some money with which she bought five decimal of land.
Golap Banu has started a poultry farm at home, on a loan of Tk2 lakh from Probashikallyan Bank with support from BOMSA and some of the money she saved. Now she is a self-sufficient woman and no longer wants to go abroad.
BOMSA helps women workers to keep money in the bank to secure their future after returning to the country by facilitating easy loans for them from banks.
The government does not provide services to expatriate workers at the union or upazila level. BOMSA works in eight districts of the country, with 18 community based organizations providing services at the grassroots level, BOMSA sources said.
BOMSA, founded and operated by women migrant workers who have returned from abroad, has been working with internal and external women migrants to ensure protection of migrants' rights since 1998. At that time it was the only voice for female migrants in Bangladesh.
"We work to build the confidence of expatriate workers. We suggest they open two bank accounts-- one for themselves and the other for the family. We put pressure on national and international bodies to ensure the rights of women migrant workers," BOMSA Director Farida Yesmin told TBS.
Sheikh Rumana, General Secretary of BOMSA told TBS that women migrant workers need to be aware. They should not go abroad through brokers. Many workers go abroad through this process ending up in jails. The Embassy should help them, she suggested.
Overseas employment of women workers started in 1991. Before Covid-19, on average, more than one lakh women were employed each year from 2015 till 2019, according to BMET.
Since 1991, one million women migrant workers, 98% of them domestic workers, have left Bangladesh for overseas destinations, according to BMET. The remaining 2% of women migrant workers are mostly employed in apparel factories abroad.