CHENNAI: When Kasthuri Munirathinam crawled out of the window of a second floor apartment in Riyadh, she was scared for her life. The 55-year-old Indian housemaid from the southern state of Tamil Nadu was determined to escape from her employer’s apartment where she worked as a domestic help. She had been in Saudi Arabia for just two months, one of thousands of Indians heading to the Gulf states every year for work, but was terrified she would never see her family again.
“I thought they would kill me. I had to escape. I wasn’t given enough to eat. They had my wages, my passport, my phone,” Munirathinam told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in her home in Vellore, 150 km from Chennai. Munirathinam’s desperate bid to escape last September hit international headlines after the housemaid said her employer had chopped her hand off in the affray, with the injury resulting in an operation to amputate her arm.
Videos and photos of Munirathinam lying in a hospital bed, her arm heavily bandaged, prompted India’s foreign ministry to complain to the Saudi Arabian authorities about the attack although the exact details remain unclear. Saudi police said Munirathinam’s arm was amputated due to injuries she sustained in the fall from the building. Munirathinam is still waiting for action to be taken against her employer. Phone calls and emails to the Saudi Arabian embassy in New Delhi and the Indian mission in Riyadh on the issue went unanswered.
“I became a dependent who needs assistance to even comb my hair … and to think my journey to the Gulf was in the capacity of a breadwinner for my family,” she said tearfully. “Some official (from the government hospital in Chennai) called and said I could get a free prosthetic arm. But going to the hospital would mean hiring a taxi and we can’t afford it.”
Munirathinam’s widely reported story has put a human face to the dilemma faced by many Indian workers, particularly women – whether to leave their villages to take up jobs overseas paying up to three times more than in India but putting their fate in the hands of recruitment agents. Government figures show there are an estimated six million Indian migrants in the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Oman. In 2015, more than 700,000 Indians moved to the Gulf states where domestic help is in high demand.
Indians from Tamil Nadu and neighboring Kerala have traditionally travelled to the Gulf states for work but in recent years, India’s foreign ministry has also opened offices in the northern Indian states of Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Munirathinam said she decided to go overseas to work when her family racked up debts of 30,000 rupees ($450) by taking out loans to fund her daughters’ weddings and to build a house. “There was no choice and the agent said there would be no problem. I trusted him and he promised I would get $250 every month,” she said. The average monthly salary for a domestic help in Tamil Nadu or India is about 5,000 rupees ($75).
Like Munirathinam, many migrant workers move in a bid to support their families at home – but taking these higher paid, oversea jobs can actually add to their financial burden. A migration survey by the Tamil Nadu state government released in 2015 showed that a migrant spends an average of 108,112 rupees ($1,600) to a secure a job overseas, with half going to recruitment agencies and the rest for visas and travel. But the survey of 20,000 households also revealed that 39 percent of women and 21 percent of men who work abroad reported not receiving the promised wages.
“It is a cycle of no food, no rest and no promised wages,” says Clarammal Panipitchai, convenor of the Tamil Nadu Domestic Workers Union. “In a recent case, a woman from Tuticurin in Tamil Nadu tried to commit suicide. That was her ticket back home.” Munirathinam remembers her journey vividly and her agent unexpectedly switching her destination to Riyadh from Dubai. “We were flown to Sri Lanka. There were so many of us from different states. We spent three days there and were then put on flights to different countries,” she said.
Since the 1980s, India has signed various agreements with the Gulf states to address the protection and welfare of Indian workers but even a new series of agreements was not seen by campaigners as likely to stop human trafficking. Last month, India’s foreign ministry said the latest accord with the UAE would ensure rapid investigations and prosecutions of traffickers and safeguard the rights of victims.
But activists say these agreements are unlikely to change the situation for the millions who travel for work but end up trapped in abusive situations with employers taking away their identity documents. “The bilateral agreements are focused on ensuring more people get jobs and bring back remittances, but not protecting the worker and his basic rights,” says Bernard D’Sami, coordinator of the non-government Arunodhaya Migrant Initiative in Chennai, which works on labour issues arising out undocumented migration. “People arrive at the destination country to find no labour contract and no valid work permit. At the end of 90 days, when their tourist visa expires, they are undocumented people in a foreign land. That’s when the hell begins.”
In response to a query in India’s parliament in March, the External Affairs Ministry said their diplomatic missions in all six Gulf states had registered complaints of physical abuse, maltreatment, non-payment of salary, and other grievances. Indian officials took up 538 cases in Kuwait in 2015 and 282 cases of physical abuse in Saudi Arabia. Figures for the other states were not available. But for Munirathinam any changes that happen come too late. “My arm was amputated, there was promise of justice and I was flown back home, right back to the circumstances that had forced me to take up the job,” she said. – Reuters