Shaheen Alam heard his mother’s voice crack on the other end of the phone, as she pleaded with him to rescue her from the torture by a trafficking network in Oman. She had gone there in May after being promised a decent job as a hospital cleaner. It was a trap.
“I cannot take in anymore. I will die if you don’t get me out of here fast,” said Fahima Akter, 45, during a recent call she secretly made using a social media platform.
Utterly disturbed and worried, Shaheen approached the Bureau of Manpower Employment and Training (BMET), on August 5 with a record of the conversation for immediate action. An official of Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Programme (OKUP), a migrant rights organisation, accompanied him.
This was the second attempt to bring Fahima back home. More than a month ago, her sister filed a complaint with the District Employment and Manpower Office (DEMO) in Shariatpur, from where Fahima is.
Shaheen came to the capital after another victim of the network, Shafia, returned from Omani capital Muscat on August 1 and described the gravity of the situation to him and relatives of some other women migrants.
About 20-25 more Bangladeshi women are still confined to an office of the agency in Oman, Shafia said.
“They are sold sometimes for five days, sometimes for a week. They are forced to do all kinds of work,” she said, explaining how women had to toil all day and then get raped.
On return to the agency office form their temporary “workplaces”, the women would be sold to someone else and the physical and sexual abuse would continue.
“If they refused to go, the traffickers would beat them, with their hands tied to the back,” Shafia said.
Fatema Akter Pakhi, 23, is one of them. Before her return on August 5, she had been beaten so badly one day that she passed out and lay unconscious for a long time. “We thought she died. We sat beside her and prayed throughout that night,” Shafia said.
With her health condition fast deteriorating, Pakhi was sent back. As she landed in Dhaka, she was taken to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for a medical check-up.
“Doctors suggested a number of tests before going for treatment,” said Supriya Shahnewaj, project manager of OKUP.
As Shafia was recounting her experience on Wednesday at The Daily Star office, Pakhi felt sick and rushed to the washroom to throw up.
Shafia said she had also been allowed to fly back home after her family struck a deal with the agency in Oman over the phone. They had to pay the agency Tk 10,000 for her release from captivity.
On hearing the treatment of Fahima and other women at the hands of the traffickers, the BMET summoned her recruiting agency, M/S Masud Jamil Overseas, to its office on Monday. Hours later, an official showed up to say that the agency had already contacted its manpower recruiting partner in Oman.
“He [the staffer of the agency] presented an audio clip before us where Fahima is heard saying she was fine,” said Amena Akter, a trainer and counsellor at the OKUP, who was present at the BMET office at the time.
“I didn’t know then what to say,” Amena said.
Shafia said she was one of the witnesses to the recording, and it was done under duress.
Such treatments by the traffickers fall under the UN definition of modern-day slavery. It refers to situations of exploitation that a person cannot refuse or leave because of threats, violence, coercion, deception, and/or abuse of power.
Fahima went to Oman on May 15. A manpower broker in Shariatpur had assured her that she would get Tk 40,000 a month as a hospital cleaner.
All the arrangements were completed by the broker for Tk 1.5 lakh. Fahima spent a big chunk of her income from her previous job in Saudi Arabia to go to Oman.
Another broker Baten facilitated the process, said Fahima’s son Shaheen. Before boarding the flight to Oman, Baten met Fahima at Jatrabari by the roadside.
In a similar fashion, Baten was involved in the migration process of at least three others, including Pakhi. He sent them to Oman through different agencies.
Pakhi, Shafia and Fahima had all the legal documents before flying out but the documents say they were hired for the job of a domestic worker. They got the documents before their flight and were unaware of the fraudulence.
Both Pakhi and Shafia said they had not received any training and undergone any medical check-up compulsory before joining work overseas but the broker had managed to get clearance from the BMET in both cases.
Meanwhile, the OKUP wrote a letter to Director General of BMET Salim Reza requesting prompt actions to rescue the rest of the women from the Oman agency’s office and immediate arrangement to bring them back. There is a Bangladeshi woman called Maya who is in-charge of that office, according to the letter.
Despite repeated attempts, The Daily Star could not reach Salim Reza for comments.
Labour Counsellor at Bangladesh Embassy in Oman Humayun Kabir said on Friday that he had just landed there and was yet to join office.
As soon as he gets the list of the women migrants, he would look into the situation they were in and find out the agencies involved and take action, he said.
For Shaheen, the past one month has been full of a frantic search for people who could help him get his mother back safe. He went to local broker Mosharraf and Baten several times but to no avail.
The BMET instructed the recruiting agency to bring her back by August 13. Shaheen now waits to receive his mother, clinging to the hope that his wait will not get any longer.