In Bahrain, I was beaten. For example, they asked for tea. I gave tea leaves. I did not make the tea. She put her hand on my neck and moved me to tell, ‘Boil the tea leaves. Make tea’. They told me things in Arabic, I did not know Arabic. There was no other Bangladeshi to help me out. That’s how I worked. Sometimes, the children said me something, but I didn’t understand. Then the children knocked me. But you can never have a gloomy face. (Afia, pseudonym, a Bangladeshi migrant domestic worker)
This quote is taken from an interview with a female Bangladeshi migrant worker who was a participant in a research project we undertook which aimed to explore perceptions of the value of English for migrant workers from Bangladesh to the Middle East. The quote aptly illustrates Afia’s vulnerability as a domestic worker. Partly her vulnerability is a result of limited Arabic and English language proficiency and miscommunication.
This raises the question what the role of language skills in migrant exploitation is. Could Afia have avoided being beaten if she knew more Arabic or English? Or, to put it more generally, to what extent do communication barriers contribute to the exploitation of migrant domestic workers such as Afia?
We explore such questions in an article recently published in Multilingua, where we suggest that structural entanglements and global inequalities put into question commonplace assumptions linking language skills to economic success for Bangladeshi migrant workers.
Recent reports on the devastating experiences of Bangladeshi female migrant workers in the Middle East (which have gone largely unreported in English-language media) throw into sharp relief the deep structural issues – far beyond the linguistic – affecting the lives of female Bangladeshi migrant workers to the Middle East.
Since 1991 Bangladesh has sent more than 700,000 women abroad to work, primarily as domestic workers to the Middle East (BBC 2018). Many of these have returned reporting that they have faced exploitation and abuse in the workplace. The complaints that have been made – which echo accounts documented in our research – include receiving no salary (or a lower salary than promised), unbearable workloads, physical and verbal abuse, and sexual assault.
Reports in the Bangladeshi media relay the tribulations of Fatema, for example, who went to Lebanon to improve her family’s condition, but came back after only three months physically disabled, with a significantly worsened economic and social status (BBC 2018; Prothom Alo 2018). Her employer under-fed and tortured her, and when she, not able to bear it anymore, informed her employer that she wanted to go back to Bangladesh, the employer pushed her out of a third-floor window. Like Fatema, many of the women returning from the Middle East have physical injuries and/or psychological trauma. Additionally, they also face significant social stigma, including the refusal of their families to accept them back.
Despite these reports, there have been few attempts from Middle Eastern countries to take actions against the employers who were reportedly involved with such crimes. A country with less clout than other migrant-sending countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines or Sri Lanka, attempts by Bangladesh to lobby for work environments where Bangladeshi female migrant workers can work in safety and dignity have had little effect (BBC 2018).
The restricted bargaining power of Bangladesh has been increasingly observable since 2000, when an Indonesian domestic worker who had been tortured by her employer was executed for stabbing and killing her employer in Saudi Arabia. Protests from Indonesia and human rights groups ensued, and stories of the torture and exploitation of female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia attracted global attention. As a result, Nepal, the Philippines and Sri Lanka joined Indonesia to create pressure on Saudi Arabia to improve its treatment of female domestic workers by creating travel bans to stop sending women from their countries. Facing an acute shortage of female domestic workers, Saudi Arabia proposed that Bangladesh step in to fill the gap. Although there had previously been a ban on female migration as a measure of protection, Bangladesh eventually caved in when Saudi Arabia made the continued hiring of Bangladeshi male workers contingent on the availability of a female workforce, too (Prothom Alo 2018). Saudi Arabia further insisted that, even though female domestic workers from other countries are paid 1,500 riyals per month, the pay of Bangladeshi workers would be capped at 800 riyals (Prothom Alo 2018).
Today, Bangladeshi media regularly feature harrowing stories of exploitation faced by Bangladeshi female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Despite these gloomy reports we do, of course, not wish to suggest that all migrant workers face abuse and exploitation. In fact, some participants in our research were able to improve their family’s economic and social status considerably by working abroad.
All of them shared stories of hardship, and limited Arabic and English language skills were a significant aspect of the challenges they faced. This raises the question whether pre-departure language skills training would improve the lot of Bangladeshi migrant workers.
There can be no doubt that English and Arabic language skills might help migrant workers to better navigate life in the Middle East. However, we should be wary of suggesting that language learning alone is sufficient to overcome the difficulties in which many migrant workers find themselves. The stories of suffering and exploitation from returnee female domestic workers are clear indicators that structural global inequalities must be considered when exploring the extent to which migration and language skills can be economically, personally and socially transformative to individuals like Afia and to countries like Bangladesh.
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2018). ফেরার পর পরিবারেও ঠাঁই নেই: সৌদি থেকে নির্যাতনের শিকার হয়ে ফিরে আসা বাংলাদেশী নারী [Translation: No place in the family upon return: Bangladeshi women returning from Saudi being victim of torture] (4 June 2018).
Erling, Elizabeth J., Chowdhury, Qumrul Hasan, Solly, Mike and Seargeant, Philip (2018). “Successful” migration, (English) language skills and global inequality: The case of Bangladeshi migrants to the Middle East. Multilingua. doi:https://doi.org/10.1515/multi-2018-0021.
Erling, Elizabeth J., Seargeant, Philip, Solly, Mike, Chowdhury, Qumrul H. and Rahman, Sayeedur (2015) English for economic development: A case study of migrant workers from Bangladesh. ELTRP Report, British Council.
Prothom Alo (2018). প্রবাসী নারী শ্রমিকের গল্পটা কেউ শুনবেন? [Translation: Will you listen to the story of the woman migrant worker?] (4 June 2018).