“My regret is that intense poverty led my mother to go to Riyadh.”
These were the remorseful words of Mohan Munirathinam, the son of 56-year-old Kasthuri, whose right arm was hacked off last month as she tried to escape through the window of a house in Saudi Arabia where she had been employed as a domestic worker for barely three months and made to work under excruciating conditions.
She was the sole breadwinner in a family burdened under a debt of 2.5 million rupees, which compounded because she had taken loans to get her three daughters married. Her husband is ailing and her son’s poor health did not allow him to travel to the Middle East for work instead of her. She was starved and made to work 14 to 16 hours a day without pay, recounted her son and her sister, who narrated Kasthuri’s horrific tale during a panel discussion titled Behind Closed Doors at the Women in the World Delhi summit. The sister urged that the perpetrators who incapacitated Kasthuri be brought to book, and sought monetary assistance for her.
While Kasthuri’s fate sparked a diplomatic row between India and Saudi Arabia, it brought to light the plight of hundreds of thousands of Indian women who seek employment in the Gulf region in the hope of better prospects for their families back home. The women often find themselves enslaved, with limited or no understanding of the local language, and trapped in the maze of an alien legal system, which offers them no rights to even a minimum wage and no dignity in their labor.
“In the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, there is something known as the Kafala System. This is a visa system in which migrant domestic workers are tied to their employer by virtue of their visa and they are not allowed to leave them for the duration of their contract,” explained Rothna Begum, a researcher with the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch.
In cases such as Kasthuri’s, if she did not work for her employer she would have become an undocumented worker and would have been liable for arrest and deportation, Begum added. She criticized the Kafala system for an inherent loophole, which allows it to penalize workers while granting a sense of entitlement and control to the employers.
Even as the discussion highlighted the story of Kasthuri, who has now been brought home to her family, who hail from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the panel allowed the audience a chance for introspection: the moderator, Shoma Chaudhury, a senior Indian journalist, steered it toward the rights of domestic workers in India.
“In cases of domestic workers we want to remain silent. We don’t want to talk about minimum wages, give them salaries that are competitive. If we go to office, if we go to work, if we need dignity for ourselves, we should also ensure that dignity happens in our houses,” said Ravi Kant, president of Shakti Vahini, a nongovernmental organization that advocates the rights of women and children in India.
Millions of women who are part of the unorganized sector of domestic workers are governed by no legislative provisions and have no security net to fall back upon. Poverty and low levels of literacy often lead to the exploitation of cheap labor, and make the employee-employer contract one that is too often governed by caste and religious biases. Poor wages force a large number of workers to transition from domestic to sex work, said Chaudhury.
A clip from a short film by filmmaker and producer Nishtha Jain, which captured her relationship with her domestic help — a seemingly cordial one — led to further soul searching as it raised a simple yet pertinent question: how well do we treat our maids?