By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India – The return of an Indian housemaid working in Saudi Arabia, who broke her back trying to escape abusive employers, has raised fresh concerns over the working conditions of domestic workers in Gulf countries.
Dhatchayani Uma Shankar, 29, jumped from the first floor balcony of her employer’s residence in Dammam a month after she started working there in March, said officials in her home state of Tamil Nadu in southern India.
After spending a month in a Saudi hospital she was flown back home to Chennai on June 16, with a steel plate in her back and shattered dreams.
“I have a loan of 300,000 rupees ($4,500) to pay off, two children to raise and parents to take care of,” she said, lying on her hospital bed in Chennai where she is undergoing further treatment.
“I just wanted to earn an honest living but they made my life hell.”
Her escape comes barely six months after another Indian maid from Tamil Nadu, Kasthuri Munirathinam, also tried to run away from her employers, losing an arm in the process.
Like Munirathinam and Shankar, many migrant workers move to Gulf countries in a bid to support their families at home.
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.
“I went to an agent someone suggested. He took three of us, including a cousin of mine, to Delhi before putting on different flights to Dubai,” Shankar, who used to work as a casual labourer in Chennai, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“I was told I had to take care of a family of four. But it was two adults and four children, one of them a toddler. I worked for up to 14 hours a day.”
In a complaint lodged with state government officials, she stated that she was not allowed any breaks, was expected to take care of a 10-month-old baby while doing all other chores, given leftovers to eat and wasn’t paid for the one month she worked.
“They suddenly told me I would have to stay there for five years and not two as my agent had said. When I protested, they said they would put me in a box and send me back. That made me nervous and I planned my escape,” added Shankar.
Officials at the Saudi embassy in New Delhi were not immediately available for comment.
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.
“I am flooded with such cases,” Dammam-based social worker Nass Shaukat Ali, who helped Shankar in Saudi Arabia, said in a phone interview.
“In many cases, when they land in Saudi Arabia, the first impression is not the best because of the strict norms here. The fear sets in at the airport itself and many women away from home for the first time, change their minds about working.”
Ali, who is associated with cultural group Navodaya in Dammam, added that while many successfully adapt to the working conditions, those used to certain levels of freedom back home find it difficult to deal with the virtual “house arrest”.
The Tamil Nadu government has announced a compensation of 1 million rupees($15,000) to Shankar.
“But I will only get the monthly interest out of it. How is 8,000 rupees ($120) a month going to help me run a home?” she said. Reuters