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Arabian nightmares: How women from Punjab end up in ‘Gulf of slavery’

Women from Punjab’s Doaba taken to Saudi Arabia to work as maids fall prey to dubious travel agents, end up as slaves

punjab Updated: Nov 12, 2017 00:32 IST
Aarish Chhabra
Aarish Chhabra
Hindustan Times, Nawanshahr/Jalandhar
Saudi Arabia,Sushma Swaraj,Punjab’s Doaba
Gurbaksh Kaur, back from Saudi Arabia, at her home in Fateh Garhi Khan village near Rahon in SBS Nagar district. (Keshav Singh/HT)

It’s like someone died. But Gurbaksh Kaur — crying intermittently as relatives hug her — insists it’s her second birth. She returned from Saudi Arabia on November 4 after three months of “torture” while working for a family there. She’s crying because the fate of her daughter, Reena, 21, wasn’t known till two days ago.

Reena was finally home on Friday.

A school dropout, 40-year-old Gurbaksh worked as a cleaner at a college near Fateh Garhi Khan village in Shaheed Bhagat Singh Nagar (or Nawanshahr), for Rs 5,000 a month. Reena, younger to a brother and a sister, was ambitious ever since she completed Class 12 – the highest qualification in this Dalit peasant family.

Ambition in this case — particularly in the Doaba region of Punjab — means going to the West. She tried for three years but did not get the required IELTS score. So, she settled for Malaysia. The mother thought of going with her. “Here in India, work meant washing utensils; how much worse could it be?” says Gurbaksh. They were promised Rs 18,000 a month each. Father Gurmail Ram had already invested Rs 50,000 in Reena’s IELTS training. “I sold off a part of my 10 marlas of land for Rs 1.6 lakh, and paid Rs 1.2 lakh to the agents,” he says.

FACELESS AGENTS

In July, Gurbaksh and Reena were dropped off at the Delhi airport by the family. An agent they call “Neha madam” was the contact. The mother was flown out first and the daughter three days later — to Saudi Arabia, not Malaysia.

“I worked for a family with 15 members, including 10 children. I was the lone servant. They did not consider me human,” says Gurbaksh.

She has since become the face of a growing menace in Punjab wherein women are taken to Saudi Arabia to work as maids, and then appear in videos on social media, crying over slavery-like conditions. The pattern involves a tweet by a political leader and the embassy then locating and deporting them.

In several cases, there is a contradiction as to whether the women went to the police or were handed over by “owners” after the case got highlighted. Gurbaksh says she was left on the road with a knife in hand. “The police arrested me, from where the return process began.”

IS IT THAT SIMPLE?

An agent in Rahon, 6 km away, Sukha Ram, says Gurbaksh may be speaking the truth, “but a lot of times it is a case of building a rosy picture to match imaginations”. He sends workers – masons, mechanics, et al – to the Gulf, “but no women”. “Even men get homesick and send videos seeking help. About 90% cases are such.”

The dreams make “gullible and poor” people trust fraudsters, he says. “The Gulf is a hot, sandy region, and you have to work hard – this has to be told. But these agents or sub-agents are faceless.”

Agent Sukha Ram at his office in Rahon. The office door has names of Gulf countries where he send workers. (Keshav Singh/HT)

The faces that matter – of agents in Delhi and beyond – remain unidentified. Police register cases of cheating, but cash transactions and oral agreements mean little material evidence. “We’re working on locating this ‘Neha madam’,” says assistant sub-inspector Shah Ram, probing Gurbaksh’s case.

THE NETWORK

“Neha madam” resurfaces in a case 50 km away in Jalandhar’s Goraya town, where we meet Lal Chand, a mason-turned-musician whose wife Sonia Ram Murti, 42, went to Saudi Arabia around the same time, and has now sent a video in which she talks of “inhuman conditions”. She has wired Rs 18,000 a month regularly to Lal Chand, though.

In three videos sent via WhatsApp on Friday, she appealed to the Centre and Aam Aadmi Party MP Bhagwant Mann to help her. In the videos, she claims that she is leading a “miserable life” and that her landlord is “harassing” her physically and mentally for the last four months.

With daughters Sukhdeep (left) and Hardeep, Lal Chand talks about wife Sonia who has pleaded to be brought back from Saudi Arabia, in Atti village near Goraya in Jalandhar. (Keshav Singh/HT )

“She is sick there. Here, our youngest of three daughters, who is nine years old, has fever,” says Chand, whose legs have metal inserts after an accident three years ago. As he switched to music – a traditional occupation of sections of Dalits here – they met two dancers planning to go abroad. “We thought we’d rebuild our house – the smallest and oldest in the locality – with the money she’d make.” The two women got them to send Sonia’s passport to “Neha madam”.

When he went to drop off Sonia at the airport, he said, “They gave us the passport with the Dubai visa, and a bar of soap! Neha said this soap has the Saudi visa inside it and Sonia only has to give it to a contact person in Dubai. I thought it was illegal, but Sonia was so excited.”

Sonia Ram Murti in a video she sent over WhatsApp. (VIDEO GRAB)

Dubai is a favoured route for such trafficking. This was the case with Hoshiarpur’s Rina Rani, 38, whose mother lives in a village 5 km from Chand’s house. She was sent to Dubai on a tourist visa, trafficked to Saudi Arabia a year ago, only to start experiencing slavery-like conditions six months ago. That happened after she sought leave to come and help her mother — a cleaner here at Rs 100 a day — get medical help for a leg ailment.

Her case hit the headlines when her video went viral. In it, she too begs Bhagwant Mann for help. “She was brought to the embassy’s deportation centre and her papers are being processed,” says Sukhwinder Singh, a local AAP activist. He says there are 40 women like her at the centre: “Many are from Punjab. That’s why every other day there is a woman coming back with a tragic story.”

LARGER PICTURE

Every year, of the thousands who go to the Gulf for work, most are from southern states. In Saudi Arabia, maids from India are preferred besides Filipinos and Sri Lankans. An estimated 5 lakh maids have gone there from India.

How bad must conditions be in Punjab, that people go abroad even after knowing the harsh conditions!

“This boom in Punjab, particularly in Doaba that has a craze of going abroad, happened in the last two years,” says agent Sukha Ram. Agent Ashwani Kumar in Nawanshahr says it’s picked up pace lately after starting five years ago. “Now is the time for ‘return cases’, because people there are not hiring maids; they buy slaves!” he says.

The law says maids have to be 25-50 years old and be paid 1,200 Saudi Riyals (about Rs 21,000). Governments have been working on dealing with illegal hiring, but Saudis continue to underpay and mistreat maids; they even hire via Facebook.

There are only six authorised agencies for hiring in India, but none in Punjab.

“Sub-agents here take Rs 1 lakh to 1.5 lakh, but really make money from ‘slave buyers’ who deal with agents in Delhi,” says a sub-agent in Jalandhar. “It’s multi-level marketing.”

WHY DOABA?

Doaba has 40% Dalit population as against Punjab’s overall 32%, the highest proportion in India. This makes it ripe for such frauds. Sukha Ram says, “Aspirants must pay only after checking visa online and finding job conditions as depicted in the promise.”

Mann says, “How bad must conditions be in Punjab, that people go abroad even after knowing the harsh conditions!” He says he has 15 applications with him. “People approach me like I’m the foreign minister!” But he says he has got help every time from external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj despite their parties being rivals.

HEADLINE HUNTERS

There is a credit war too. “I gave the Sonia case to Jalandhar Congress MP Chaudhary Santokh Singh as locals asked me to take his help after Mann helped many,” says Sukhwinder.

Rina’s mother was even approached by a religious seminary to raise money to help her return. “They wanted to do a Facebook live but I found it awkward,” says Chand Rani. “I told her no money is required after the embassy came into the picture,” says Sukhwinder.

Chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh, too, took to Twitter earlier this week to assure Swaraj that the police have been asked to crack down on dubious agents.

In Gurbaksh’s case, the family used media attention. “I told her to send us a video over WhatsApp, which she did from the police station using a South African woman’s phone somehow,” says nephew Jaswant Kumar, “And then I called local channels and papers.”

Now that his wife and daughter are home, Gurmail says, “I just want our old life back, howsoever bad it may be.”

Elsewhere, the circle goes on. Agents are now issuing advertisements for work permits in New Zealand and Canada with “preference to the Gulf-returned”.

First Published: Nov 11, 2017 09:12 IST