A rare ruling this week found a Saudi woman guilty of abusing and murdering Abiron Begum, a migrant domestic worker. A Saudi Arabian court sentenced Ayesha Al Jizani to death for murdering Begum in March 2019, who travelled from Bangladesh to work as a maid in Jizani’s household.
Jizani’s husband and son also faced repercussions for their role in perpetuating the extreme abuse suffered by Abiron Begum, sentenced to three years in jail and seven months in a juvenile facility respectively.
700,000 Bangladeshis used to seek work abroad every year before COVID-19, with many opting to find employment in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has some of the highest recruitment fees for Bangladeshi workers. Often, these fees are paid through unofficial brokers, paving the way for exploitation and trafficking for migrant workers like Begum.
Begum’s relatives have called on the Bangladeshi government to hold the brokers who ‘tricked’ Begum into her job in Saudi Arabia accountable for her death.
They told the Thomson Reuters Foundation:
“(She) wanted to go abroad to earn more money so that she could pay for her aged parents…They started torturing her two weeks after she left. She would call us and cry…we begged the brokers here to bring her back, but no one listened to us.”
While it is not clear whether the brokers who facilitated Begum’s exploitation will be brought to justice, campaigner Shakirul Islam, head of the Ovibashi Karmi Unnayan Program, which deals with migrant rights in Bangladesh expressed surprise at the Saudi court’s verdict against an employer:
“I have been working in the migration field for several years and I have never heard of such a verdict.”
At the time of Abiron Begum’s death, migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia would have been subject to the kafala system, which ties domestic workers to a single employer preventing them from escaping exploitation and abuse. This tied visa system, also present in the U.K. and around the world, is seen as a driver of domestic slavery.
In November 2020, it was reported that Saudia Arabia was reforming the kafala system, giving migrant domestic workers more autonomy but reforms are yet to be implemented.
The decision by the Saudi court to convict Abiron Begum’s employer for abuse and murder could be seen as cause for cautious optimism that the exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is being taken seriously.
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