L.P. Ariyawathie said she got a taste of what was in store for her just weeks after leaving her native Sri Lanka to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia.
At first, she said, her employers mocked the basic Arabic she had learnt during a 15-day training course before she left for the Gulf. Then, events took a more sinister turn.
“The torture started when a plate was broken by accident. [My employer] asked me whether I was blind and tried to prick something in my right eye,” the 49-year-old said. “When I covered it with my hand, they pricked a needle on my forehead above the eye.”
Ariyawathie returned home from Riyadh last month, traumatized after what she said was months of beatings and abuse. Doctors had to operate to remove dozens of nails and needles driven into her forehead, legs and arms.
Saudi authorities have questioned the mother of three’s account.
However, the case has brought into focus how some foreign employers treat the thousands of poor women from South Asia and beyond who work overseas, lured by the promise of better wages to help support their families back home.
Human Rights Watch has raised concerns about Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, although cruelty and ill-treatment — from withholding wages and travel documents to overwork and sexual abuse — have been documented worldwide.
A recent Channel 4 television documentary said many of the more than 15,000 domestic workers who come to Britain each year are enduring a modern form of slavery, with a charity claiming one in five people they see reports abuse.
Joynal Abedin Joy, a charity worker in Bangladesh, said rapes, beatings and brandings were “routine” in Lebanon, although the government in Dhaka said it was unaware of any pattern of abuse.
“In 2009 alone, dead bodies of 11 Bangladeshi girls came from Lebanon. Most had torture marks on their bodies,” Abedin told reporters. “I know of a girl who called her home for help. Two days later, her Lebanese employers informed her family that the girl had died due to a heart attack.”
Nargis Begum, a 26-year-old Bangladeshi, said her employers in Beirut gave her electric shocks, beat her with chains and leather belts and burnt her with hot irons over five months, during which she was also raped.
“Ninety-five percent of the Bangladeshi girls I met there told me they were raped at their work place. They don’t tell their families out of fear. They endure it and accept their fate,” the mother of two said.
Maya Gurung, 35, left Nepal in 2004 for a job as a cleaner in Kuwait. She said she was forced to work up to 20 hours a day and was often made to survive on scraps of leftover food from her employers.
Her attempts to leave were dashed because the recruitment agency had taken away her passport. She became pregnant and had to quit her job after a man she met a local church offered to get the documents back in exchange for sex.
When she appealed to the police for help, she was jailed on suspicion of being an illegal immigrant.
Gurung managed to return to Nepal last year, but her family shunned her and she now lives in a shelter in Kathmandu.
The wages earned by domestic workers form a significant part of the billions of dollars in remittances sent home to developing countries every year.
Unions, activists and human rights campaigners say migrant workers need greater protection, as individual governments are failing to include them in labor laws — or where they are, their rights are still limited.