It was June11, 2017. Pelmo (Name changed) and four other Bhutanese women, who had never stepped out of Bhutan, landed at the Kurdistan International Airport in Iraq.
As promised by their employment agency and its partners (agents) in Bhutan, they were supposed to work in Turkey. But that never happened.
“I could smell something wrong, but we could not figure out what exactly,” said Pelmo.
Shortly after landing in Iraq, their travel documents, cell phones, cash and ornaments were seized, and they were put in a small room without ventilation.
“I cried the day I arrived in Kurdistan,” said Pelmo.
Pelmo and her friends were sent to Kurdistan, Federal Republic of Iraq, to work as domestic helpers.
According to Pelmo, there are about 12 Bhutanese women employed as domestic helpers in Kurdistan today. Three returned last October with assistance from the local police.
The women are accusing Mali Kurd Company for general trading, employment, jobs, and working manpower Ltd based in Kurdistan and its partners in Bhutan for cheating them by promising to give a monthly salary of USD 300 and another Nu 65,000 to 70,000 as tips. The women alleged that they were sent to a wrong destination.
The two agents, a woman from Chhukha and another from Trashiyangtse allegedly sent eight and seven women respectively to Kurdistan in the last eight months. Both agents are unlicensed.
Pelmo claimed that except for the monthly salaries, they were not given tips as promised. “The agent told us that Kurdistan is near Turkey and since that part of Turkey is in Europe, there would not be any problem.”
Mali Kurd Company, which was functioning as an employment agency, had recruited all 15 Bhutanese women and allegedly sold them to a third party as domestic helpers. Pelmo said that the company charged USD 5,500 a worker to a third party for a contract period of two years.
Pelmo was the last among the group to go with the third party. She spent 75 days in the dark room. “I did not even know whether it was day or night. The only air I could breath was when a waiter came to deliver meals.”
Once out of the room, the women were dispersed and could not see each other. A woman from Punakha has no communication with any of her friends.
“We lost contact with her,” said a 22-year-old woman from Trashiyangtse.
Pelmo’s situation did not improve even after becoming a domestic helper. Fed up of having to work 18 hours a day, she gave up the job and asked Mali Kurd Company to send her home.
Instead, the company put her back in the dark room where she spent another two months. When the local police raided the company, Pelmo and other two women came into contact with the police. They were rescued and sent to Bhutan.
After the raid, the company was shut down. Since then, the women lost their legal reference in Kurdistan. In absence of the legal support, the third parties are holding them back by asking a reimbursement of USD 5,000 from each of them.
From Kathmandu in Nepal, one of the officers from the Royal Bhutan Police picked Pelmo and her two friends. The police helped them with logistics, including airfare. Pelmo and the friends arrived home on December 13, 2017. They had no meals for three days while on their journey to Kathmandu.
The Bhutanese women who are in Kurdistan are trying to return home.
Another woman, a 22-year-old, said that she had to wipe shoes of her male employer twice a day. “I also had to wash under garments of the entire family members.”
The women are not able to return home because they have to pay USD 5,000 to their employers. The employers demanded the amount for not fulfilling the contract period. None of them has worked more than a year.
One of the women said that her employer warned her that he would put her in jail if she attempted to leave without making the payment.
They have been trying to contact the agents. All were sent to Kurdistan via Bagdogra air port in West Bengal, India.
One of the agents from Chhukha said that she was not able to mobilise refund to bring back the domestic helpers.
She said that if the women had not sought her assistance she would not have sent them to Kurdistan. “Some of them even did not pay me the commission.”
She collected Nu 35,000 each from the women.
“I was trying to help them get a job but now they are charging me,” she said. She also said that before leaving for Kurdistan, the women were thoroughly briefed about the nature of job. She has never been to Kurdistan herself.
The women are accusing the agent of providing them false information and insisting them to work in Kurdistan. Pelmo said that their visas, which the agent promised to get ready in a few weeks, took five months. “After getting the visas we wanted to withdraw but the agent asked cancellation charge of USD 3,000.”
The agent said that all the women are literate and were aware of the terms and conditions in the contract agreement. The agreement they signed with Mali Kurd Company stated that they would be employed as housemaids with monthly salary of USD 300, but it does not specify the nature of jobs. There was also no mention of monthly tips in the agreement.
The other agreement says the place of work is Kurdistan but women said that the agent took all the documents and did not share with them.
The other agent, who is from Trashiyangtse, is alleged of sending around seven women is also reported to be working in Kurdistan.
One of the women said that when she tried to contact the agent to seek assistance for her return, the agent did not pay any heed. The women alleged her for giving false information and encouraging them to work as domestic helpers in Kurdistan.
Royal Bhutan Police is investigating the case. Media focal person, Colonel Dorji Wangchuk, said that some women were accusing the unlicensed agent for mistreating them.
“Given the limitation of jurisdiction and legal provisions, it is likely that our investigation would take some time. We are doing our best,” he said.
Bhutan does not have bilateral relation with Federal Republic of Iraq. Moreover, there are differences in legal interpretations of laws and conventions related to human trafficking and smuggling. There is also no direct contact in Kurdistan where police can collaborate with their counterpart.
The police has written to the labour ministry seeking its intervention.
Foreign ministry and National Commission for Women and Children are also aware of the issue.