… an account of how Bhutanese women exploit compatriots

Younten Tshedup  | Gelephu

“I was sold as a slave; a machine put there to do their work. Tortured, scolded and kept on my toes from day one. Everyday was a nightmare.”

This is how a woman in Gelephu, who returned from Iraq last month, recollects her life as a maid.

With the hope of giving her two sons a better future, the single mother abandoned all the things that give her happiness and ventured on a journey into the unknown.

In March 2019, the 38-year-old, Wangmo (name changed) left for Iraq in search of a better career option. She sold her restaurant, the only source of income for the family to prepare for the journey.

“In the hope to make good income, I never thought I was making the greatest mistake of my life. Sometimes I cannot believe that I made it back alive.”

How it began? 

Wangmo met a Bhutanese woman, who works in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq, through WeChat. She said that her sister who is presently in Iraq asked her to contact the woman if she was interested to come and work in Iraq.  

“The woman told me that I would easily get jobs and that they would pay me USD 350 a month,” she said. “Except for the visa fee and the airfare from Paro to Delhi, the company would take care of everything else, she told me.”

She paid Nu 20,000 as the visa fee, which she later learned was a payment for the Bhutanese woman. In addition to the Nu 20,000, which was directly deposited in a private Bhutanese account, the company in Sulaymaniyah paid the woman USD 700 for every person brought in, she said.  

In early March, she arrived in Iraq on a tourist visa. There were already more than 100 Bhutanese in Sulaymaniyah when she reached there.   

“She literally sold us when she handed us over to the agent in Iraq and took away the money,” she said, adding that the company was called Helica but there were no official signboards and setting inside the facility. 

It was learnt that the woman while working like the other Bhutanese women workers there, she liaised with the agents in Iraq to bring in more workers from Bhutan. There are about seven women who are into this business in Sulaymaniyah today. 

What kinds of jobs are offered?

The only available job for women brought in through these agents is the work of a domestic servant (maid).     

She shared that her day began by 7am and stretched until 2am. “I was made to do all the household chores from the get go and they would constantly monitor me through CCTV cameras,” she said. “Only an hour break was provided during the whole day.”

She said that the only time she could talk to her sons and friends back home was during this hour. “For this I had to go to the toilet because it was the only place where there was no CCTV. I could not go to my room because the owners used to lock me inside when they left for work.”

A proper meal was provided only once a week. On other days, she said, only tea and snacks were given. “I used to munch on raw noodles once I got back to my room. This is how I survived for nine months.”

On multiple occasions she had visited the agent to share her plight and pleaded to let her return home. “They asked for a huge sum of money if we wanted to leave. They said we had signed a contract for two years, which we never did,” she said. “The woman who lured us there was indifferent to our suffering.”

She said a few of the Bhutanese women were beaten up by the agent when they requested to return home. 

Even when the company prepares to send them for work, the employers (residents) are called for some sort of selection. 

Making the women stand in a line, the employers would scan them all from head to toe, she said. “They would order us to walk around like some kind of fashion show and engage us in a meaningless conversation.”    

She said that most of the Bhutanese in Iraq she met over the phone shared similar harassment stories. “There are all sorts of Bhutanese including youth, single mothers and graduates who had gone there seeking a better life. Today, all of them have the same story of suffering.”    

Meanwhile, last month, she managed to flee the country after she received some money from her friends working in the UAE and fled the country. She paid USD 3,000 to the company for the return of her passport and to arrange the journey back. Another USD 1,000 was incurred in the flight tickets and other undertakings. 

She arrived in the country on December 5 and is currently looking for a job. 

“I managed to somehow escape, unharmed, but the thought of how our Bhutanese girls are being tortured in that country still haunts me,” she said. 

“The situation in Iraq is becoming hostile and with the current tension with the USA, major conflict could break out. Bhutanese there would be affected if they are not brought back home at the earliest possible.”

Meanwhile, as Bhutanese maids in Iraq wait for the government to rescue them, women who lured them there threaten of dire consequences if the government fails.

In group chats on social media, women who took maids to Sulaymaniyah can be heard cursing the government and claiming it is not easy to rescue the girls.

“The government should focus on blacktopping the roads instead of worrying about the girls here,” a woman said.

Women, who function as ‘middle persons’ allegedly sell the maids for lump sum of cash about USD 4,000 to 7,000 – and stay there on ‘out visa’ where they rent houses and go to work. “But the maids they sold will have to stay as live-in maids, working and staying in the clients’ house.”