Lured, Deceived, Sold: How Indian Domestic Helps Trafficked To Oman Were Rescued

The Quint spoke to 3 women from Punjab who went to Oman to work but were allegedly kept in captivity and assaulted.

10 min read
Hindi Female

Main yahaan mar jaaungi, mujhe yahan se nikalo (I will die here, get me out of here).” This was the call for help that Rupi had made in April this year. The 23-year-old had gone to work as a domestic worker in Muscat, Oman, from Kapurthala in Punjab on 27 March 2023.

Rupi alleged that the few weeks she spent in Oman was marred by exploitation. She was allegedly kept in captivity and beaten up by the agents who promised to get her employed as a domestic help.

The Quint spoke to three women from Punjab who went to Oman to work as domestic workers but suffered exploitation at the hands of the agents and employers. They were kept in captivity, beaten up and one of them alleged that she was raped repeatedly. After they were rescued, they returned home empty-handed, indebted, and bruised by the brutalities they bore.

The story of these women is emblematic of the fate of hundreds of Indian women who are trafficked to Oman and other Gulf countries under the garb of a job as a domestic worker.

The Quint also spoke to labour expert Rejimon Kuttappan to understand how women are lured into taking up these jobs, and how to check trafficking pervading under the garb of migration for jobs.

"The Indian government first needs to have a policy for migrants in place. Only then can we protect the human rights of women domestic workers," said Kuttappan.

These women, often from poor households, take the leap to better their family’s prospects, dangerously unaware of what lies ahead for them. This is the story of three such women.


Why Take Up A Job In Oman?

The women were offered jobs to work as a domestic help in the Gulf by "agents", who did all the paperwork and got their visas done. On arrival in Dubai and Oman, the women were allegedly kept in captivity by the agents until their prospective employers came and hired them contractually. One of the woman was allegedly trafficked and sexually exploited.

Rupi, who hails from Sultanpur Lodhi district in Punjab’s Kapurthala, told The Quint that both her parents are persons with disabilities and that her father uses an artificial leg to walk.

Rupi’s cousin Arshdeep Kaur, who had been working in Muscat for six months, had approached her with the offer to work as a domestic worker. In a bid to improve the financial condition of her household, Rupi, the eldest of the three siblings, said, "I accepted what then seemed like a good opportunity."

She returned home on 21 April, after spending 26 days in Oman.

Meanwhile, another woman from Punjab's Muktsar, who had flown to Dubai to work as a domestic help, alleged that she was trafficked to Oman and raped repeatedly by her employers there.

Ghar ki haalat kharaab thi (The condition at home was bad),” said the 35-year-old when asked why she chose to take up the job of a domestic worker in Dubai. She said that before moving, she was employed at a brick kiln in Muktsar. "I got paid only Rs 460 for every 1,000 bricks I made,” she told The Quint.

The Muktsar woman’s eldest daughter wanted to study medical science to pursue a career in nursing. She said that an aunt’s daughter referred her to one Kamaljeet Kaur, who promised her a well-paying job in Dubai and got her visa done within a week’s time. The woman had to pay Rs 30,000 for the air ticket from Amritsar in Punjab to Sharjah.


Passport Confiscated, Kept In Captivity, "Sold"

Rupi flew to Muscat on 27 March 2023. She claimed that upon arrival, the agent’s driver came to pick her up and took away her passport.

“I was made to switch three cars from the airport to where they took me. I was kept in a company safe house for the first few days, after which I was taken to another quarter by the agent, where I was locked up. No food was given to me for seven days. I did not have my phone. I could not ask anyone for help,” she alleged.

Rupi recalled how the agent did not let her call her parents despite her pleading with him.

The Quint spoke to 3 women from Punjab who went to Oman to work but were allegedly kept in captivity and assaulted.

After the women arrived to Oman to work as domestic helps, their passports were confiscated by the agents who got them there. 

(Image: The Quint / Aroop Mishra)

Apart from Rupi, the other two women also claimed that they were kept in 'safe houses' upon arriving. The women claimed that they were promised jobs as domestic helps by the agents and were kept in safe houses till a prospective employer came and took them away. They alleged that they were kept in captivity and given food only once during the day. The women's fate then resided in the hands of the employer who would hire them contractually.

The Quint spoke to Kuldeep Singh, husband of Swaranjit Kaur, a 41-year-old woman, who too went through the same ordeal.

Kuldeep alleged to The Quint, "The agent, a man named Arman, received his wife at the airport and instead of giving her household work, tried to 'sell' her on multiple occasions. My wife left for Oman on 27 December 2022."

Swarnjit believed a job there would help her support her family of seven, including her five children. Little did she know what awaited her.


Trafficked, Brutally Beaten Up, Raped

On 16 September 2022, the Muktsar woman claimed, her passport was confiscated at the Sharjah airport. She was allegedly raped the next day by her 'employers'.

“The agent came and told me at 2 am that my employers – two men – had come to take me. I was suspicious but I went with them. They took away my phone, passport, clothes, gold earrings, and Indian currency worth Rs 10,000. When I protested, they beat me up and raped me,” the woman alleged.

This is when she realised that she was lured to Sharjah on the pretext of a job as a domestic help.

She said that she somehow managed to call her husband and tell him what had happened. But when her employers found out, they beat her up again and trafficked her to Oman, where her fate, once again, was in the hands of her new employers.

“They said that they’ll drive me to the edge of insanity so that no one believes me. They kicked me in the belly, beat me up brutally, and forced me to take off my clothes in front of the camera to record inappropriate videos of me. They locked me up, did not give me food and forced me to sign on some documents. They used to sexually harass me regularly," she alleged.

The Quint spoke to 3 women from Punjab who went to Oman to work but were allegedly kept in captivity and assaulted.

The women, who left for Oman in the hopes of finding a decent job, found themselves in captivity, exploited and abused. 

(Image: The Quint / Aroop Mishra)


How Did They Escape Their Fate?

After about a week of keeping her in captivity, the agent sent Rupi off on a bus. “At that time too, he gave the passport and the address to the driver and not me. I didn’t even know where I was going. All I know is that I sat in the bus at 6 am and reached the place only at 8 pm,” she claimed.

After she reached her employer’s house, she finally got access to WiFi. Almost three weeks after she had left home, Rupi’s family received a call from her to get her back. Her health had deteriorated severely.

The Muktsar woman too managed to call her husband back home in Punjab with the help of some Bangladeshi construction workers nearby.

Swaranjit, who was made to work long hours as a domestic worker with minimum rest and regularly beaten up when she resisted, somehow made it to the Indian Embassy in Oman.


An Intervention, Then A Rescue Operation

Back home, the Muktsar woman’s husband reached out to Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader and Punjab Rajya Sabha MP Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal, whose team escalated the matter to the Union Ministry Of External Affairs (MEA). The Indian Embassy in Oman was then alerted, and the woman was repatriated to India on 24 January, after bearing four months of torture and abuse in captivity.

Meanwhile, advocate Gurbhej Singh, a member of AAP’s legal team, helped the woman’s family register a First Information Report (FIR) on 7 October 2022 against the agents Kamaljeet Kaur and Resham Singh at Sri Muktsar Sahib police station under sections 420 (cheating), 506 (criminal intimidation), 376 (sexual assault), and 120-B (criminal conspiracy) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as well as section 3 of the Punjab Prevention of Human Smuggling Act 2012.

Gurbhej told The Quint that while Kamaljeet was arrested, Resham remains on the run. He added, “Kamaljeet’s bail has been rejected more than once. The matter is sub-judice."

The Quint spoke to 3 women from Punjab who went to Oman to work but were allegedly kept in captivity and assaulted.

Rajya Sabha MP Baba Balbir Singh Seechewal seated at the Centre. Towards his right are the Muktsar woman and her husband. Towards his left are Advocates Gurbhej Singh and Mavpreet Singh. 

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Seechewal’s team also came to the rescue of Rupi, who was allegedly held at ransom for Rs 90,000 by the agent. Even when she received a ticket to India, the agent did not release her passport “until two hours before my flight when he received Rs 30,000,” which is all that her family could collect.

Swarnjit's husband Kuldeep Singh, however, was deceived yet again by the agent Arman, who called him in January this year and asked him to send a ticket for his wife. A daily-wage labourer, he somehow managed to collect enough money to buy a ticket. But the agent did not send her back until Seechewal's intervention. The journey back wasn't smooth for them either.


There Were More Indian Women There

Kuldeep Singh added that Arman had "detained" other women too and alleged that they were survivors of sexual exploitation. He attributed his claim to 1.5 minute-long video in which women can be seen naming their "agents" and speaking against how they were "supplying women".

When the Punjab police called and pulled up Arman, he left Swaranjit and 14 other women -- all survivors of alleged sexual exploitation -- at a shelter home of the Indian Embassy, Kuldeep Singh alleged.

Swaranjit finally came home on 28 March. The 14 other women too were eventually rescued.

When she was locked up in Oman, Rupi had run into a woman from Amritsar. “She had developed an infection which had led to her hands and feet swelling up. But the agent did not let her speak to her family. I don’t know where she is now, if she is alright, if she is alive. I hope she is okay,” said Rupi, fighting back tears.

The Muktsar woman recalled, “They did not return any of my luggage or valuables. All I had was one plastic bag with documents. While leaving from there, I opened it only to see that there were many chits with phone numbers written on it, which the other women had possibly sneaked into the bag. Maybe they wanted me to reach out to their families for help. But as I left from the place, a woman came and checked my bag and threw all those chits out,” she said.

The Quint spoke to 3 women from Punjab who went to Oman to work but were allegedly kept in captivity and assaulted.

The Muktsar woman alleged that there were many Indian women trapped there. She said when she opened her bag, she found chits with phone numbers written on them. "Maybe they learnt of my escape and wanted me to reach out to their families," she told The Quint.

(Image: The Quint / Aroop Mishra)

Gurbhej Singh told The Quint that he has dealt with six such cases in the last six months and that he is currently looking at two more cases where Indian domestic workers are stranded in Oman.


Came Back Bruised

Bilkul sukki payi hai (She is totally starved),” Rupi’s father Sadhu Singh told The Quint in Punjabi. Rupi was not in a condition to speak the first time The Quint reached out to her after she returned to her village on 24 April.

“When I came back, I had food properly after five months. I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to walk – they had beaten me up so brutally. I am still taking medicines for the wounds that they had inflicted on me,” the Muktsar woman said.


What Perpetuates This Cycle

According to labour expert Rejimon Kuttappan, the crux of the problem is 'sub-agents', a term given by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to distant relatives and acquaintances who double-up as agents of recruitment agencies to lure naïve job seekers, especially in rural areas.

“For people hailing from small towns and villages, it is easier to trust a friend of a friend of a friend than an unknown agent from a registered recruitment agency in the city,” he explained.

Adding to this, advocate Gurbhej Singh said that these 'sub-agents' take migrants through an unofficial channel. “A middle man gets them a tourist visa, and there is no mention of a job or an offer letter. They are flown to a new country with no inkling of the fact that this manoeuvre draws parallels to trafficking,” he said.

Since the women did not take the official channel to go and work there, the Embassy cannot intervene in such cases, Kuttappan added.


Need More Awareness

“My appeal to the people is to properly probe where their daughters are being sent and I also request the government to bring back the women who are kept in captivity there. Many of these women don’t speak up against being sexually exploited because of the shame attached to it. But they need help, which can come only if the government intervenes,” the Muktsar woman said.

Kuttappan too told The Quint that the only recourse to this issue is more awareness through Pre-Departure Training Programmes at the grassroot level. These are currently held only by recognised agencies at the district level.

“The government needs to pass the law on migrants (Emigration Act, 1983) without any delay, reach out to potential migrants in villages, and sensitise them about fraud and trafficking taking place under the garb of employment opportunities abroad.”
Rejimon Kuttappan, Labour Expert

He explained that fake recruitment agencies mushroom in villages and small towns because it is there that locals struggle to find jobs with a fixed income throughout the year.

“The idea of a job that pays in a different currency abroad is very aspirational, and that is why people fall for it so easily. Most take loans to pay for their initial ticket and visa fee, and are then exploited abroad for minimum or no pay. They return with lesser money than they had, only to get trapped in debt bondage with the agents or middlemen,” Kuttappan concluded.

On being asked if there is a way to check illegal recruiting agencies, where the problem of human trafficking often begins, Do Bold, a Netherlands-based organisation that works with migrant workers in the Gulf countries, said, "Going after these unethical agencies is not enough. Regulating, monitoring and enforcing ethical practices for recruiting agencies to follow is a must and it must come hand in hand as governments try to go after unethical recruiting agencies."

"People will want to migrate, and they do have the right to migrate, but in a safe and dignified way. When addressing human trafficking, the problem must be addressed from multiple directions. In this case, holding accountable unethical recruiting agencies whilst regulating, improving and monitoring other agencies," the organisation stated.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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