After arriving in Kuwait they were immediately taken out of public sight, locked in a room and ‘distributed’ late at night to different households
The girls felt they escaped additional harassment or abuse in their respective work places only due to the timely and frequent visits made by the Bhutanese Ambassador in Kuwait who was alerted by MoLHR
Choney Lhamo, 22 was promised a ‘House Keeping job’ with a minimum of 450 USD a month and an eight hours working day by ‘Sergyel International Visa Outsourcing Agent’ which also doubles up as ‘Sergyel Educational Consultancy,’.
However, she was bewildered and dispirited to find herself as a house maid after reaching Kuwait working double the hours and getting paid less than half in insecure and dodgy conditions. Similarly her other nine friends, all of whom were girls, shared the same fate. Some of the girls were high school graduates while some were higher secondary dropouts.
“We pursued for overseas employment with a wish to at least earn some money, return back in the country and make a living from it. But the reality was something totally unexpected and horrifying,” said Nima Lhamo.
The girls narrated how their trust in the Bhutanese agent, who made efforts in reaching them to Kuwait, turned into suspicion after they were pulled out of public sight upon reaching their destination and were locked in a room.
Individual names were called out, and the foreign agent handed the girls to different house owners known as ‘sponsors.’ All of this happened late at night in complete secrecy to escape the usual bureaucratic purview and also avoid raising any suspicions around the locality.
The girls told The Bhutanese that they were not even paid half the promised salary and were made to work tirelessly for almost 16 hours straight. Once they reached there, their visas and passports were taken away by their owners and they weren’t even allowed to keep or use cell phones to communicate with one another or their family members back home.
“We were strictly advised by Mr Samten Dendup, the proprietor of the Sergyel Consultancy that sent us from Bhutan to not call or inform the Bhutan embassy in Kuwait should any problem arise down there,” said Nima Lhamo.
Luckily one of the girls managed to hide her cell phone from the owner and she informed her husband about the situation down there. When Samten found out about her call she said he scolded her and strictly warned her not to share any information with their families and that he would resolve everything for them on his own.
“The first time we went to the office of Sergyel after they’ve announced the vacancy for overseas employment, we were asked to fill up the forms and there was a space requiring us to fill in the job position. When we enquired with the staff who were assisting us, they said that the actual position is housekeeping but asked us to keep the space as it is, justifying that they’ll adjust for another suitable job if they cannot get housekeeping upon reaching there,” said Karma Choden.
Out of the 10 girls a first batch comprising of four girls was sent first, followed by the rest six girls in the second batch. Although the agent did not mandate the first batch comprising of four girls to sign any undertaking, the second batch were asked to sign it when they were all set to leave the next day.
“We were quite shocked when we were asked to sign the undertaking just when we were about to leave the next day. Samten told us that there is nothing much to go through and that it only means that his agent will help them out in times of need,” said one of the girls.
The undertaking states that Sergyel Visa Outsourcing Agent has nothing to do with the individual’s decision for overseas employment in Kuwait and that the agent instead helped them in finding an authorized agent abroad and also it would mean that the individual shall be liable and fully responsible.
The girls said that they were not really aware of what was stated in the undertakings and that they were asked to be witnesses among themselves while signing it.
“I wanted to know more about the job and the company I’ll be working with once I reach there, so I asked Mr. Samten to at least provide me some details or find a way to get me in touch with one of the employees there so that I can enquire about the salary and working environment there. He just bluntly said that we’ll be working in ‘Republic of Ronda Company’ and said no more about it,” said Choney.
The girls said that although their passports were taken away, their workload was a nightmare and the pay was way below what was promised, they felt they escaped additional harassment or abuse in their respective work places only due to the timely and frequent visits made by the Bhutanese Ambassador to Kuwait, Tshering Gyaltshen Penjor along with three other Bhutanese officials and the foreign agent to the individual work places enquiring about their working conditions.
Bhutan’s Kuwait Embassy in turn had been alerted by the Ministry of Labour and Human Resources after the family members of the girls brought the issue to the ministry.
The girls said that even after the embassy made necessary negotiations with the authorities there, it became very difficult to convince their owners to let them go. The owners said that they already paid huge amounts to the labour agent for them and that they will not allow it. They later agreed only after more concerned authorities stepped in with the intervention of the Embassy.
In another case Drupthub Education Consultancy illegally deployed five Bhutanese girls as housemaids to United Arab Emirates and Oman. Although one girl who was tracked by her brother is already back in the country, the rest four have been tracked by the Bhutan Embassy which is trying to negotiate with the authorities of the respective countries by fulfilling all the immigration formalities after which they are also expected to be back in the country very soon.
In the case of Drupthub Consultancy owned by Chimi Dema (whose real and registered name with the Education Ministry is Chimi Rinzin), the brother of one of the girls in a viral Facebook post said that the consultancy had promised a nice salary with a nice working environment but when the girls reached there they found that the consultancy had taken a huge commission from a labour agency in Dubai and the girls were sent to work as maids.
He said that despite his efforts there was no contact from his sister and only after a while a call from Dubai saw a person asking a huge ransom amount to let his sister go. With the help of two kind local residents the brother got his sister back from the local Arab residents who he said had not fed his sister well and instead kept her isolated with no phone and other communication.
Even the immigration authorities in Dubai supported the local labour agent and they initially asked him to give 9,000 dirham (one dirham = Nu 17.50) to release his sister but brought the amount down to 5,000 dirham.
The brother in his post mentioned two other girls who tried to run away but could not as their passport and everything else had been taken away by the local labour agent there.
Sergyel and Drupthub
Samten Dendup of ‘Sergyel Visa Outsourcing Agent and Sergyel Educational Consultancy’ said that his intention was not to let the girls suffer in Kuwait but he said that he was rather ‘saddened’ by the increasing number of unemployed youths in the country. Samten at the time of the email interview said he was in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
“By the time I knew what I was doing is not in accordance with the Labor Act of the country, I tried to approach MoLHR for a different license for overseas employment but I was told that they have stopped issuing license for the time being. And by then my staffs had already forwarded the documents of 44 applicants to my counterpart in Kuwait and before I could stop it, I received visas and air tickets for 10 girls. Out of the 10, four girls were set to go early and the tickets and visas for six girls were at a later date,” said Samten.
He claimed he signed a ‘pact’ with his counterpart in Kuwait that a minimum of USD 450 be paid for the girls and working hours would kept at not more than eight hours. “All the girls desperately wanted to leave for Kuwait as they already paid Nu.25,000 each to me and I know some of them have managed that amount with a lot of difficulty and honestly, I never thought that such problems will arise once they reach their destination. But nevertheless, I did not con the girls for any other jobs in Kuwait and told them that once they reach there they will be working as housemaids.”
It has been found that Samten was further set to send the third batch of girls to Kuwait when the Labour officials upon receiving a tip-off, immediately asked Samten to stop sending the girls illegally to the Middle-East.
“The 10 girls from the third batch which the Ministry did not allow to be sent for overseas employment complained and even sought intervention from the Minister demanding that the government should find them jobs here in Bhutan or else let them go through the Sergyel agent. But the Labour Ministry made it clear that it is illegal and punishable under the law,” said Ugyen Tashi, Program Officer for Overseas Employment.
Then the Labour Ministry along with Samten made efforts to bring back the girls who were sent earlier as house maids.
“It is clearly mentioned in the undertaking that my Visa Outsourcing Agent only helped the girls in processing their visas but now they’ve something different to say,” said Samten.
It’s been found that it is against the Labour Act to indulge in overseas employment with the license for International Visa Outsourcing, thus Samten’s license has been repealed by the Ministry after such issues surfaced.
The Sergyel office is located in room no 201 in the Tashi Commercial Building in the Hong Kong market area in Thimphu.
Samten said that he is not aware about the Drupthub Education Consultancy being involved in the same practice, and that there is no way they have colluded with one another to send the girls for overseas employment as maids.
The proprietor of Drupthub Consultancy, Chimi Dema whose real and registered name is Chimi Rinzin could not be contacted as a family member claimed she is undergoing some treatment in Kolkata and hasn’t been back in the country ever since the issue surfaced.
The Bhutanese also went to the office address of the consultancy which is supposed to be located in room no 203 in Doctors Building above Changzamtok school but the new tenants there said that the office had moved out from there recently.
The reporter tracked down the Facebook page of the Chimi Rinzin who has a completely different name on it.
Actions from the Government
Ugyen Tashi said that the Ministry after seeking legal advice from OAG on the matter will prosecute the case in the court in accordance with relevant provisions under the penal code and the relevant laws of the country.
Lyonchhen Tshering Tobgay, in response to the question raised by Rinzin Jamtsho, the representative from Kengkhar-Weringla Constituency during the Friday Question hour session in Parliament said that apart from revoking the licenses of the agencies involved, the two agents have also be asked to pay for all the expenditure incurred in bringing the girls back to the country.
“In recent times, we see an increasing numbers of youths opting for overseas employment which is a great opportunity for our youths. But the government is against sending the youths as house maids and security guards overseas because of the risk associated with such jobs. The licenses of the two agents will be immediately revoked and the case will be taken to court,” said Lyonchhen.
Lyonchhen said that firstly the agencies in question did not have the correct licenses to send people abroad and on top of that Bhutan does not allow for people to be sent abroad as house maids.
The government is trying to gainfully employ the girls by providing various opportunities according to their preferences as part of the reintegration program by the Labour Ministry.
The Labour Ministry said that time and again it urged the youths not to be lured by such offers and consult the relevant officials before deciding to opt for overseas employment.
Bhutan currently has eight labour agents after the license of three got cancelled earlier and there are currently 37 Education Consultancies that include Sergyel and Drupthub.