Aye Aye Nwe, SIA '11, helps improve the lives of exploited migrant workers

By: S. Gouri Srinidhi

Summi (not real name), a 30-year old Bangladeshi housewife decided to work in Dubai as a domestic worker to support her parents and two daughters. After paying a $1,000 recruitment fee to work in Dubai, she was promised monthly payment during her employment. Her search for financial independence instead led her to the house of an abusive employer who physically and mentally tortured Summi. After many months of working in an abusive situation, she was sent back to her home country without pay.

“I (Summi) spent around USD 1000 to go abroad as a housemaid with the help of a middleman in my village. He assured me a good salary. Finally I footed in Dubai in December 2010 with the hope of better fortune for my daughters. I didn't want them depending on others. But the fortune is never with me. My employer was a bad person. He had tried many ways to sex with me as soon as I joined the work. I tried to avoid him. Once I told him directly that I came here to work, but nothing else. After that, he got angry with me and started different forms of physical and mental torture. I told him to send me back. One day he sent me to the recruitment agent office in Dubai. They locked me in a house and tortured me several days until I was sent back home.”
A married Nepali woman suffered a similar situation. Seeking a job in the Middle East, she moved with high hopes, only to be impregnated through an act of rape, and to have her horrified husband in Nepal divorce her.
These stories come from Aye Aye Nwe, a native of Myanmar and 2011 School of International Affairs graduate. Nwe is a program coordinator for CARAM Asia, an organization that empowers migrant workers by educating them about their rights. Based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, CARAM Asia is a regional network that partners with migrant organizations from South East Asia, South Asia and the Middle East.
Nwe said the cases described are more common today because more individuals, mainly women, seek work beyond their developing nations in order to support family at home. However, she said that commoditization of migrant labor leads to more cases of both men and women facing many problems that often violate their rights. Most of these issues are never addressed.
Nwe and CARAM report that in the absence of oversight, workers' rights can be violated in a number of ways. Domestic work is often not protected by labor laws, which makes it more difficult to defend those in need. Migrant workers, comprised mainly of women, are extremely vulnerable. They work longer hours and often live secluded and isolated from the outside world. Deprivation of rights leads to human rights violations in home settings such as long work hours and constrained movement, and isolated living conditions. Often, workers are exposed to the whims of employers as well. If a work permit is revoked by the employer (for the employer's own interests), migrant domestic workers then become undocumented and are at even greater risk because they are then often deprived of any rights in that country.
This is where CARAM steps in, Nwe said. The organization works to assist migrant workers with their legal needs, labor, and health rights, which often are not offered by the social and welfare services in many destination countries. Nwe said she is dedicated to her work which includes reducing violence against migrant women and girls while increasing their access to justice. Nwe, who began her career in the organization through her SIA capstone project, has found that the work she does at CARAM fits well with her expertise in health, international activism, and communications.
Nwe said she is proud to be a Penn Stater. Dr. Tineke Cunning, director of International Career Services, said the feeling is mutal, "Aye Aye continues to make her alma mater proud with her social consciousness and assistance to those in need."