About two years ago, I wrote a post about the Saudi government’s plan to abolish its infamous sponsorship system (kafala), which has been constantly criticised by human rights groups. The plan to cancel the system was immediately welcomed by many people. However, two years have passed and nothing came out from it. In the beginning of this year, it was announced that the possibility of cancelling the sponsorship system had been ruled out. The government argued that it’s not easy to scrap the current system as Saudi sponsors spent a huge amount of money for the recruitment of foreign workers. Upon reading the news, I honestly felt so hopeless about this and towards the government. Any major changes would not be easy, but if nothing was done, how could improvements be made?!
The sponsorship system in Saudi Arabia (and in a number of Arab Gulf countries) was supposedly made to ensure the safety and protection of foreign workers, but what we have seen over many decades is the opposite of it. The system, which has been compared to a modern-day slavery, ties workers to their employers (otherwise known as sponsors) who take responsibility for them and restrict their movements. Under this sponsorship system, a sponsor has every right to grant or deny the worker permission to switch jobs, travel to other cities and abroad, and even leave the country! The lack of clear Saudi labour law makes the sponsorship system unable to protect the worker’s rights and it makes migrant workers vulnerable to possible exploitation and physical and sexual abuse.
Domestic servants are those people who are most badly affected by this system. They are the most vulnerable groups of all, as there are barely legal protections provided in case they face any disputes. With an initial recruitment fee between 5,000 and 9,000 riyals (US$1300-2340) per domestic worker, Saudi employers feel that they have every rights to keep their workers as they have spent quite a lot of money to recruit them — and this is one of the reasons why the workers’ ID and passports are often (always) confiscated. Most of these domestic workers are not even aware of their rights and employment contracts. Problems such as being overworked, wage delay, physical abuse, sexual assaults, and being denied basic rights (such as having proper foods!) are issues faced by many of these domestic workers. Some of these problems are reported, but some are well hidden behind closed doors. If any of these cases get into the court, charges against the Saudi employers are often dropped and they are eventually freed. Take, for example, a Sri Lankan Ariyawathi who had 24 nails hammered into her body — not surprisingly, Saudi authorities denied that her 60 years old employer inserted the nails to her, accusing she lied about it and that the case was baseless. Another example is an Indonesian housemaid Nour Miyati who was severely beaten by her employers. The judge awarded her $670 damages but dropped all charges against her employer who admitted the abuse and was originally sentenced to 35 lashes.
She beat me until my whole body burned. She beat me almost every day…. She would beat my head against the stove until it was swollen. She threw a knife at me but I dodged it. I had a big black bruise on my arm where she had beaten my arm with a cooking spoon, she beat me until the spoon broke into two pieces. This behavior began from the first week I arrived. She would scream, “I hope you die! I hope your family dies! I hope you become deformed!” She never paid me for 10 months. I thought if I don’t escape, I will die.
–Wati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006
My employer heated a knife and put it on my cheek. He ordered me to stick out my tongue and put the hot knife on my tongue. A week after that I ran away… When I got injured from their beatings, they did not take
me to the hospital.
The term “runaway maids” becomes increasingly popular, as many workers escape from the cruel treatment of their employers. However, when it comes to domestic servants that face troubles, Saudi governments offer little help, leaving these workers clueless. Local police will most certainly be unwilling to help these poor workers if they go there to seek help. They are often asked for bribes or sex in return for the “favour” and they would usually be returned to their employers. Their only hope is to find their counterparts of the same nationality or go to their embassies. Many Indonesians who are helped by other Indonesian workers, find themselves tricked and trapped in a brothel and are forced to be sex workers. Many also seek refuge in other Saudi households who treat them decently. Others would go to the embassy, their last resort to solve their problem. But not all domestic workers have the “privilege” to escape. Those who work in smaller cities can only pray and hope that one day they’ll escape this cruel life and be sent back home.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the government created a centre in Riyadh to assist workers facing problems and seeking help, including those who have no official ID cards. However, many aspects of its operations are quite concerning. Domestic workers must often settle for unfair financial settlements and wait for months in the overcrowded shelter with little information about their cases. Some domestic workers reported that the police at the centre forced them to return to their employers against their will. The staff also fails to screen for physical and sexual abuse and do not provide adequate interpretation when taking statements or informing workers about the status of their cases.
Saudi Arabia has no standard procedures or system to handle cases of abuse or mistreatment against domestic workers. Embassies often find it hard to work with Saudi authorities to handle these cases, as they are known to be very slow, uncooperative, or require bribes. Many workers are charged or convicted without Embassies’ knowledge. There are also no clear data or statistics on how many of these workers are abused, as estimating the numbers are always proved to be difficult, given that the workers are kept isolated inside their employers’ houses. Saudi governments have always acknowledged these mistreatments of workers, but they always claim that most of them are treated well (as if saying that this is not an urgent issue to be solved!). Even if they are treated well, many of these workers may face having their passports held by their employers, working excessively long hours with no rest day, not being paid for overtime, and having refused to be sent back home.
Saudi Arabia’s current labour law somehow does not apply to domestic workers. It was not until July 2010 that the government passed a bill to improve protections for 1.5 million domestic workers in the country. The bill would require employers to provide domestic workers at least 9 hours of rest every day, suitable accommodation, and rest breaks. But according to HRW, the bill contains vague provisions that could leave workers open to more abuses, that would force them to obey all of their employers’ orders and provide a “legitimate reason” to ever leave their workplace. Unless the country is committed to protecting its domestic workers and making sure that the protections are enforced, the bill would be useless. The question is now, how do the governments ensure that their citizens would provide their workers at least 9 hours of rest every day, give the salaries on time, and would not abuse them when these workers are locked in their houses, are forbidden to leave, and even call their family in their home country?
A few years ago, the Labor Ministry took new measures to safeguard the rights of expatriate workers. Any company or institution that delays payment of salaries of its employees for two consecutive months will be banned from recruitment for a year. The measures also allow expatriate workers to transfer sponsorship to another company or employer if their company delays payment of their salaries for 3 months consecutively. Previously, a worker cannot transfer his sponsorship until he or she has completed one year under the original sponsor. But I’m not entirely sure if these decisions are eventually implemented and if these are applied for domestic workers.
Although some positive steps have been taken in recent years, a lot of actions need to be done by Saudi government in order to protect the rights of domestic workers. A labour law for these workers needs to be implemented and enforced. The government also needs to set up more centres in order to assist domestic workers who seek help. Last but not least, Saudi government needs to follow Bahrain’s footsteps to scrap their sponsorship system so as to allow workers to be independent of their employers. Will we see any improvements in the next coming years? I’m quite doubtful. But I can just hope :).
Read more: HRW Report, “As If I Am Not Human”: Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia (2008)