Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia: Similarities Between Sponsorship and Slavery

Posted on March 22, 2007


Source: Arab News
Abeer Mishkhas

A SAUDI teacher in Samta Governorate has confessed to the police that she tortured an Indonesian house cleaner who was hospitalized and later died due to the severity of her injuries. The woman torched the cleaner and also struck her a number of times on the head; the cleaner suffered from broken ribs, a broken wrist and burns which had not been treated. According to a report published in Arab News last December, on its recent visit to the Kingdom, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) delegation received hundreds of calls from people about their grievances and a majority of those calls were concerned with maids and how they were treated.

In another statement during the visit, a member of the HRW said, “The domestic labor problems in the Kingdom could be greatly reduced if the manpower-exporting countries sent servants who were orientated before their departure.” It is my sad duty to inform the honorable member that orientation is not the problem. The problem with servants and their employers is not so simply eradicable. There can be no solution to the problem of abusing servants until Saudis learn — and put into practice — what Islam teaches about the humane treatment which each of us, Saudi or non-Saudi, is entitled to.

Our problem has many aspects and is as delicately complex as a spider’s web. We need to take a closer look and see if the aspects can be separated from one another. First of all, the problem is with morality; second, law and order; third, law enforcement; fourth, official support and fifth, the Saudi mentality. Somewhere down the list, far below these I would put orientation for those coming here to work.

A colleague was reading yesterday’s report on the tortured maid and he made a comment that is the essence of the problem, “It is about slavery,” he said. And he was right; the same attitude and mind-set still exists in 21st-century Saudi Arabia. At a time when the Royal Academy of Art in London has mounted an exhibition dealing with the history of slavery, I am sad to say that it has not been completely abolished in the Kingdom. Far too many Saudis think they have the right to treat others as lesser mortals; the Saudis see themselves as the masters of the universe and hence entitled to lord it over lesser breeds. […]

How is it that the laws are not enforced? In many cases, it is because the guilty person has “wasta” — friends or relatives with influence and power — or, more likely, because the victim is too afraid to report anything to the police, knowing that as a foreigner, he or she simply does not stand a chance against a Saudi master. Apart from physical abuse, how do we deal with emotional abuse? What about salary delays? Or being locked in houses and treated like prisoners? [more]

Please click here to read the whole article.

Note from Rafik Beekun: The estimated two million mostly Asian women who come to Saudi Arabia to work as ‘maids’ often suffer from horribly inhumane treatment. These isolated, severely overworked and underpaid women leave their homelands in hopes of earning a decent wage to send back home to feed their struggling families. Like all non-diplomatic expatriates who travel to Saudi Arabia, employers confiscate their passports upon arrival and most are put to hard physical labor for meager compensation. Even though most domestic workers do not earn more than $100 to $200 a month, they are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. Their duties include but are not limited to house cleaning, cooking and baby sitting.

Numerous cases of beatings, sexual abuse and confinements have been reported by NGO’s such as CDHR, Saudi Human Rights First, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and some Saudi newspapers. Now, vulnerable domestic workers have become money-making targets for their compatriot laborers. The Saudi government and its institutions are partly to blame for the exploitation and maltreatment of foreign domestic workers in Saudi homes. Codified laws and non-religious courts must be established to protect abused domestic workers, expatriates and all citizens living in Saudi Arabia. The international community has a moral obligation to alleviate the suffering of foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Every embassy in Riyadh, especially those countries with the largest populations of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, should speak out and protest the unacceptable and inhuman treatment of maids.

Please click here to read an article about the case of twenty-five-year-old Suniati Binti Nibaran Sujari entitled “Another Maid Fights to Stay Alive After Rape, Torture“. She was in intensive care with burns to more than half of her body and brutal injuries to her genitals as her life hung in the balance. “She could only nod her head and blink her eyes when the name of her employer as culprit was mentioned to her in the hospital,” said Arif Suyoko, a spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh, and indicated her condition was deteriorating. “She is unable to swallow solid foods because of severe burns on her chest,” he added. “Suniati probably has been raped besides being tortured by her sponsor and his family members,” Suyoko said.

In another report, another 25-year old maid from Indonesia was admitted to hospital in Riyadh on March 19, 2005. She had been tied up for a month in a bathroom and repeatedly beaten by her sponsor and was suffering from gangrene, severe contusions, bleeding and stress. Four of her fingers had to be amputated and further surgical procedures were not ruled out.

Saudi Arabia currently is home to more than 600,000 Indonesian women workers — mainly maids. The Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh has been receiving nearly 10 complaints every day from maids, while the Indonesian Consulate in Jeddah has been handling some five to seven complaints a day. Several Indonesian maids committed suicide during the last 18 months. More than 5,000 maids are currently stranded in Riyadh alone awaiting deportation.

Please note that Saudi Arabia is only one of several Muslim countries engaging in behavior that is contrary to Islam. N.R., a 28-year-old Indian national, told Amnesty International that she had worked as a domestic worker in Kuwait for three years. During this time her Kuwaiti employer had not allowed her out of the house. For three days she was sent to work for a relative of her employer. The relative raped her and she became pregnant. After she gave birth she was taken to the deportation section of the women’s prison where she was detained with her baby daughter. Her employer gave her passport and airline ticket to the police, but the police said that she could not leave the country with her baby without the consent of the baby’s father. N.R had been unable to tell the police where the man lived because she had never been allowed out of her employer’s house and so did not know the location of the house where she had been raped. When AI interviewed her in July 2004, she and her daughter had been detained in the deportation centre since December 2003 and her status remained unclear.

Please also read the following posts on this blog and elsewhere. 

  1. Condition of Migrant Workers and Women in Saudi Arabia.
  2. Saudi Arabia: A Secret State of Suffering.  This report is from Amnesty International.
  3. Saudi Arabia: A Justice System Without Justice.  This report is from Amnesty International.
  4. Domestic Workers’ Abuse in Muslim Countries.
  5. Shocking Conclusions to Grisly Tales.
  6. Domestic Workers Exploited and Abused in Indonesia.
  7. Please click here to download a report in Indonesian (bahasa Indonesia) on domestic worker abuse in Indonesia.

Additional note from Rafik Beekun: The Master-Slave attitude is totally opposite to the very spirit of Islam. As the Prophet Muhammad (s) stated in his last sermon,

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor does a non-Arab have any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim, and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.”

Please click here to read and download the Last Sermon of the Prophet Muhammad (s).

Please click here to read the Human Rights Watch overview of Saudi Arabia.