In 2011, two organisations – Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – singled out the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for abuses faced by domestic workers employed in the country. There were documented cases of employers cutting the ears of domestic workers, burning them with irons, and even forcing nails and needles into their bodies.
Last year, an Indonesian domestic worker, Ruyati binti Satubi, was beheaded after she was held guilty of killing her employer’s wife. While the Indonesian government as well as Satubi’s family had been informed about the proceedings execution happened without any notice. An eyewitness claimed that Ruyati, a mother of three, had endured a great deal of abuse, including being punched and kicked, before the murder took place. Ruyati’s case drew international attention because of the beheading, but there are several women working in situations like she had to face, without any recourse to either media attention or the support of the local authorities.
Bindu (name changed), 36, left her home, husband and four children back in a rural district of Nepal, to work as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. She did this to support her family since the ‘agent’ had promised good money. Bindu recalled, “There were 15 of us, who had jobs as housemaids, and we came viaIndiaas theNepalgovernment had at that point banned the movement of domestic maids toSaudi Arabia, following incidents of violence and ill treatment.”
Bindu found employment in a Saudi household and was made to take care of three children, apart from handling all the household chores including cooking. All she got to eat at the end of the day was bread and potatoes. Said Bindu, “I was so sick of bread and potatoes that I went hungry for days, but no one even bothered. I could have endured this, if the family had at least given me my wages on time. Month after month they would say they would pay me ‘next month’, but ‘next month’ never came. It was not as if there was any shortage of funds in that home – vast amounts of shopping was being done every day. But when it came to my wages they said they were short of cash. After six months, they handed me only three months’ salary.”
Bindu’s is not an isolated case. There are thousands like her who face similar if not worse conditions in the kingdom. According to one arrangement, maids work for housekeeping companies who, in turn, contract out their services. They are brought to their workplace in a bus and then taken back. They are locked inside their dormitories once they finish work and are not allowed to go out, out of work hours. Most of them don’t enjoy any days off. If they fall sick, it’s leave without pay.
But these women are better off than individuals like Bindu, who are not bound by any contract and live at the sole mercy of their sponsor. On her arrival, Bindu’s passport, her gold earrings and some currency had to be submitted to her employer for “safe keeping”.
One night Bindu found her ‘sir’ in the room where she was asleep with his one-year-old baby. When she fled from the room and informed her ‘madam’ about the incident, the woman started shouting at her. She was told that she should not have run away and that now the master will be very angry. Bindu walked out of that house in the early hours of the day when everybody was asleep – without money, passport, or any document that could prove her status.
There are approximately two million women from thePhilippines,Sri Lanka,Indonesia,Indiaand other countries, who work as migrant domestic labour inSaudi Arabia. They are routinely underpaid, overworked, confined to the workplace and are frequently subjected to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Since they are excluded from the protection of any labour legislation, they are vulnerable to serious exploitation.Saudi Arabiadoes not have laws that protect the right of workers to form trade unions and to bargain collectively. Independent labour unions do not exist and the migratory sponsorship system, under which most migrant labour is recruited, put foreign workers at the mercy of their employer or sponsor who process their residence permits.
Maya (name changed) came toSaudi Arabiaafter her divorce. She left her one year old in her village in the state ofUttar Pradesh,India. She was 18 when she arrived. Fair complexioned, with waist long tresses, she was an attractive woman. On the very first day her ‘madam’ chopped off her hair with a kitchen knife saying it was ‘haram’ for a maid to be ‘attractive’. Maya remembered that it was the month of Ramzan, “I was not allowed to eat throughout the day, even though I am a non Muslim. Then I would have to cook and serve all night because that was the pattern of life during Ramzan. In the morning, when the adults went off to sleep, I had to take care of the children, feed them and clean the house.” She did all this with the minimum food and under extremely stressful conditions – including being abused verbally and physically for being “irresponsible”. When she couldn’t bear the situation any more, she chose to walk out, like Bindu had done, without her money, passport or residence permit.
There are many maids working in the Kingdom as illegal migrants. Not having the required papers makes them even more vulnerable, and they have no option but to exist like ghosts to keep supporting their family back home. Some can’t even go back if they had an option, because conditions at home were even worse. One woman revealed her quandary, “How do I support my child and what do I eat if I go back?” So she carried on hopping from one household to another before the officials can trace and deport her.
Unlike Maya and Bindu, some who run away make the mistake of approaching the police. Ponamma S., a Sri Lankan domestic worker, described to Human Rights Watch her experience of approaching the police after escaping from her employers: “A senior officer came…I complained that Baba had beaten me up. Baba claimed that he was not there at the time. Then they asked if Baba paid me. I said, ‘For one-and-a-half years I have not been paid.’ I refused to go back to Baba. I insisted to go to the embassy…The police told Baba to drop me at the embassy, but he took me back to the house…The lady beat me really badly. She told me, ‘Anywhere you go inSaudi Arabia, they’ll return you back here. Even if we kill you, the police won’t say anything to us. If you hadn’t run, we would have killed you and thrown you in the trash.’”
The story of domestic workers in theSaudiKingdomis a never ending saga of a system that can be termed as modern day slavery. If one country takes measures to prevent its people from working here, there are many others that are more than ready to send their domestic labour to the country and gain valuable foreign remittances in the process. For instance, after the Indonesian government banned such migration, there was a sudden increase in the presence of maids fromEretriaandEthiopia.
These are women with few choices, forced to migrate to unfamiliar countries and perform menial task that those living there would not deign to do.
(© Women’s Feature Service)