The Plight of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia

More than 50% of Saudi Arabia’s workforce is made up of migrant workers (around 8 million of them) and the situation they find themselves in is often dire. Having none of the (limited) rights of Saudi nationals, these migrant workers find themselves as second class citizens at best and if ever there were a situation in which Apartheid analogies were appropriate, this is it.

Impoverished foreign workers are drawn to Saudi Arabia with the promise of a better life and the chance to send money back to their families. Workers come to Saudi Arabia using a sponsorship system, whereby their future employer agrees to certain conditions of employment and accommodation and on arrival takes possession of the worker’s passport, who then isn’t allowed to change jobs or leave the country without the sponsor’s permission. While the deals can sound appealing, they often don’t work out that way. For example, there is the case of Mohamed Sakoor, a Sri Lankan migrant:

The agent promised him a monthly salary of 800 Saudi riyals — about $213 — plus free food, housing, medical care and round-trip air fare.As soon as Sakoor arrived at the Riyadh airport, he began to think he had made a mistake. There was no one there to meet him as promised. He called the office of his Saudi sponsor and was rudely brushed off.

“If you have money, take a cab here,” he was told. “If you don’t have money, go back to Sri Lanka.”

Sakoor had no money and no prospects in Sri Lanka. So he spent the next two days at the airport, going hungry and sleeping on the terminal floor. He finally sold his watch to a taxi driver and got just enough cash to share the cab with four other new arrivals. They dropped him off at a restaurant owned by Sakoor’s sponsor.

Sakoor spent the next two nights at the restaurant before he finally started his job.

A typical day goes like this: to work at 7:30 a.m.; break from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., when almost everything stops because of the heat; on the job again until at least 10:30 p.m.

Sakoor says it was three months before he got paid; now, his pay is routinely 20 days late. Despite what his contract says, he gets no overtime even if he works 14 or 15 hours a day, seven days a week, as he often does. But if he is five minutes late, he says, his sponsor will dock him half a day’s wages.

In two years, Sakoor has never missed work because of illness. If he did, he would lose more pay. The promise of medical care is a joke, he says — all anyone gets is a bottle of aspirin.

For migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, there is little chance to complain about such conditions. While trade unions were finally permitted in 2002, the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights reports that ‘foreign workers are expressly excluded: only Saudi citizens can join labor unions (the condition is to be a Saudi of a minimum of 25 years old, and to have worked for not less than 2 years in a given company)’.

It will come as no surprise that female migrant workers fare particularly badly:

Female domestic workers have particular challenges and are vulnerable to exploitation. Some are forced to live in complete isolation and forbidden to leave the home in which they work. In addition to being overworked and underpaid, female migrant workers also face the risk of enduring physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Even when abuse is reported by foreign workers, it is extremely rare for Saudi employers to be prosecuted.

Tales of extreme working hours coupled with various forms of abuse, often sexual, are commonplace. Take this report from 2002, for example:

When 29-year-old Ramani Prianka accepted a job in Saudi Arabia, she thought it would be a pleasant way to earn more money than she could ever make in her native Sri Lanka.After all, she would be working indoors — as a housemaid — for a well-to-do, educated Saudi couple. He was the manager of a big hospital; she was the principal of a school.

How tough could it be? Very tough, Prianka quickly discovered. The house had 20 rooms and 13 bathrooms, and Prianka, the only maid, was expected to clean every one every day. There were nine children, and Prianka had to wash all their clothes and cook all their food. Seven days a week, she was up at 4:30 a.m. and never got to bed before midnight. All this for the equivalent of $26 a week.

After nine months, depressed and exhausted, Prianka had enough. As the family slept, she sneaked out of the villa, flagged down a taxi and told the driver to take her to the Embassy of the Republic of Sri Lanka.

Prianka was not the only Sri Lankan maid to seek refuge in the embassy’s safe house this hot June morning. There was Pushpa Chandra, 30, who was sick of fighting off sexual advances from her sponsor’s teenage son. And as tears slid down her smooth brown cheeks, a tiny 26-year-old woman whispered that she had been raped by her sponsor’s adult son.

Now, she sobbed, she thought she was pregnant.

Last year, at least 2,800 Sri Lankan housemaids ran away from their Saudi sponsors, claiming they had been overworked, sexually abused or physically mistreated by jealous wives. They are among the countless foreign “guest workers” in Saudi Arabia who live and work under conditions that are sometimes compared to modern-day slavery.

The situation remains much the same. In 2007 – the most recent year that Amnesty International has been able to visit Saudi Arabia – Amnesty reported that ‘[d]iscrimination fuelled violence against women, with foreign domestic workers particularly at risk of abuses such as beatings, rape and even murder, and non-payment of wages’.

That same year, Human Rights Watch expressed its concerns about the treatment of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, stating that ‘[n]ot only do the authorities typically fail to investigate or prosecute abusive employers, the criminal justice system also obstructs abused workers from seeking redress’. Tenaganita reports:

According to HRW, approximately 2 million women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries work as domestic helpers here. Many of them face a slew of problems, from late payment of salaries, extended working hours, beatings, and sexual assault, during the length of a typical two-year contract.

An indication of how bad things can get for domestic workers are the shelters for runaway maids run by both the Philippine and Indonesian diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah.

“There are around 300 maids now at our shelter in Riyadh, which is down from around 560 maids a few months ago, and there are around 45 maids at the shelter in Jeddah,” says Eddy Zulfuat, vice consul at the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh.

HRW found that female migrant workers ‘are routinely underpaid, overworked, confined to the workplace, or subject to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Despite being victims of abuse themselves, many domestic workers are subject to counteraccusations, including theft, adultery or fornication (in cases of rape), or witchcraft’.

In 2000, Amnesty reported that:

Many migrant workers suffer at the hands of their employers, on whom they are completely dependent. Some are not paid. Some are beaten. Some are raped. If arrested, foreign nationals may be deceived or coerced into signing a confession in Arabic, a language they may not understand. They are frequently tortured and ill-treated. They are more likely than Saudi Arabians to be sentenced to death and the judicial punishments of flogging and amputation.

They are forced to suffer in silence and solitude. They are given no information about the system that will decide their fate and sometimes no clue as to the nature of that fate, even if it is the death penalty. They are usually denied prompt contact with their friends, family or consular officials, and are never allowed legal representation in court. Almost all of them lack the support, influence or money to seek pardon, commutation or reduction of their sentence.

By 2007 the only ‘improvement’ was that marginally more Saudi citizens were now being executed than foreign nationals. The situation remained appalling:

Human Rights Watch interviewed Sri Lankan domestic workers sentenced to prison and whipping in Saudi Arabia after their employers had raped and impregnated them. Three months ago, an Indonesian domestic worker in al-Qasim province was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes for witchcraft, a reduction from an original sentence of death. The Indonesian embassy did not learn about the arrest, detention or trial of the worker until one month after the sentencing.

Whether as victims or defendants, foreigners confront several serious problems in getting a fair investigation or trial in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system. Many migrant workers do not have access to interpreters, legal aid or basic information about their cases. The Saudi government often takes months or years to inform foreign missions if their nationals have been arrested or hospitalized, preventing them from extending badly needed assistance.

Given this situation, where is the outcry? When it comes to the systematic discrimination and abuse meted out to over half of Saudi Arabia’s workforce, there is silence in the West. While Israel-bashing is fast becoming something of an international pastime, we hear next to nothing of this human rights nightmare in Saudi Arabia. Major solidarity campaigns? No. Academic boycotts? No. Protest rallies? No. Demonstrations outside Saudi embassies? No. Petitions to the government? No. Boycott Saudi oil? You must be joking!

Selective outrage? Yes, indeed.

This article also appeared at Harry’s Place.

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