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The Plight of Maids in Saudi Arabia

On December 15, 2010

Daughters and wives from poor Asian farming communities eager to become breadwinners for their families gamble by accepting a housemaid's job. In desperation young girls barely in their teens falsify their age to meet the minimum age requirement. Recruitment agencies become willful collaborators. The duties of a housemaid call for a high degree of physical strength which only grownups can endure. The consequence of a sexual assault can effectively damage the physical, psychological and mental condition of a teenaged girl. This is a high risk gamble and can well turn out to be life threatening.

Most Saudis, both rich and poor, are brought up in a culture that expects somebody else to do the rough work. Saudi culture is for large houses and combined families. Saudi families are large and need help to run their household. There is a complete absence of any participation from the Saudi side. Saudi housewives sleep till late hours in the morning on all days of the week after being awake all night. They could hardly prepare a pot of tea, let alone a meal. Cleaning the house or mopping floors is unbearable. Even the youngsters are not taught to bear household responsibilities. A maid has to clean the house, cook and look after the children, climb stairs with gas cylinders and drinking water-cans to the third and fourth floors. Hiring a maid is well within normal means. It costs Saudi Riyals 6,000 to the recruiting agent to fetch a maid and a salary of 800 Riyals per month to the maid.

Employing maids is also a “status symbol”, the last item a family would give up. This has led Saudi households to depend heavily on maids. The general Saudi mentality is that when they employ a maid they have acquired a jinni in the magic lamp that will work anytime, produce results under any circumstances and take no days off. About 25,000 maids arrive each month to work in Saudi households.

“When 29-year old Ramani Prianka of Sri Lanka accepted the job in Saudi Arabia she thought it would be a pleasant way to earn more. After all, she would be working indoors as a housemaid for a well-to-do Saudi family. 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 a dozen rooms with 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 got up at 4.30 a.m. and never went to bed before midnight. All this for the equivalent of 26 US Dollars a week.

After nine months, depressed and exhausted, Prianka had enough. As the family slept, she sneaked out of the house, flagged down a taxi and told the driver to take her to the Embassy of The Republic of Sri Lanka.” (St. Petersburg Times, 23rd July 2002)

A spokesman for the Indonesian embassy in Riyadh reported the death of Salastri Salamah, a domestic maid in her forties who died of natural causes in 2005. She worked in a remote village in central Saudi Arabia where she was held in slave-like conditions and was not paid for seven and a half years. The sponsor was completely uncooperative and allegedly owed the maid 89 months' salary. When approached by the embassy, he claimed that he does not have the money to pay her salary or for the repatriation of her body.

There is no law in the country to make the sponsor prove his financial ability to pay for the salary of foreign domestic maids or drivers when he employs them. These are the reported cases. Others suffer in silence.

In the words of Wajeha Al-Huwaider, an MA from George Washington University and a Saudi woman of repute, ”Why do we forget that when we subject our fellow human beings to suppression and oppression, it is unlawful? We imagine that we are the cream of the crop and that we know right from wrong. We believe that women from other parts of the world are ill-mannered and lost. It is from that standpoint that we give ourselves the right to rob them of their existence and take away their basic rights by force. I consider her a friend, who helps me bear the burden of household chores and in bringing up my children”.

The fate of Leonora Somera of northern Philippine is touching. Leonora Somera, who turned 65 in 2005 arrived in Saudi Arabia in 1987 to work as a housemaid. Unfortunately, her employer died after two years. His son moved Leonora to a farm 275 kilometers south of Jeddah where she tended his flock. “Every day I took those (45 sheep) to the mountains and herded them…I did not have money to buy food because my employer did not give me any and neither did he pay me my salary... I talked to the sheep. I told them, ‘you are better because you eat regularly every day, while I don’t know if my family in the Philippines has food on their table. When will I have money to send to my family?”

In 1999, Leonora resigned. In 2003 she approached her employer again. This time she was shocked when her employer told her bluntly, ”You can’t go home. Your passport and Iqama are lost”. Finally, in December 2005, Leonora managed to escape and through the help of her neighbour reached the Filipino Workers Resources Center run by the Embassy of the Philippines. “I am asking for your help so that I can get my wages for the past 18 years from my employer. I am old and cannot work anymore. Hopefully with some money I can start a small business”. (Arab News 3rd January 2006, "Filipino Rescued After Working without Pay for 18 Years" by Raffy Osumo). Leonora’s daughter who was 6 years old when she left is now of 24 years old and is waiting anxiously to be reunited with her mother.

The Jakarta Post of 14th May 2003 reported the case of a 15-year-old Indonesian maid. Her Saudi employer repeatedly attempted to rape her. When she refused she was beaten up and he held her captive. She escaped once only to be pushed back into her Saudi’s lap. The police rarely take any action, especially in favour of a foreigner. In May 2003 the maid was repatriated in poor psychological condition and was admitted to a mental hospital in Lambok in Indonesia. The Saudi culprit walks about freely.

The story of housemaids is a saga of human ordeal, a great migration of the weak and feeble. Depression sets in when they find they have been cheated. The ones held in veneration are the first to give up. Ahmed Mansour Al-Zamil, the Deputy Minister for Labour Affairs, announced the formation of a separate department, The Department for the Protection of workers. “This department will receive complaints from maids who have been sexually harassed, mistreated or who have not been given their salaries. If it is proven that the employer has not paid his maid, we will ban him from applying for any domestic worker in the next five years”. The new move by the Ministry came after reports of recurrent abuses of maids by Saudis in various parts of the country.

In April 2006 this revised labour law came into effect. Regretfully, the revised labour law did not contain any provision to prevent the abuse of housemaids. What good are the 245 articles of the new law for the million housemaids in Saudi Arabia? They continue to be looked upon as the “possession of the right hand” of their Saudi masters.

The Sri Lankan Bureau of Foreign Employment runs a counter at Colombo airport to help returning maids with problems. It says on average 50 maids return back in distress per day from Arabian Gulf countries. Gruesome cases are kept out of sight, quickly ushered from the airport to The Sahana Piyasa (Place of Relief), a shelter run by the Foreign Employment Bureau. Some badly injured women are carried off the plane on stretchers. Most cases never make the news and they are nursed in shelters until they heal sufficiently not to shock their families.

There are about a million domestic maids employed in Saudi households throughout the kingdom. About 600,000 are from Indonesia, 150,000 each from The Philippines and Sri Lanka, and the balance is shared mainly between Egyptians and Indians. A total of 20,000 cases of fleeing maids were reported in 2004. The Sri Lankan and The Philippines' shelters in Riyadh each receive 10 cases per day and their Jeddah shelters each receive about 7 cases per day. About 7,000 maids seek shelter in a year. The Sri Lankan shelter in Jeddah can house 80 runaway maids, while their Riyadh shelters can accommodate 200 maids. The figures are much higher at the Indonesian shelters.

About 2,800 Sri Lankan maids ran away from their Saudi sponsors in 2001 and about 3,400 Sri Lankan maids deserted their employers in 2002. In 2002 about 3,600 Indonesian maids were repatriated back to Jakarta. Complaints ranged from sexual harassment, beating by employers or their family members, nonpayment of salaries and long working hours, sometimes reaching 20 hours a day.

In July 2005 a group of 150 Bangladeshi women set foot on Saudi Arabia as maids. By September 2005, five had returned after being sexually harassed by their employers. Sultana Akhter of Netrakona, aged 19, was harassed on the very first night of her arrival but managed to seek shelter in the room of the employer’s wife. Farhana aged 18 of Habibganj, Lipi aged 19 of Tangail and Selina Ranu of Khulna all complained of sexual harassment by their employers and returned. (News from Bangladesh, 12th September 2005)

About 15 percent of the Sri Lankan maids who leave each year return prematurely due to abuse, non-payment of salary or because they have been drawn into prostitution. Volunteers try to help. Dr. Nishamanie Edirisinge, a Sri Lankan doctor, has volunteered to look after the health problems of Sri Lankan maids at their shelters.

Jakarta airport officials send returning domestic maids with medical or mental problems to Sutanto Police Hospital since it is the only public hospital in Jakarta with a special unit to treat battered women.

22-year-old Rini, another Indonesian maid, no longer remembers the name of her home village which varies each time she is asked. She says her employer’s wife and their two teenaged sons beat her.

In 2003 Wiwin Marka, a 28-year-old Indonesian maid died at Sutanto Hospital, two days after returning from Saudi Arabia. The Jakarta Post reported that her physical condition was only “skin and bones” and that she had complained of burning lungs and vomiting. When asked about maid abuse in Saudi Arabia Ali Al Namlah, the Minister of Social Affairs played down the issue and told the Indonesian news service Detik that the number of cases of abuse is a negligible percentage of the number of Indonesian maids in the Kingdom. (San Francisco Gate Chronicle, 11th December 2003)

Well, how can you explain this to those recuperating at Sutanto Police Hospital’s special unit for sexual assault and trauma?