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Why is Saudi Arabia forcibly returning absconded workers to their sponsors?

On September 16, 2012

Domestic workers who abscond from their employers almost always do so in response to abuse, and because of the absence of adequate legal mechanisms to redress this abuse. Though sponsors often lament that runaways have bilked them of their investment - paid to the recruitment agency, and not to the domestic worker - workers who abscond are considered illegal, and enjoy no financial benefits from their escape. In fact, runaway workers face a number of difficulties: those that remain in the country generally work for less than the already low minimum wage. Those that wish to return home are often to forced to wait lengthy, uneasy periods before their respective nations intervene.

Runway domestic workers have encountered legal difficulties and general apathy from both sponsoring governments and their own nations, but a recent decision by the "Office for Combating Beggary" in Saudi Arabia constitutes an unprecedented level of negligence. The office is currently housing 1,823 runaway maids (a service not always provided by receiving nations) but only until their sponsors come to 'collect' them. Given that the overwhelming number of absconding workers run away from abusive employers, this blind policy of returning workers to employers - very likely aggravated by a workers' escape - is unquestionably irresponsible.

If the office seeks to curb panhandling - though its director, Saad Al-Shahrani, did not specify whether any of the workers were in fact beggars - much more ethical alternatives exist. Most simply, the office could contact receiving nations on behalf of their nationals and arrange for their repatriation. Ideally, though impossible under the sponsorship system's inflexibility, these workers could also obtain new sponsorship contracts so that they could continue working in Saudi Arabia.

Such ad-hoc, apathetic conduct reflects the need to enshrine specific protections for domestic workers as well as for absconding workers. If substantial, enforced protections existed to prevent domestic worker exploitation - whether in the form of physical and psychological abuse or underpayment and unreasonable working conditions - the rate of absconsion would assuredly fall. Likewise, if unfairly treated workers possessed a responsive means of redress (as is currently being deliberated in the UAE), minor issues would be less likely to compound overtime, similarly reducing absconsion rates. Additionally, if abused workers could lodge official, meaningful complaints against their employers (similar to the Filipino system currently in development), abusive employers could be avoided altogether - and once again, absconding rates would decline. Finally, official, efficient mechanisms to aid runaway workers must also be pursued by both sending and receiving nations. Migrants are essentially stranded until either sending or receiving nations act, especially if employers have confiscated their passports. Currently, most sponsoring nations provide runaway workers with little recourse. Consulates are often notified that illegal workers have been identified, but repatriation is often a protracted, uncertain process even amongst the more expeditious nations, including the Philippines.

Domestic workers should never be forced to return to their sponsors, irrelevant of the motivations behind their escape, but especially when abuse is involved. This unjust preclusion of choice and effective indentured servitude is one of the sponsorship system's leading deficiencies. The recent ratification of the ILO's Convention on Domestic Worker Rights embodies efforts to dismantle the inequalities that underlie the system, but its tangible effects remain a function of the convention's enforcement - a historically laborious undertaking, despite the exigency of the subject matter.