In an interview with Voice of America News, University of Amsterdam law professor Annette Vlieger discusses her 2011 dissertation on the characteristics of “social and legal conflicts” between domestic workers and employers in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Vlieger posed as an employer in order to determine the discrepancy between the information recruitment agencies conveyed to employers versus workers. She also sent individuals into recruitment offices to understand issues domestic workers contend with throughout the employment process.
Below are excerpts from Vlieger’s interview with VOA. In addition to the impact of deceitful recruitment agencies, Vliger also discusses the deleterious role of the sponsorship system, the nations’ lax rule of law, and the absence of supportive organizations. The full paper is available in PDF format here.
On recruitment agencies:
Vlieger: In the beginning [of my research], it hadn’t occurred to me immediately that the recruiters could be the problem. At first, I was looking at the employers. But after awhile, I started to see that many employers meant well, but the women had been promised other working conditions.
So what I did was I decided to research the recruiters and the agencies in the Middle East to compare the work conditions. So in Manila and Jakarta, I sent somebody into these agencies to pretend to be in search of a job, to see what they would promise her. And basically, they don’t really tell her anything about the work conditions. As soon as she starts to pose questions, they say, ‘Oh, apparently you don’t really want to work.’ And then they start to hesitate over whether to send her to the Middle East. The only thing they say is, ‘Well, if you want a job, you have to stay within the compound now for three months,’ and they just promise her a golden future—very vague and abstract—and they don’t discuss what kind of work, exactly, she’s going to do. They don’t tell her what her salary is going to be. They don’t tell her anything.
Then I went to the Middle East and I pretended to be in search of a domestic worker to see what they would tell the employer. And I was very much in shock—mostly in Saudi Arabia, where they simply told me, ‘She will be your slave for two years.’
Vlieger: They said, ‘this is what happens: You pick her up at the airport and bring her to your home, you lock the door and after two years, you open the door again. And in the meantime, you can do with her whatever you like.’
On working conditions:
Vlieger: Well, the average workday is 17 hours, which is an average. And some girls have to work 20 hours and they are simply exhausted. I met women who ran away simply because they couldn’t sleep anymore from being too exhausted. Others are abused, either physically or mentally. I met many women who were sexually abused as well. I met women who were never paid.
The largest problem is that they have no place to turn to for help.
On the Sponsorship (Kafala) System:
Vlieger: Well these workers come into these countries on a visa that is tied to one specific employer. So if the employer decides to fire the worker, then immediately, the visa becomes invalid, and then according to the law, immediately, she changes into a criminal. So that means that the employer is extremely powerful because of the visa system, because he can threaten her, he can just say, ‘Well, you have to do what I like because if you don’t, I’ll have you deported tomorrow’—and he can.
So if she has problems at home, if she made debts in order to come to the Middle East, if she has sick family members, anything, any reason why she would need the money, need to stay, then the employer can simply demand whatever he likes.