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Saudi's Poor Rationale for Banning Ethiopian Domestic Workers

On July 23, 2013

Saudi's ban on the recruitment of Ethiopian workers evidence enduring prejudices against migrant domestic workers (MDWs). Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Labor officials stated the ban "will continue until investigations are completed into the killing of Saudi children by some Ethiopian maids." Officials’ suggestion that a worker's origin country is in anyway correlated with criminal activity perpetuates dangerous, xenophobic misconceptions of MDWs and fails to address the veritable motives behind MDW crime.

Crimes committed by migrant domestic workers must be contextualized; a unilateral ban suggests violent tendencies are widespread amongst workers - that employers should escalate assertions of power over workers to discourage misconduct. Throughout the Gulf, the narrative surrounding employer-domestic worker relationships and victimization is often reversed - the domestic worker somehow exercises dominance and must be feared, furthermore "justifying" their mistreatment.

But MDW violence toward children or other household inhabitants is neither normalized nor widespread, unlike the abuse of MDWs. Domestic workers are not inherently predisposed to violent behavior - they hold no inherent hatred towards Saudis or employers. In fact, local media often refers to these incidents as "revenge attacks," at least in part recognizing employer's complicity in such crimes. Additionally, recent editorials in local papers have called on citizens to take accountability for the mistreatment of domestic workers. For example, the following is extracted from a Saudi Gazette piece published shortly after an Indonesian maid was accused of murder:

Suha Butrus, a law specialist, said generalization results in prejudices and stereotyping. News about a minor incident spreads like wildfire to areas far from the spot where it actually occurred, magnifying the issue to such proportions that many people “jump to conclusions” without looking for a shred of evidence or logic. The impact of this situation resonates in society with devastating consequences for those concerned.

Poor working conditions are the most frequent motivation of MDW crime. Aside from retribution, crimes may be committed by domestic workers with psychological issues. Workers may pushed into psychological imbalance by unbearable working conditions. Physical abuse, psychological abuse and isolation can wreak havoc on a domestic worker's mental well being. The lack of employment mobility and in particular, the criminalization of terminating contracts prematurely, disables migrants from leaving exploitative conditions. The difficulty in accessing aid from authorities furthermore exacerbates the difficulties MDWs face. Occasionally, these issues compound over time and manifest into a range of crimes.

Domestic workers should be guaranteed decent work in accordance with international norms and basic ethics, not merely out of fear of retribution. However, courts must give weight to employer's complicity in crimes committed by domestic workers. Officials often fail to investigate abuse or permit the victim’s family to determine clemency, despite their possible involvement in the very conditions which precipitated the crime.

As incidents of violence are often related to employment conditions, efforts to reduce MDW crime must begin with improving these conditions; the Ministry of Labor and the Ministry of Interior must deter exploitative working conditions by prosecuting abusive employers and preventing them from sponsoring other workers, and by allowing domestic workers to terminate employment contracts without risking fees, detainment, or deportation.

Saudi's newly instated domestic workers law addresses only some of these issues and will likely face under-enforcement. Despite its oversights, the legislation should serve as a reminder of employer's obligations to workers to both authorities and sponsors.