On July 5th, an ‘African’ domestic worker in her 30s committed suicide by hanging herself in a domestic workers' shelter in Saudi's al-Damam city. According to Hasa Today, the worker arrived at the shelter after her sponsor refused to let her return home - a common practice permitted by the sponsorship system. Employers confiscate identity documents and refuse to release workers from their contracts, leaving little choice for discontent workers but to escape. Absconded domestic workers either seek out or are forced into shelters by authorities once they are captured. These shelters are essentially detention centers, as workers are not permitted to leave until their deportation.
These state-run shelters for domestic workers exist across many of Saudi’s major cities, alongside several shelters run by embassies. Shelters host thousands of runaway maids who suffered abuse, forced labor, unpaid wages, or who were otherwise prevented from changing jobs or leaving the country. Many workers escape to shelters hoping to obtain indemnities for unpaid wages or exploitative conditions, or to transfer employers. Between November 2013 and April 2014, over 5,000 domestic workers ran away from their Saudi sponsors. Daily, between 80 to 120 domestic workers runaway from their sponsors, primarily in Riyadh, Makkah, Madinah, and the Eastern Province. These rates are actually reduced from previous years.
Even if absconded workers can prove exploitation, Saudi law considers all absconded to be illegal and subjects them to detention and deportation, often without according them the means or opportunity to receive compensation for their unpaid work or otherwise bring charges against abusive employers. Typically, only the most severe incidents of abuse receive significant intervention by authorities. There are currently proposals to increase penalties for absconding workers, including a life-time ban on re-entering any GCC state.
Though government-run shelters claim to provide women with psychological and legal aid, their methods of operation are problematic: firstly, domestic workers require police permission to be hosted in shelters. Shelters staff often negotiate unfair deals for domestic workers in order to expedite their deportations, inconsiderate of their plight. Still, some spend up to four months in overcrowded shelters, their mobility completely restrained. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report chronicled cases in which domestic workers were starved, beaten, and abused by their employers - but ultimately dropped their charges in order to escape the shelters and the possibility of being stranded for years.
Unsurprisingly, this is not the first suicide to occur in a Saudi detention centers.
In a report last year, the local al-Riyadh newspaper interviewed shelter staff who explained that most of the workers escaped because of unpaid wages. One employee observed that the domestic workers were not properly prepared for their jobs, intentionally misled or otherwise unaware of their working conditions and responsibilities. Another added that complicated bureaucracy protracts the resolution of workers’ cases, as two different government bodies process compensations and deportations. Sponsors furthermore prolong the process by failing to show up to court or ignoring government calls, in order to avoid paying owed wages or repatriation expenses.
Last month, once incident in Hail City encapsulated the intersectional oppression facing Saudi’s migrant women, as well as shelters’ problematic operating procedures; a Moroccan woman published an open letter to the Prince of Hail, imploring him to rescue her from her abusive husband and his sons. She came to Saudi believing she would be a wife, but instead became a slave forced to labor for the men who regularly beat her and confiscated her passport. Though she obtained all necessary documentation and court orders that ordered her husband pay her monthly for child support, the husband simply abandoned her at the city’s shelter. Like domestic workers, she was consequently detained in the shelter. She pondered to the local al-Hayat newspaper: "I do not understand how I can be in this shelter when I was brought to this country on a spouse visa?"