For Asian and African migrant domestic workers, the Gulf is a golden cage

In front of the Saudi Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka: This angry protest was triggered by the brutal torture of a domestic worker by her employers in Saudi Arabia--who had hammered nails throughout her body. (See article below)

The Media Line Staff,  November 18, 2010

Saudi Arabia (TML) – An international human rights group has called on Arab countries to better protect their foreign domestic workers, following recurring reports of abuse suffered by Asian maids.A Sri-Lankan housemaid working in Jordan told Human Rights Watch that her employer forced her to swallow nails, while another, employed in Kuwait, claimed her employer drove nails into her body.

Fleeing extreme poverty and harsh living conditions, millions of migrant domestic workers from across Asia and Africa flock to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. Leaving underdeveloped countries such as Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal and Ethiopia, the workers seek higher salaries which they send home as remittances. However, higher wages often come at a high cost in human rights abuses and labor violations.

“I had no day off. There was no rest,” Sanju, a 33 year-old domestic worker from Sri Lanka working in Kuwait, told Human Rights Watch. “The Madam always beat me; she would beat me on the head […] she told me ‘I can kill you; I can beat you. No one cares about you.'”

Sanju’s chilling account is included in a recent report issued by the human rights watchdog, exposing the plight of foreign domestic workers in Kuwait. The tiny Gulf state is home to more than 660,000 foreign domestic workers working for the country’s 1.3 million citizens.

“In Kuwait, workers’ main complaints revolve around wages and working hours,” Priyanka Motaparthy of Human Rights Watch told The Media Line. “Essentially they’re on call 24/7, working for large families far beyond their capabilities.”

Motaparthy said that recent labor law reforms in Gulf countries, aimed at improving conditions for migrant workers, consistently exclude domestic workers. “In these countries, domestic workers are overseen by the Interior Ministry, not the Labor Ministry,” Motaparthy added. “Jordan is the only country that protects foreign domestic workers in its Labor Law.”

Another major problem for migrant domestic workers in the Gulf is the sponsorship system, which legally ties foreign workers to their employer. “The sponsorship system has existed throughout the Gulf for at least 50 years,” Esraa’ Al-Shafei, director of Mideast Youth, a Bahrain-based human rights organization, told The Media Line. “The system leaves the door open for abuse and exploitation which the workers face on a daily basis.”

Al-Shafei said that runaway workers are immediately considered criminals by local authorities and face imprisonment or deportation, even in cases of abusive employers. She added that Bahrain is the only Gulf country to have canceled the rigid sponsorship system.

Countries such as Nepal, the Philippines and Sri-Lanka have banned their citizens from working in the Middle East, but nevertheless the flow of workers continues, Al-Shafei said.

“Such bans are never permanent,” Motaparthy of Human Rights Watch said. “It’s more a negotiating tool and a means of diplomatic pressure than anything else.”

With 1.5 million migrant domestic workers, Saudi Arabia is the biggest host of foreign workers in the Middle East. However, despite being drawn by financial incentives, foreign workers often face human rights abuses and labor violations.

Most foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia come from the Philippines. In 2008, 300,000 job orders for Filipinos were issued in Saudi Arabia, where 24 Filipino international schools exist.

Migrante International, an alliance of Filipino migrant organizations, told Arab News daily that some 3,000 abused Filipino workers fled their Saudi employers seeking the organization’s assistance. Migrante has defined the Middle East as “the most distressing destination for Filipino workers”.

Albert Valenciano, a Filipino Labor Attaché based in Ryadh, said that the main complaint of Filipino workers is non-payment or delay of salaries. He added that although Saudi sponsorship regulations allow foreign domestic workers to switch employers after two years, workers usually cannot complete a smooth transition.  “It is seldom the case that a worker is transferred legally,” he told The Media Line.

Valenciano said that various Saudi mechanisms are in place to deal with workers’ complaints. The Social Welfare Administration, an agency of the Interior Ministry, receives complaints both from foreign employees and from Saudi employers. The governors of Saudi districts also mediate labor disputes, usually involving women workers.

“If disputes are not resolved through mediation, foreign workers can appeal to Saudi labor courts, since Saudi labor laws apply to them,” Valenciano added.

After years of abuse, the plight of foreign domestic workers may have finally been heard by the powers that be.

Following the torture of an Indonesian housemaid by her Saudi employer, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono directed his finger at Saudi authorities. “I want the law to be upheld and to see an all-out diplomatic effort,” he said Tuesday, launching his Minister of Women Affairs to Saudi Arabia this Friday to oversee the investigation.


Asia.It News, 09/03/2010
Colombo activists and religious leaders call for end to abuse of migrants in Saudi Arabia

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Hundreds of human rights activists, religious leaders and local film stars have protested against the torture suffered by Sinhalese migrants in Saudi Arabia for work. On August 30 a crowd of people gathered in front of the Saudi Embassy in Colombo, shouting out slogans against the governments of Rhyad and Colombo, accused of doing nothing against the violation of human rights of migrants.

The protests were triggered by the brutal incident of LP Ariyawathi, a domestic worker of 49, tortured by the Saudi family where she worked. As punishment, employers hammered nails in her hands and legs. Currently the Saudi authorities have denied the fact, accusing the woman of inventing everything for the purposes of extortion.

Ariyawathi worked for five months in a Riyadhi family. On August 21 she returned home telling the family she had been tortured by her employers for her inability to communicate in Arabic with the nails and pins planted in various parts of her body. Doctors at the Kamburupitiya Hospital (south of Sri Lanka) who last week visited the girl, confirmed the 24 nails five inch removed from her body long during an operation that lasted three hours.

In recent days, a Sri Lankan delegation was sent to Saudi Arabia to discuss the situation with Riyadh officials and seek an investigation. Kusuma Chandrakanth, a friend of the woman, told AsiaNews: “The Government Agency for foreign employment simply sends workers outside the country and are not interested in their suffering.”

Even Buddhist monk Baddegama Samitha, ,accuses the government of not doing enough for migrants. “Its not enough to send people to other countries to meet the demand for labour. The authorities have a great responsibility in defending the rights of all those who work abroad and send money home. ”

Saudi Arabia employs over 1.5 million foreign nationals. Most of them are women from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Philippines, Nepal. In recent years Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups have denounced the poor condition of workers. They are often victims of abuse, such as torture, unpaid wages and subjected to gruelling work hours without rest.

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