The recent beheading of a foreign domestic servant in Saudi Arabia is just the latest in a horrifying litany of systematic abuse, torture and rape of female workers at the hands of their Saudi employers.
Ruyati binti Satubi, a 54 year-old Indonesian maid, was recently beheaded for killing her female Saudi employer with a meat cleaver. Claiming years of severe physical abuse, Satubi committed the murder when her employer had denied her permission to return home to Indonesia.
Although Satubi’s justification for her actions had no effect on the Saudi court’s decision, it certainly resonated among most of the over 2 million foreign women working as domestic servants in Saudi households.
Many of these women – most of whom hail from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines – have routinely been subjected to emotional, sexual and physical abuse by their Saudi employers.
Sadly, these maids were all recruited by employment agencies in their home countries, but most had little idea where they were going or what would be expected of them, which probably makes sense given what awaited them on their arrival.
Of course, the Saudis have been notorious for the horrid treatment they have directed toward their seven million strong migrant workforce, most of whom have long been subjected to wretched working conditions, physical abuse and unjust imprisonment.
According to a 2008 US State Department report, many unskilled foreign workers in Saudi Arabia – especially domestic workers – had been subjected to “nonpayment of wages, debt bondage, confinement, confiscation of passports, contract switching, intimidation, and physical abuse.”
Not surprisingly, female workers were found to be particularly vulnerable victims. In fact, so widespread is the abuse of domestic servants that some countries – most notably India – no longer allow its citizens to work in Saudi Arabia as housemaids.
Unfortunately, the Saudi’s Islamic judicial system offers no assistance to this horrifying problem. While foreign professionals can seek redress for grievances in Saudi labor courts, unskilled workers –such as housemaids– are not protected by Saudi labor law and therefore have no legal recourse.
The result is that Saudi employers are more often than not given the role of meting out extra judicious punishments. These disciplinary measures have included an Indonesian maid being burned with an iron, beaten and her face and lips cut with scissors; a repatriated Sri Lankan maid having had 24 hot nails embedded into her hands, legs, and forehead; and a 36 year-old Indonesian maid having her neck slashed and her body dumped on a roadside by her employer.
So, in order to escape this living hell, thousands of domestic servants run away from their Saudi employers each year. In 2010 alone, at least 2,800 Sri Lankan housemaids reportedly ran away from their Saudi sponsors, claiming they had been overworked, sexually abused or physically mistreated by jealous wives.
Unfortunately, escape doesn’t guarantee a return trip home since all foreign workers need the consent of their employer or “sponsor” before they can leave the country. Therefore, the runaways are forced to rely on their embassies to resolve the problem.
To that end, shelters for runaway maids have been setup by both the Philippine and Indonesian diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah. According to one Indonesian official, there are currently close to 400 maids at one shelter alone. In fact, the Indonesian embassy is so overloaded with cases of abused workers that it recently hired a full-time Saudi lawyer to deal with all of the criminal cases.
Still, the Saudi government has attempted to address the situation. In January 2011 it tightened regulations regarding labor workers by increasing the requirements on possible employers, including the submittal of references proving an employers’ “good conduct.”
Unfortunately, this simple act of compliance has proven too much of a burden for most Saudi employers as job orders have dropped from an average of 1,000 each day to just five a day in the past five months.
For its part, the Indonesian government has responded to the situation by issuing a moratorium on the Saudi hiring of Indonesian women as well as a call for clemency for 23 of its nationals who currently face the Saudi death penalty.
The Philippine government has also issued a moratorium on the hiring of Filipino maids. That moratorium, however, was issued after the Philippine government had refused a Saudi proposal to cut the minimum wage for maids from $400 a month down to $200.
Ironically, both moratoriums have come at a time when the Saudi government is trying to wean itself off its heavy dependence on migrant-workers by pledging over $90 billion in programs aimed at boosting services and jobs for its own citizens.
Currently, over two-thirds of jobs in Saudi Arabia are held by foreigners, including almost 90 percent in the private sector. Moreover, unemployment in the Saudi kingdom stands at 10.5 percent with youth unemployment approaching nearly 30 percent. To that end, Saudi Arabia has imposed new quotas on companies in the kingdom to employ local staff, with cuts in permits for foreign workers if they fail to comply.
Still, it remains more than likely that the Indonesian and the Philippine governments will soon resolve their issues with the Saudi government. After all, migrant workers generate huge sums of cash, most of which is sent back home to their impoverished families. In 2010 Saudi Arabia was the source of $34 billion in such remittances. Moreover, it is estimated that the current Indonesian moratorium will cost it $1.6 billion.
In fact, so reluctant has Indonesia been in the past to lose that extra income that it rescinded a proposal in 2010 to raise the minimum age and salaries of maids after a coalition of employment agencies in the Gulf threatened to look elsewhere in Asia for maids and drivers.
Even Sri Lanka, which has 300,000 Sri Lankans guest workers in Saudi Arabia, more than twice as many as in any other country, is reluctant to impose any moratorium and risk the influx of money.
That rigid Sri Lankan stance, unfortunately, spells bad news for Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan maid scheduled to be beheaded for allegedly murdering a four-month-old baby despite her plea that she had been trying to save the child from choking. Nafeek – who was seventeen at the time of the incident–had no legal representation before or during her trial.
Now, Nafeek will soon be marched into a packed town square where – blindfolded and shackled – she will be forced to kneel facing Mecca before her life will be brutally and abruptly ended with one sweep of a sharp-edged sword. Her frightfully cruel death chalked up as nothing more than a standard condition of Saudi Arabian employment.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.