The Palestinians on Sunday marked the 10,000th anniversary of the founding of Jericho, an oasis town in the West Bank that may be the world's oldest city.
The festivities included a special cabinet meeting chaired by prime minister Salam Fayyad that was to be followed by a 4.5 kilometer (2.8 mile) foot race, a military band and fireworks.
"This occasion is not only a celebration, but is part of a national project to complete the building and preparation of the Palestinian state," Fayyad said at the opening of the ceremony.
Other key providers include Sri Lanka, Ethiopia and more recently Vietnam and Kenya. According to the ILO (International Labor Organization), Sri Lankan domestic workers are contractually promised SR500 ($133) a month. For purposes of comparison, live-in maids in Singapore, mainly from the Philippines and Indonesia, receive a monthly salary ranging from $250 to $350, according to a website in Singapore. In Singapore, a maid is expected to do home cleaning, washing, ironing and cooking. On some occasions a maid can also take care of the children. In Spain, I interviewed a housekeeper/nanny who confirmed receiving 600 euro per month before tax. In the US, the rate is at least 2,000 euro per month.
It was also reported that Saudi Arabia now spends millions of riyals a year on domestic labor recruitment. The cost of household drivers was estimated at SR12 billion annually, according to a knowledgeable banking source. The annual currency transmissions to laborers’ home countries are estimated in billions of riyals, generating hefty profits to the Saudi money transfer industry.
How risky is it to serve in a Saudi household? Being a domestic worker in the Kingdom brought advantages to millions of workers and their families in their impoverished countries. Many were able to accumulate reasonable wealth, they helped their families build homes, educated children and paid for necessary health care. Alas, it also comes with a large set of risks. Saudi Arabia’s rate of domestic and family violence is on an alarming rise, with both women and children being its biggest victims. In the past few years numerous incidents of children deaths (manslaughter or due to negligence) and severe physical harm have been reported. Women happen to be the victims of 90 percent of violence cases and most of this end in divorce, according to a divorce forum organized in the Eastern Province in 2008.
Naturally, domestic workers receive the biggest share of abuse and suffering. Forms of exploitation include nonpayment or underpayment of wages, forced confinement in the workplace, excessively long working hours and no rest days and in many cases zero contact with their family and friends. According to a report released by the Human Rights Watch (Volume 19, No. 16 (C), November 2007) about 20 percent of domestic workers interviewed for the report did not receive their full salaries. Mistreatment also takes more violent forms such as physical and emotional abuse.
Sexual harassment and abuse is also common. Many household men view maids as sexual objects. They take advantage of local laws and regulations that side with the employer in case the maid threatens to report the matter to the police or inform the wife. I was recently discussing a contractual agreement with a Kenyan recruiter. Kenya began supplying labor to the Kingdom just over a year ago. The contract was full of covenants and conditions protecting the second party (domestic worker), and when asked why, I was told it was due to the many incidents of abuse that these workers have already experienced in the Kingdom!
Slavery was formally abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1962; however, old habits die-hard. In the modern world exploitation of the weak continue to appear in many forms and places. Rules and regulations can discipline the human proclivity to harm and hurt fellow human beings — men and women. Unfortunately, civil law in Saudi Arabia remains largely partial — in favor of its citizens against foreigners.
In 2006, I wrote an article in Al-Eqtesadiyah entitled “The Foreigner and Us” — in support of a resolution by the Filipino authorities to raise the monthly wage of domestic maids to SR1,500 ($400). From an economic and humane viewpoint, I found the decision to be sensible and fair. The moment the article was published, I was consensually criticized by the Saudi readers seeking cheapest possible labor and lower costs. My patriotism was questioned as was my concern for my fellow citizens who are hit by the rising cost of living. On the other hand, I was admired by non-Saudis who volunteered with their own stories supporting my view. Then I wondered: Why should every household in the Kingdom (even those who can’t really afford it) use full-time maids? Something was clearly wrong.
Changes that must take place in the Saudi household: Notwithstanding the relatively low cost, is the practice of having a 24/7 maid (or driver) a healthy one for a household? Surely, larger the family and the dwelling, the more the help needed but we ought to make thorough changes in our lifestyle as well. Just a few elements to consider: Inflation and cost of living, dependence on others and inability to serve oneself in times of emergency.
The solution to the problem is multifaceted and complex. It includes switching to part-time domestic help (rather than live-in maids and drivers), which is now becoming a trend. Second, the Saudization of domestic help may decrease the dependence on foreign workers. In my view, the excessive subservience of some foreign nations (due to extreme poverty) encourages employers to harm and exploit them in many ways. Third, foreign labor law needs much fine-tuning, and some experts attribute the problem to the “kafala” (sponsorship) system, labeling it a gateway to modern slavery. Last but not least, poor transportation is a major exacerbating factor. One strong obstacle to part-time services in Saudi Arabia is the poor system of transportation. Lack of an underground (or transit) network, proper bus system or even low-cost call cabs contributes to inefficient lifestyle and substantial waste of time. On my blog, 98 percent of respondents agreed that Jeddah is in desperate need of a complete overhaul in ground transportation. Each year a budget of hundreds of millions is allocated to the Ministry of Transportation, but all the while a clear decline in the quality of lifestyle is felt and suffered by the residents of major cities.
Of course, there exist more elements to foreign labor issues. Our experts and researchers must look thoroughly into the causes of escalating violence scientifically and suggest effective remedies. I call on the authorities to take a more civilized stance toward the issue and stop considering lowering the cost of employing needy workers a national victory, for it is nothing but another crime toward humanity and a complete travesty of justice.
*Published in Saudi's ARAB NEWS on Oct. 10, 2010. Reem M. Asaad is a Saudi investment analyst, writer and women rights advocate. After years in banking, she presently works as a lecturer in finance at Dar Al-Hekma Women’s College in Jeddah.