The issue of the mistreatment of domestic workers in Gulf nations is not new, but it has remained in the spotlight since an Indonesian maid was beheaded in Saudi Arabia on June 18 for killing her employer.
Not only has it turned into a diplomatic fracas between the two nations, but it calls into question legal, economic and humanitarian issues that need to be addressed before a socially equitable policy can be formulated on hiring domestic workers from abroad.
The president of Indonesia, Susilo Yudhoyono, under immense criticism and pressure at home, has announced a temporary suspension of migrant workers’ placement in Saudi Arabia beginning on August 1 unless the kingdom signs an agreement to protect Indonesian workers. (This is a giant leap forward from his somewhat unrealistic suggestion that each migrant worker be handed a cellphone to use in case of emergencies.) In what can only be described as a strange response, Saudi authorities placed a ban on visas for Indonesians from July 8.
While the matter is mulled over by Saudi authorities, the fate of domestic workers and the families that employ them is in a state of flux.
Indonesians−like the other nationalities that work as domestic help−just don’t have enough jobs at home. Last year, 228,890 Indonesians went to Saudi Arabia for work, according to a figure from Bank of Indonesia.
Despite calls from countries urging the enforcement of a minimum wage policy for domestic workers and pleas for improved working conditions, Saudi Arabia is moving slowly on addressing those demands. It has yet to approve recommendations made by the country’s Shoura Council in 2009 that suggested new protections for foreign workers.
In 2009, the Philippines, for example, established a minimum wage for its workers in Saudi Arabia of $400 a month−despite Saudi attempts to reduce it to $200 a month−but this is hardly cause for celebration, as the move fails to address the maltreatment of its workers. In addition, Filipino authorities were unable to secure medical health coverage for its expatriate workers, and Saudi officials did not accede to their demand that information about an employer be shared with Filipino authorities prior to a maid’s departure for the kingdom.
It is not uncommon for foreign domestic workers and those in the construction sector to be at the receiving end of labor malpractices−such as salary reductions imposed by recruitment agencies. According to a report by Migrante-Middle East, “between five to seven out of 10 Filipino domestic workers deployed in Saudi Arabia were victims of salary downgrading and contract substitution.”
It is these irregularities that require Saudi authorities’ dire attention. On July 10, the country’s Labor Ministry issued guidelines for the establishment of new labor recruitment companies in a bid to regulate the hiring of foreign workers. This, human rights organizers said, was part of Saudi efforts to address international concern about the maltreatment of domestic workers.
However, another effort seems to be under way that has the potential for embarrassing the Kingdom down the road: Saudi authorities have indicated they will look toward other nations to recruit domestic workers−Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh. In other words, they intend to recruit domestic workers from other developing nations where labor laws are lax and there is a dire need for foreign remittances.
(According to a recent report in The Guardian newspaper, Saudi Arabia was the source of $17 billion of such remittances.) Compare Filipino government demands that its workers receive $400 a month as a minimum wage with the Vietnamese, who are willing to settle for $130 as a monthly wage, and one gets a sense of the economic desperation felt by some countries.
Clearly, ways must be found to resolve the issue of maltreatment, and the solutions must be based on social justice.
Among other things, Saudi authorities need to assuage fears that domestic workers in the kingdom won’t have access to legal recourse−as it stands, no one in the country has much confidence that domestic workers would receive a fair hearing. Saudi authorities should allow workers to approach the courts with cases against their employers. A sense of accountability needs to be in place.
Governments from developing nations that export labor to the kingdom also need to find better ways to ensure their workers are represented diplomatically and legally, even if this means increasing their embassy staff presence.
It would be grossly unfair for Saudi authorities to throw into the mix its ambitious “Saudization” plans, as it has a responsibility to ensure all workers are treated fairly when they are in the Kingdom.
(Muna Khan, Senior Correspondent of Al Arabiya English, can be reached at email@example.com.)