Death and Domesticity:The Plight of Saudi Migrant Workers

They say history is doomed to repeat itself. I agree, but I also believe history runs parallel courses in various parts of the world because people fail to learn from their mistakes and realize the consequences of their actions.

Take slavery for example. Most people would say slavery is relatively non-existent as it was outlawed by the United States Constitution and other legislative documents and international law. Slavery is a thing of the past, a lecture in history class, a theme in Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huckleberry Finn, one of the reasons we fought the Civil War between the North and South.

Sadly, slavery has not vanished from the Earth. It is alive and well, breathing its disgusting breath down the necks of poor, desperate people caught up in human and sex trafficking, migrant work, pornography, sweatshops and child labor. It’s an underground, invisible institution that is slowly coming to light.

One particularly distressing issues is that of migrant workers in the Middle East. They are to the Middle East what Mexican illegal immigrants are to the United States–forged paperwork, hidden identities, forced trafficking and a belittling, subhuman status in society.

Migrant workers in the Middle East come predominantly from Southeast Asia and Africa, eager to send money back to their families as they work for the oil-rich, decadent employers as maids, drivers and cleaners, but Saudi Arabia is a very popular destination. Approximately 1.5 million migrant women, primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, are employed as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, according to Human Rights Watch.

Human rights are checked at the door and migrant workers quickly learn things aren’t going to be as comfy as they thought. Most are promised better jobs than they expect and find out they were tricked. Abuse, blackmail, withholding passports and death are only some of the horrors migrant workers endure in their new lives where they are subject to a completely foreign culture, people, laws and language.

The Saudi legal system is complex, intimidating and unresponsive to the needs of migrant workers. There are no legal protections offered to workers that outline working hours, payment or rest. The kafala system or sponsorship system is a common practice in the Gulf states that ties the worker’s status to their employer’s will. A worker cannot enter or leave the country, find work or move freely within the country without the expressed authorization of their sponsoring family. They are considered undocumented, unrecognized domestic workers so any normal worker’s rights are not afforded to migrant workers.

Ironically, kafala in Islamic law refers to the guardianship of orphans until they reach the age of majority, a pledge to take care of the child while not cutting ties to their true biological family. Considering the high honor placed on looking out of orphans in the Quran, you wouldn’t expect such a system to be now linked to human rights violations.

Kuwait recently moved to abolish the system, with words by the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, Mohammed Al-Afasi that kafala is rife with “oppression and injustice, especially by some employers.” The same reform initiatives need to happen in Saudi Arabia as well.

Here are just a few of recent abuse cases:

  • Global Post covered the case of Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan girl accused of killing her employer’s 4-month old baby at age 17 and who is now facing the death penalty in Saudi Arabia’s court. Rizana only speaks Tamil and says she was forced to sign a confession at the police station, was given no legal representation and was convicted just on her “confession.”
  • Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, a maid from Indonesia was brutally beat, mutilated and scalded in Saudi Arabia by her employers.  Now, many in Indonesia are calling out for a halt of migrant workers sent to Saudi or at least better protection against such violence. However, as an article from The Jakarta Post notes, the Indonesian government “must engage in consistent and active diplomacy to protect Indonesian migrant workers and prevent their abuse.”
  • Al-Jazeera featured Filipino maid workers’ abuse in the Middle East as well as the story of Romilyn Eroy-Ybanez, a Filipino maid killed in Saudi Arabia in September 2010.

The list obviously goes on and on, but what can be done about this?

Mideast Youth created a great watchdog website, Migrant Rights, to raise awareness about migrant rights, document cases of abuse and advocate for just laws. The site has numerous resources on how to get involved further.

“It’s not enough for us just to be appalled and to shrug it off, saying that our actions can never achieve change. Even if you just write to your local paper, MP, government or embassy then that goes some way towards breaking down the taboo of discussing the human rights of migrants.”

Muslims are taught to treat their neighbors, workers and servants with respects. To see this kind of violation of human rights in so-called Muslim countries is unbelievable and outrageous. Where is the respect for humanity? Where is the respect for the poor and needy? These migrant workers hold that country up with their hard labor and do the tasks that none of the Saudis want to do or are able to, yet they treat them like dirt.It’s sad how easily money can be used to cover up atrocity, how immorality can be bought away with prestige.

We need to hold those in power accountable for their actions and work towards creating legitimate migration processes, just laws and respectable working and living conditions for migrants. Don’t let slavery reign in our modern era of justice and civility. There’s no excuse.

December 18th is International Migrants Day. Report, report, report.

UPDATE: Human Rights Watch just released a 48 page report on violations of migrant rights in the US, Middle East, Asia, Europe, and Africa. You can download and purchase a print of the full report.

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