The culture shock of being a domestic helper in Arabia
A translation of my column that originally appeared in Portuguese in O Globo on 31/01/12
The recent news that Indonesian maids had escaped the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, after killing the children of their employers or by practicing black magic, made me curious to know why there was this movement now.
Arab countries, especially the Gulf ones, have been major importers of domestic workers coming from the Philippines, Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, since the 1980s. They face a big culture shock, especially in Saudi Arabia, far from their families in an ultraconservative country with a difficult language, and with almost no contact with their compatriots.
They are not covered by labor laws, because they work in homes; work many hours a day; generally do not have a day off, and are often victims of abuse and physical aggression. Moreover, they often receive their salaries late. All this is a recipe for depression, mental illness, and grudges that are sometimes discounted on their mistresses and their children.
Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia seems to be the champion in maid troubles, as it hosts the largest number of foreign workers in the Gulf. It is estimated that six million foreigners live in the kingdom, with a million Indonesians, 1.3 million Filipinos, a million Egyptians and a million Pakistanis, among others. Most Indonesians work as domestic servants and chauffeurs, and 200,000 Filipinos work as maids.
The Saudi press has documented domestic abuse in the country, especially the newspapers published in English aimed at foreigners living in the country. But despite these awareness campaigns, the reality remains that many maids are still treated as quasi-slaves by certain people in the country. Officers rarely take the side of domestic disputes with their employers.
It is important to remember that the mistreatment of domestic workers is not unique to Arabs, given the numerous cases of mistreatment of Filipinos and Indonesians working in Hong Kong and Singapore.
In the twenty years that I worked as a journalist in Saudi Arabia, the most amazing abuse I found was that of a woman from the Philippines, Leonora Somera, who was hired in 1987 to work as a maid in the house of a Saudi family in Riyadh. Soon after, in 1988, she was taken to take care of the goats that the family had at a small farm in the mountains in the south. Living there alone, Leonora endured the cold and loneliness for 18 years without being paid regularly and was repeatedly detained by police. The Philippine Consulate in Jeddah finally rescued Leonora from her misery in 2007, and helped to return her home. Her employer owed her the equivalent of almost R$30,000 in unpaid wages.
The NGO Human Rights Watch has documented the ill-treatment of household workers in the Arab world, and has been campaigning to improve the working conditions for them. Nisha Varia, a senior researcher at HRW in the area of women’s rights, told me that the Indonesian government was forced to make strong appeals to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to save the lives of Indonesian maids sentenced to death for killing or practicing black magic.
“There was an orchestrated campaign by groups of migrants from Indonesia to raise awareness about the plight of Indonesians in Saudi Arabia. These campaigns gained momentum after the execution of Ruyati Sabupi Binti, a domestic worker, 54-years-old, in June 2011,” said Varia.
Earlier in 2010, an Indonesian domestic was brutally beaten and tortured by her employer in Saudi Arabia. Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, 23, arrived at a Madinah hospital with burns all over her body and broken bones. Police charged her mistress and the case went to trial. In a landmark decision, a judge sentenced her mistress to three years in prison. Unfortunately, after a few months, another judge overturned the decision, citing lack of evidence, and her boss was released.
Countries like Indonesia and the Philippines have attempted to stop sending domestic workers to Saudi Arabia because of ill-treatment. The Philippines has tried to require a minimum wage of $400 per month for their employees (in a country where there is no minimum wage), and that Saudi employers give their workers cell phones and provide maps of their homes, but all in vain.
The reality is that the economies of both countries rely heavily on remittances from its workers abroad. Filipinos working abroad sent a record $18.3 billion to the Philippines in 2011 with $1.7 billion sent from Saudi Arabia alone. Indonesians in the Kingdom sent home $759 million in 2010, or 44% of all remittances of Indonesians in the world.
Despite the many problems they face the kingdom, Indonesians and Filipinos will continue to seek employment there as domestic servants. What we can do is hope that they are included in labor laws and that the abuses committed by employers are actually punished by the courts of the country.