Dignity in manual labor

Young Saudi men clean a bathroom in a municipality of Al-Baha in Saudi Arabia.

Young Saudi men clean a bathroom in a municipality of Al-Baha in Saudi Arabia.

This column was printed in Arab News on March 27, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

There has been a long-held belief that Saudis cannot engage in manual labor such as being car mechanics, cashiers in stores or even cleaners. While there has never been a law decreeing such a ban, during the oil boom years from the 1980s and onward, there became installed in the minds of many foreigners, and Saudis themselves, that manual labor was beneath the dignity of all Saudis. The reasoning was that these jobs often made the person hot and dirty, were unpleasant, and paid poorly.

The stereotype that reigned was that every Saudi male, whether he was qualified or not, wanted to be a “mudeer” (boss/manager) and get a fat salary for sitting behind a desk in some ministry, drinking lots of tea and working little. With our ever-expanding population Saudis who did not have a university degree, and especially Saudi women, began looking for more work opportunities, which led many to these less than managerial jobs out of sheer necessity to make ends meet and pay the bills. Soon we began seeing young Saudis working in fast-food restaurants and Saudi women hired as cashiers at a major supermarket chain. This was a pleasant development that all found needful and rightful.

With our ongoing Saudization program to get more Saudis into gainful employment, our government has forced certain sectors to only hire Saudis. The latest work sector to be affected by this program has been cellphone shops that had been staffed predominantly until now by expatriates. One area that had never before hired Saudis was the cleaning one. Recently a town in Baha caused a small controversy when one of its officials declared that Saudis could not be hired as cleaners. His words implied that cleaning jobs were beneath the dignity of Saudis. This caused uproar among foreign workers in the Kingdom who noted that it was ridiculous that any category of work should be forbidden to Saudis for being too dirty or allegedly humiliating.

The sad fact is that so many foreigners believe that we Saudis were all born in golden cradles and have never had to fight for anything in our lives. Many of the younger Saudi generations must also believe this, especially those born after the 1970s. But we must remember that before the oil boom we were a poor country that did not have much wealth. Who do you think cleaned bathrooms in this country in the 1950s until the 1970s? Saudis of course! We did not have enough resources before that to import labor to do tasks such as clean the streets or work in restaurants.

All honest work, whether physical or mental, should be honored. Most Saudis have finally realized that not everyone can be a director and get a large salary for little work. I think they realize that to get somewhere in life requires hard work, studying and determination. Without these they won’t get very far. We must stop acting so surprised when we see Saudis working in jobs that we never thought they would ever accept. Economic necessity is having a good effect in the sense that is opening the eyes of younger Saudis that everything will not continue to be given to them on a plate. They will have to struggle for what they want, and they have already started to do so.


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.

Filipino shepardess returns home!

THE 66-year-old Filipino shepherdess, Leonora Somera, who was stranded in Saudi Arabia for 18 years is finally back in the Philippines, according to this Arab News story.

I interviewed her last year at the Philippine Consulate shelter in Jeddah, and my resulting story in Arab News helped make her a cause celebre.

The poor woman told me that she was owed SR63,000 ($16,800) in back wages after her employer Misfer Al-Ghamdi moved her from Riyadh to the remote mountain region of Al-Baha, where she spent her days alone tending to the family’s herd of goats. Ghamdi and his family lived in Makkah so that their children could go to school, and only visited Somera during holidays. She was paid irregularly, thus racking up the big amount that her sponsor owed her.

Somera ended up in the Jeddah deportation center despite her sponsor’s son having signed papers allowing her to leave the country, and after giving her only the pittance of SR2,000–pleading that his father was too ill to cough up the rest of the money!

After two weeks in a notoriously hellish place, Somera landed in Manila on Friday and is only today being reunited with her daughter in Nueva Ecija.

A bank account was opened in her name last year to collect donations for her. I have asked for an update on the total amount. I just hope it’s enough to help Somera live out the rest of her life in relative comfort at home with her loved ones.

Stranded Filipino Shepherdess Gives Up SR63,000, Wants to Go Home

JEDDAH, 26 August 2007 — It may sound incredible, but a Filipino woman who was hired by a Saudi family in 1987 as a domestic helper is now stranded at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah after working as a shepherdess for 18 years in Al-Baha and weathering unpaid salaries, ice storms and being arrested several times by the police.

“I want to go home as I don’t want to die here,” said Leonora Somera, aged 65, in an interview with Arab News yesterday. “My employer still owes me SR63,000 in back wages, but since it seems he cannot afford to pay me that amount, I’m ready to just go home.”

Misfer Al-Ghamdi became Somera’s sponsor after his father died in early 1988. Somera had joined the family in Riyadh in December of 1987, but after her sponsor died she moved to Al-Baha with her sponsor’s son, his wife and children. There they left her in a large house to look after their goats, while they moved to Makkah for the education of their children.

“I never dreamed that this would happen to me,” the Nueva Ecija native said. “In the Philippines I was working as a bus conductor when my husband died. With a six-year-old daughter to support alone, I had no choice but to seek my fortune abroad. It was a colleague who suggested I apply to work as a maid in Saudi Arabia.”

Left on her own to tend to 42 goats, Somera had to take them up the mountain every morning for grazing and then bring them down in the evening. Her utter isolation was only broken by occasional chats with Filipino nurses who lived nearby and infrequent phone calls from her relatives back home. “The family I worked for only came to Baha during the school holidays. It was then that my sponsor would give me small amounts of money,” she recounted, noting that her monthly salary was only SR500.

Somera said that she occasionally had arguments with Al-Ghamdi over her delayed salaries, but to no avail. She estimates that she was only able to send home SR38,000 in the 18 years she lived in the Kingdom. At times she was so hard up for cash that she was forced to sell some of her goats.

“I ate plenty of fresh fruits, but I don’t like the taste of goat so I couldn’t eat any of my animals. Instead I had chicken,” she explained.

Although the cold weather of Al-Baha forced Somera to constantly wear sweaters and woolen socks, she said she never really felt that lonely there. “I didn’t get lonely though I was alone in the house. I would watch TV in the evenings — but it only had Arabic channels,” she explained.

Despite not feeling lonely, the shepherdess said that she had several run-ins with the authorities who were surprised to see a foreign woman tending to goats in such a remote area. “The police held me several times because I had no iqama or passport with me, but they always released me after I explained that my sponsor lived in Makkah and that this was my only livelihood,” Somera explained.

Asked why she did not run away sooner, Somera said that she was scared to do so because of the remoteness of where she lived. “I could have asked the Filipino nurses to help me, but they were too afraid that the police would blame them later for helping me escape,” she said.

But with Somera’s sponsor heading fast toward bankruptcy, the shepherdess felt increasingly desperate at making ends meet.

She finally put out an appeal through the Filipino community that she wanted to be rescued, and a consular team visiting Al-Baha in December 2005 managed to rescue her and bring her to the center for runaway maids at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah.

Twenty months later, Somera is still waiting to go home. After the consulate helped her file a case with the labor court against her employer to try and get back some of her owed wages, Al-Ghamdi never appeared in court and showed up only once at the consulate in Jeddah.

“He came and spoke to me more than a year ago,” said Philippine Consul General Pendosina Lomondot yesterday. “He pleaded insolvency and gave SR7,000 for Somera. We have never heard from him since.”

Now, even though Somera is ready to go home without having recovered all of her back pay, Lomondot said that she cannot leave until the labor court issues her permission to do so.

“We have to take her to the labor court in Makkah and file the undertaking that she is giving up on her claim,” explained Welfare Officer Abdurajik “Jake” Samain.

Somera’s daughter is now an adult, aged 24, and works in a hotel in Manila.

“Please help me go home,” Somera told this reporter yesterday, “I want to see my daughter.”

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