The Human Rights Report on the abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, which was released on July 8, did not contain any surprises for me.
I have long written about the many abuses faced by mostly female maids in Saudi Arabia, and my former newspaper Arab News has consistently highlighted the plight of these abused women.
The report highlights the fact that many domestic workers face regular abuse from their employers such as delayed or unpaid salaries, unfair salary deductions, confinement in the workplace, no days off, no communication allowed either with families back home or their diplomatic missions, and most serious of all physical, sexual and mental abuse.
Unsurprisingly, the reaction of Saudi officials was not positive at all, and no one wanted to admit that there is a problem, let alone take any responsibility for it.
Suhaila Hammad of the National Society for Human Rights told the Associated Press that it was in fact Saudis themselves who were suffering from the presence of foreign workers in the kingdom: "They smuggle drugs, they turn apartments into liquor factories, they practice prostitution, they steal and sometimes they kill," she said.
"It's true that some of the workers suffer, but we also as a society are suffering from them too," she added.
At least Zuhair Al-Harithy, spokesman of the Human Rights Commission, admitted to Arab News that the facts in the HRW report were true, even if he felt the severity of the problem was being exaggerated.
Saudi Arabia is now studying a proposal to remove the current sponsorship system which only allows in foreign workers if they are sponsored by individual Saudis or companies. If the system were changed, domestic workers would be sponsored by recruitment agencies instead of individual employers. This might be an improvement over the current situation, but as HRW recommends, if this system is adopted then an inspection body should be set up to monitor agencies and if need be punish them when they exploit workers.
HRW is calling for the Labor Law to be extended to domestic workers, so that abused workers can file complaints with labor courts; make sure all domestic workers get one day off a week; put limits on how many hours they can work every day, and allow them access to phones and their diplomatic missions, among many other recommendations.
In the end domestic workers just to be treated as human beings. Nothing more, nothing less.