Last week, Human Rights Watch issued a paper on the mistreatment of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

It should be noted that such abuse is not limited to Saudi, nor only with Arabs.

Last week a maid accused a former Philippine envoy to the United Nations of taking her passport away and keeping her locked up. The woman involved is not illiterate: she is a trained RN nurse, and the job was in New York City. She is now suing the envoy in US court, and feminist groups are backing her.

So abuse can occur to those working for Christians in New York City.

Last year on my other blog, I reported the story of Philippine maids during the short war in Lebanon who were locked inside and jumped from windows to escape the bombing of Beruit. And last week, 17 domestic helpers were freed from  a visting family at a Belgium hotel after one escaped and complained of being restricted by their employers.

Usually the Philippine embassy or the embassies of their countries tries to arrange for these women to go to safe houses until the paper work can be done to send them home. But often these women, who sought overseas employment to support their extended family, are loath to go home and face dire poverty. They would prefer to change jobs.

But with “contract” hiring, that means that leaving their job is a crime in some countries. This means if you don’t fulfill your contract, you are “stealing” from your employer, who went to the time and energy to get you a visa and pay your airfare. So you could end up in jail as a thief.

To put it into perspective, some people do sign up for one job, and once in a country, flee elsewhere to get a better paying job. But in some cultures, the maids are part of the family, and like children can be locked up if naughty, and punished if they don’t follow rules.

Alas, sometimes maids are considered as personal possessions: some are being preyed upon sexually by the employers or their sons. Again, some of this is probably agreeable to those involved, but there are too many charges of coercion and violence in relationships to see all such relationships as acceptable.
Sexual abuse of female employees is worldwide, and not only with maids, as this Human Rights memo about women hired as “entertainers” in Japan being forced into prostitution notes.
The reason that Saudi Arabia has been singled out for such abuse is because their legal system makes it difficult if not impossible for mistreated women employees to be treated fairly. Some of these women in Saudi find they may be accused of crimes if they attempt to leave their job.

From HRW: 

Human Rights Watch said that rather than seeing their abusers brought to justice, domestic workers are more likely to face counter-accusations of witchcraft, theft, or adultery. And in such cases, domestic workers often face severe delays in getting access to interpreters, legal aid, or consular assistance, or are denied help….

“Many of the women I talked to did not file complaints for fear of countercharges,” Varia said. “In other cases, they dropped the charges against their abusers, even if they had a strong case, because otherwise they would be stuck in an overcrowded shelter for years, away from their families and unable to work, and with very little chance of ultimately getting justice.”

Human Rights watch has suggestions for the Saudi government to improve the situation for these workers, mainly legal changes such as orientation classes so women are aware of their rights and responsibilities, and instructions on how to use bank accounts. They also recommend that the government place the domestic workers under the umbrella of labor laws, so that they have legal recourse if overworked or denied wages.

They also are encouraging Labor union organizations to write standards for domestic workers in all countries.

Luckily, for most Pinays, their employers in Saudi Arabia treat them well– as I noted above, often they are considered part of an extended family, taken on vacations, and cared for by those who care for them and their welfare. And it is because of these good reports that other Pinays are happy to find work in Saudi or other Middle Eastern countries.

The difference between Saudi and other Middle Eastern countries is that in Saudi, the legal system is behind the times and legal means to protect these women’s rights need to be implemented:

The Saudi government has shown some concern about abuse against domestic workers, as demonstrated by the creation of shelters by the Ministry of Social Affairs, proposals to amend the Labor Code, and public service messages about better treatment of domestic workers. But much more systematic and social change is required.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She blogs about human rights in Africa at MakaipaBlog. 

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