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For Saudi Arabia's foreign domestic workers, employers' word is virtually law

The execution of Sri Lankan maid Rizana Nafeek, accused of strangling a baby she was caring for, highlights the lack of legal protections for foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

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Women shout slogans during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Friday, condemning the execution of Sri Lankan domestic worker Rizana Nafeek in Saudi Arabia. Foreign domestic workers in Saudi Arabia have few legal protections, and are vulnerable to abuse by employers and authorities.

Eranga Jayawardena/AP

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Saudi Arabia’s execution Wednesday of a Sri Lankan maid, charged at age 17 with killing a baby left in her care, highlights the often abysmal conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of foreigners who come to the kingdom to serve as drivers, maids, and gardeners.

With as many as 1.5 million foreigners employed as domestic workers, Saudi Arabia represents one of the world's largest markets for such help. But it is by no means the most hospitable. Domestic workers log more time on the job – 63.7 hours per week – than those in any other sector in the country, yet they are afforded none of the protections granted to other employees, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report issued yesterday.

Employers, who routinely take their domestic workers’ passports upon arrival to prevent any attempts at escape, can require them to work an unlimited number of hours per week. While workers make enough to send millions back to their families in remittances, they are not legally entitled to weekly rest or paid leave, and there is no minimum wage requirement. Human Rights Watch and others have documented beatings, rape, and effective slavery, with some employers withholding payment all together.

“To the best of my knowledge, the foreigners do not have any rights or protections under Saudi law, which is one reason why it’s desirable to have them,” says Thomas Lippman, author of “Saudi Arabia on the Edge: The Uncertain Future of an American Ally.”

“They’re not going to organize or make trouble because they can immediately be deported or, for that matter, put to the sword.”

'Woe unto them'

The ILO has highlighted the vulnerability of domestic workers worldwide, whose numbers have grown by 50 percent – to at least 52.6 million – in the past two decades. A vast majority – more than 80 percent – of those workers are women, and many don’t even have a high school diploma.

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With the exception of Jordan, the Middle East as a whole is notorious for not affording enough legal protections to domestic workers; some 99 percent of workers fall outside the jurisdiction of existing labor laws, the ILO estimates. While Lebanon, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have taken some steps to improve their conditions, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most precarious places for them to work.

“If you go into a Saudi supermarket – you’ll see small groups of Filipino women and they’re chatting with each other and if they have decent jobs … they’re OK,” says Mr. Lippman, who covered Saudi Arabia for many years as a journalist and frequently returns. “But woe unto them if they fall afoul of the system.”

That’s not just because they’re foreign, he contends. After all, foreigners make up roughly 90 percent of Saudi Arabia’s workforce – only a fraction of them engaged as domestic workers. Instead, their mistreatment – including the execution of the maid today – often stems from cultural, ethnic, or racial prejudices. “Had she been British, she would have been put on a plane long before now,” says Lippman.

'Out of step'

Amnesty International condemned the execution of Rizana Nafeek, whose trial was widely seen as flawed. She maintained that the baby choked while she was bottling-feeding him. Earlier this week, Amnesty International said that “a disproportionate number of foreign nationals, mainly migrant workers from countries in the global South, have been executed in Saudi Arabia over recent years.”

“Despite a chorus of pleas for Saudi Arabian authorities to step in and reconsider Rizana Nafeek’s death sentence, they went ahead and executed her anyway, proving once more how woefully out of step they are with their international obligations regarding the use of the death penalty,” said Philip Luther, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program. 

Of the two main English newspapers in Saudi Arabia, the more mainstream Arab News did not even mention Ms. Nafeek’s execution today, instead choosing to cover everything from new jobs programs for people with special needs to residency and work-permit violators who were caught selling hot and cold beverages to truck drivers in Jeddah.

The more edgy Saudi Gazette featured the maid’s story prominently but focused mainly on Sri Lanka’s anger over the incident. It did note, however, that an Indonesia maid also faces the death penalty for killing a child, and an Ethiopian maid is being investigated for trying to kill her sponsor’s son.

While advocates for labor reform face an uphill battle in Saudi, there is at least more of a collective awareness of the problem now than even 15 years ago, says Lippman.

Nafeek’s story was the second most-viewed article on the Saudi Gazette website yesterday evening.

One reader identifying himself as Abu Sabri, decried her “unjust” killing. “Rizana survived a war, and the tsunami. Abject poverty made her leave her family to work as a housemaid to support her family…. Why would she kill a baby a few days after her coming unless she was insane. Then she is not guilty…. This is not justice. Rizana has been killed unjustly!!!!”


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