Wed, Jul 09, 2008 - Page 6 News List

Saudis use ‘virtual slaves’: HRW report

‘AS IF I AM NOT HUMAN’ As the kingdom’s labor laws exclude domestic workers, many have been forced to work seven days a week, 18 hours a day, without pay


Saudi Arabian families are abusing female migrant workers to the point of slavery and Riyadh needs to respond with sweeping labor and justice reforms, a major rights group said yesterday.

US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report released in Indonesia that many Saudis believed they “owned” their foreign domestic workers and treated them like slaves.

“Saudis treat them like chattel, slaves, like cattle. A domestic worker is like a slave and slaves have no rights,” the report quoted a “senior consular official” with a foreign embassy in the kingdom as saying.

The 133-page report entitled ‘As If I Am Not Human’: Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia, was compiled after two years of research, the group said.

The work included 42 interviews with domestic workers, officials, and labor recruiters in Saudi Arabia and the workers’ countries of origin, it said.

Out of 86 domestic workers interviewed, HRW concluded that 36 faced abuse that amounted to forced labor, trafficking or slavery-like conditions.

Some of the cases were horrific.

“For one year and five months … no salary at all. I asked for money and they would beat me, or cut me with a knife, or burn me,” Sri Lankan domestic worker Ponnamma S was quoted as telling the rights group.

Haima G, a Filipina domestic worker, said her employer called her into his bedroom one day soon after she had arrived and told her she had been “bought” for 10,000 riyals (US$2,700).

“The employer raped me many times. I told everything to madam. The whole family, madam, the employer, they didn’t want me to go. They locked the doors and gates,” she was quoted as saying.

Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, had her fingers and toes amputated as a result of daily beatings and starvation. Charges against her employers were dropped after a three-year legal process, despite a confession.

“Employers often take away passports and lock workers in the home, increasing their isolation and risk of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse,” HRW said in a statement.

It said Saudi labor laws excluded domestic workers, so many were forced to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week — often without pay — for years. Sleeping quarters included closets and bathrooms.

Nisha Varia, HRW’s senior women’s rights researcher, said that in the worst cases the women were “treated like virtual slaves.”

The kingdom’s kafala or “sponsorship” system gave employers control over the workers’ visas, meaning they could refuse to allow domestic staff to change jobs or leave the country.

Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal accounted for the bulk of the women, thousands of whom sought shelter each year at the Saudi social affairs ministry or at their respective embassies.

Varia said conditions in the Sri Lankan and Indonesian shelters were “horrific.”

“I was shocked — you have 200 women in a room that should be for maybe 50 people at the maximum,” she told a press conference.

Few of the abusers were ever brought to justice as migrant women who dared to complain risked counter-charges of adultery, witchcraft or moral degradation, punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and 490 lashes.

The government has spent years considering labor reform “without taking any action,” Varia said.

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