Women Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia
While migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have generally been on the rise, the percentage of women that venture to the oil-rich country in order to make more money than they can earn in their home countries has been notably increasing over the past decade.. While some have found the financial success that they were looking, many others have instead found themselves trapped in desperate situations with no one to turn to. While most countries that depend on Saudi oil refrain from criticising the kingdom on their human rights abuses, international organisations such as The United Nations, the International Labour Organization and Human Rights Watch have alerted the international community to the dire situation of migrant women workers in the country.
The majority of women migrant workers in Saudi Arabia come from Indonesia and The Philippines. Beginning in the early 1980s, in response to the rapid growth of wealth in Saudi Arabia, the monarchy began to put policies into place to recruit large amounts of foreign workers to do the type of work that most Saudis consider to be beneath them. The Indonesian government, for example, also enacted policies to help facilitate the migration of their women citizens to Saudi Arabia with the hope that it would alleviate their unemployment problems and also help their economy through remittances. Private agents from Middle Eastern countries began to come to Indonesia to recruit able-bodied women for ill-defined jobs. Such recruitments resulted in 55,976 recorded migrant workers (male and female) that left Indonesia for Saudi Arabia between 1980 and 1984. In 1990, women represented almost 34% of the migrants with almost 80% of them leaving to become domestic servants. Additionally, many women and men try to avoid the complexities of the formal process and instead go through intermediaries that work in their villages and help them illegally enter Saudi Arabia so exact numbers are difficult to determine.
Many of these women leave their impoverished situations with the hope of earning enough money in Saudi Arabia to send back to their families and while that is the case for many, they are still legally unprotected from their employers once they have arrived. While the Saudi Arabian government provides guidebooks about their rights to newly arrived workers, most women do not understand Arabic and even if they do, they quickly realise that they do not actually have that many rights. A report produced by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (Migrant workers in SAUDI ARABIA) in March 2003 noted that migrant workers made up 50% of the Saudi workforce. Women, in particular those coming from Indonesia and Philippines, often work as domestic servants.
Hopeful migrant workers come to Saudi Arabia legally under a sponsorship system in which they are invited by their employer - whether it is a company, the state or an individual. Once they arrive in the country, migrant workers are at the mercy of their sponsors who frequently detain their passports, limit their mobility and have full authority over whether the migrant worker can change jobs or even leave the country. A 2004 report by the International Labour Organization notes that in 2000, over 19,000 domestic workers ran away from their employers due to not being paid and being mistreated. Additionally, in a country where sexual activities outside of marriage are considered to be a major offense in the eyes of the law, many domestic workers report being sexually abused and raped by their employers. While the embassies and the Saudi government receive thousands of complaints a year from domestic workers, the actual number is estimated to be much higher given that most of these migrant workers are completely cut off from the world outside their employer’s home.
For unskilled workers, legal action against their employers is nearly impossible and their ability to escape can be difficult. As noted, employers frequently confiscate their employees’ passport and if a migrant worker is stopped outside the home without proper documentation, they can be arrested as undocumented aliens and forced to pay a large sum.Whether arrested for not having documentation or on other grounds, foreign workers in Saudi Arabia are often held for long periods where they are mistreated and deprived of legal counsel and the ability to contact their consulate. They are often held without knowing the charges and many have been tricked into signing confessions that they do not understand due to the language barrier. The only option for these workers if they are mistreated by their employers is to contact their embassy to see if they can resolve the issue with their employer. This can result in a long process during which the employee may not be paid and is not able to return to his/her home country.
As many workers fear these consequences, they often choose to run away to one of the safe houses that are operated by the embassies. Once in these shelters, women are unable to leave or to use cell phones and they often end up staying for months before being able to return home or being returned to their employers. Human Rights Watch reported that in July of 2007, the shelter run by the Indonesian embassy housed 500 women. Unfortunately, the women living in the squalor of the shelters are lucky compared to some of the other migrant workers in the country. Stories and reports of the mistreatment of these women have been trickling out over the years without bringing much change. An article published by Human Rights Watch in 2007 tells of the shocking killing of two Indonesian domestic workers by their employers which also left two other domestic workers in a critical condition. The Saudi family justified their actions by claiming that the four servants had practiced black magic on their son. The same article also interviewed Sri Lankan domestic workers who were sentenced to prison and lashings after being raped and impregnated by their employers. A more recent article published by The Guardian in June 2011 tells of the execution of an Indonesian maid who killed her boss after he tried to rape her. Due to extreme mistreatment, sexual abuse and forced isolation, some of the migrant workers resort to desperate measures when they realise that they have no legal way out of their circumstances and are denied permission to leave Saudi Arabia.
A need for change
While reports and articles have been written over the years about the plight of female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, not much has been done to improve the situation. When it was requested requested that the Saudi Arabian government provide health insurance for maids and background information on their future employers before Filipinas depart for Saudi Arabia, their requests were promptly denied. Philippines government also refused a decrease of the minimum wage for domestic workers which resulted in a hiring freeze of maids from Philippines. In addition, the Indonesian government stopped the migration of their citizens to Saudi Arabia after one of their citizens was executed. While these governments attempt to improve the treatment and protection of their citizens in Saudi Arabia by stopping the flow of their unskilled workers to the country, the reality is that these efforts typically do not last very long. Such countries rely on the remittances provided by their foreign workers and Saudi Arabia is a huge source of this cash flow. While international organisations and NGOs have also put pressure on the Saudi government to improve domestic worker conditions, it is important for them to increase the visibility of abuses and mistreatments and to engage more powerful governments such as The United States or Germany in the effort to protect female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Women need more help in the form of legal protection and access to services during their stay. If the international community can push the Saudi government to make these changes, a large improvement in women’s rights could be achieved.
- Female Migration
- Women and Migration
- Filipina Migration
- Gender Equality in Saudi Arabia
- Sexual Segregation and Male Guardianship in Saudi Arabia
- Women migrants' remittances
- ↑ Rachel Silvey, “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia,” Political Geography 23 (2004) 245–264.
- ↑ The Economist, “Migrant workers in Saudi Arabia: Beheading the Golden Goose,” 3 July 2011.
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 Rachel Silvey, “Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia,” Political Geography 23 (2004) 245–264.
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 International Labour Organization, Edited by Simel Esim & Monica Smith, “Gender and migration in Arab states: the case of domestic workers,” June 2004
- ↑ United Nations Report of the Secretary-General: “Violence against women,” July 21, 2005
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 International Federation for Human Rights, Migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, March 2003, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/46f146bf0.html [accessed 27 June 2011]
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 7.2 Human Rights Watch News: “Saudi Arabia: Migrant Domestics Killed by Employers,” August 17, 2007
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 Jason Burke, “Saudi Arabian torment of migrant workers at mercy of abusive 'madams,'” guardian.co.uk, June 25, 2011