On 19 September, an article published by Al Jazeera revealed the plight of Vietnamese migrants who spent months living and working under harsh conditions in Saudi Arabia while employed as domestic worker or maids. The interviewees recounted how they had their passports confiscated by their employers upon arrival, and were provided only one meal a day while ordered to work 18-hour shifts. Furthermore, physical assault and abuse at the hands of their employers was common.
Pham Thi Dao, a former domestic worker in the port city of Yanbu, said in the interview, “We didn’t ask for much, just no starvation, no beatings, and three meals per day. If we had that, we would not have begged for rescue.” Another Vietnamese worker, Trinh Thi Linh, discussed how her second employer in Riyadh was far worse than the first: “I didn’t even have sanitary pads and was forced to wash their feet and give them massages. At one point, she would throw out the leftover food rather than let me have it… …After three months, I went from 74kg to 53kg. I was frustrated, panicked, frequently suffering from insomnia, and the only thing I could do was to cry.”
The Saudi Arabian Labour Ministry and its embassy in Hanoi have remained silent in the wake of these reports. Nguyen Thi Mai Thuy, the national project coordinator for the ASEAN Triangle Program at Vietnam’s International Labour Office (ILO), spoke of the lack of external communication channels regarding domestic work environment. “What happens inside [the home] remains inside. It becomes very difficult for the workers to prove that they are maltreated, overworked, beaten or even sexually assaulted… …The execution of the law after all still favors the Saudi employers – the sponsors rather than the workers themselves,” she said.
Unfortunately, these accounts of such slave-like working conditions mirror many others in the migrant domestic worker community across the Gulf states, and have been going on for many years. According to the ILO, women make up 73.4 percent (approximately 8.5 million) of the world’s migrant domestic workers. The promise of higher wages lure these migrants from South, Southeast Asian, and African countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Ethiopia.
The paramount problem is the abuse of the Kafala (“sponsorship”) system, the employment framework for migrant workers used by the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates), Lebanon, and Jordan. The system requires that employed migrant workers’ visas be legally bound to a sponsor who is a citizen, thus giving the employer legal abilities to possess significant control over the worker. Without the employer’s approval, workers cannot quit jobs, switch jobs, or leave the country. If questioned, the employer can threaten the worker with the cancellation of their residency visa, turning them into an illegal resident, which will result in detention and deportation. Thus, this system has facilitated the exploitation of domestic labor, where employers are known to confiscate personal documents, withhold payments, restrict movement, and engage in physical, psychological, and sexual violence with little fear of consequence or recourse.
One shocking case emerged in 2010 of Indonesian housemaid Sumiati Binti Mustapa, 23, who was severely abused by her Saudi employer. After putting a hot iron to her head, mutilating her with scissors, and leaving her with broken bones and internal bleeding, the offender was only sentenced to three years in jail. In another incident in 2014, a Sri Lankan maid returned from Saudi Arabia with 24 nails inside her body. The woman alleged that her Saudi employer tortured her and drove nails into her as punishment. Although it cannot be assumed that all GCC countries’ employers are abusive, and that all migrant domestic workers experience such ill-fated circumstances, these reports certainly demonstrate the need for more effective solutions to improve workers’ and women’s rights.
So far, the Gulf states have enacted little reform to improve and protect the rights of migrant domestic workers. Human Rights Watch has expressed concern over previous efforts to curb such abuse by countries like the Philippines, which imposed a migration ban for Filipino workers to Kuwait and other Middle Eastern countries. Such efforts only force the desperate to resort to more dangerous and unregulated channels of movement such as human trafficking, which leaves them even more vulnerable to abuse.
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