'Domestic workers in Saudi Arabia subjected to severe abuse'

Human Rights Watch alleges that some cases amount to slavery, as well as sexual violence and lashings for spurious charges of theft or "witchcraft."

saudi arabia  224.88 (photo credit: AP)
saudi arabia 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Domestic workers in Saudi Arabia are often subjected to abuse that in some cases amounts to slavery, as well as sexual violence and lashings for spurious charges of theft or "witchcraft," a human rights group said Tuesday. A 133-page report released Tuesday by Human Rights Watch urged Saudi Arabia to implement labor, immigration and criminal justice reforms to protect the workers, saying employers often face no punishment for such abuses. The report said that rather than receiving justice, domestic workers - most of them migrants from Asia - are more likely to face counter-accusations of witchcraft, theft or adultery. "In the best cases, migrant women in Saudi Arabia enjoy good working conditions and kind employers, and in the worst they're treated like virtual slaves. Most fall somewhere in between," said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. According to the report, the kingdom employs an estimated 1.5 million domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Nepal. Smaller numbers come from other countries in Asia and from Africa. They are denied rights afforded to other workers under Saudi labor laws, Human Rights Watch said. "The Saudi government should extend labor law protections to domestic workers and reform the visa sponsorship system so that women desperate to earn money for their families don't have to gamble with their lives," Varia said. Suhaila Hammad of Saudi Arabia's National Society for Human Rights dismissed the report as "unfair and one-sided." "I wish that when rights groups do their reports they would listen to both sides of the story," Hammad told The Associated Press. "We're being unjustly portrayed and the crimes against us by the workers are never mentioned." Hammad said crime rates in the kingdom have increased in recent years because of crimes committed by foreign workers. The country is also home to 5.6 million foreign workers employed in sectors such as oil, business and engineering. "They smuggle drugs, they turn apartments into liquor factories, they practice prostitution, they steal and sometimes they kill," she said. "It's true that some of the workers suffer, but we also as a society are suffering from them too," she added. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said its report, "As If I Am Not Human: Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia," concludes two years of research and is based on 142 interviews with domestic workers, senior government officials and labor recruiters in Saudi Arabia and labor-sending countries. While no reliable statistics exist on the exact number of abuse cases, the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs and the embassies of labor-sending countries shelter thousands of domestic workers with complaints against their employers or recruiters each year, the report said. "Excessive workload and unpaid wages, for periods ranging from a few months to 10 years, are among the most common complaints," said the report. "The kingdom's Labor Law excludes domestic workers, denying them rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly rest day and overtime pay." It said many domestic workers must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week. The group said it interviewed dozens of women who said their employers forced them to work against their will for months or years. After interviews with 86 domestic workers, Human Rights Watch concluded that 36 faced abuses that amounted to forced labor, trafficking or slavery-like conditions. "Employers often take away passports and lock workers in the home, increasing their isolation and risk of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse," said the report. "The Saudi government has some good proposals for reform but it has spent years considering them without taking any action," Varia said. "It's now time to make these changes." Human Rights Watch said the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs, in cooperation with the police, operates a shelter in Riyadh to assist domestic workers to claim their wages and return home. However, in many cases shelter staff negotiated unfair wage settlements, often forcing workers to forgo back pay in exchange for their employer's permission to leave the country, it said. "Poor investigations and criminal proceedings that often stretch for years mean that abusive employers are rarely punished through the criminal justice system," said the report. It cited the case of Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker who had her fingers and toes amputated as a result of being starved and beaten daily by her employers. After three years of proceedings, a Riyadh court dropped the charges against her employer despite the employer's confession, ample medical evidence and intense public scrutiny, said the report. The report called on Saudi Arabia "to investigate and punish abusive employers and to protect domestic workers from spurious countercharges." It also urged the kingdom to cooperate more "effectively with labor-sending countries to monitor domestic workers' employment conditions, facilitate rescues, ensure recovery of unpaid wages, create shelters for survivors of abuse with comprehensive support services and arrange for timely repatriation."