The recent beheading of a foreign domestic servant in Saudi Arabia is just the latest in a horrifying litany of systematic abuse, torture and rape of female workers at the hands of their Saudi employers.
Ruyati binti Satubi, a 54 year-old Indonesian maid, was recently beheaded for killing her female Saudi employer with a meat cleaver. Claiming years of severe physical abuse, Satubi committed the murder when her employer had denied her permission to return home to Indonesia.
Although Satubi’s justification for her actions had no effect on the Saudi court’s decision, it certainly resonated among most of the over 2 million foreign women working as domestic servants in Saudi households.
Many of these women — most of whom hail from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines — have routinely been subjected to emotional, sexual and physical abuse by their Saudi employers.
Sadly, these maids were all recruited by employment agencies in their home countries, but most had little idea where they were going or what would be expected of them, which probably makes sense given what awaited them on their arrival.
Of course, the Saudis have been notorious for the horrid treatment they have directed toward their seven million strong migrant workforce, most of whom have long been subjected to wretched working conditions, physical abuse and unjust imprisonment.
According to a 2008 US State Department report, many unskilled foreign workers in Saudi Arabia — especially domestic workers — had been subjected to “nonpayment of wages, debt bondage, confinement, confiscation of passports, contract switching, intimidation, and physical abuse.”
Not surprisingly, female workers were found to be particularly vulnerable victims. In fact, so widespread is the abuse of domestic servants that some countries — most notably India — no longer allow its citizens to work in Saudi Arabia as housemaids.
Unfortunately, the Saudi’s Islamic judicial system offers no assistance to this horrifying problem. While foreign professionals can seek redress for grievances in Saudi labor courts, unskilled workers –such as housemaids– are not protected by Saudi labor law and therefore have no legal recourse.
The result is that Saudi employers are more often than not given the role of meting out extra judicious punishments. These disciplinary measures have included an Indonesian maid being burned with an iron, beaten and her face and lips cut with scissors; a repatriated Sri Lankan maid having had 24 hot nails embedded into her hands, legs, and forehead; and a 36 year-old Indonesian maid having her neck slashed and her body dumped on a roadside by her employer.
So, in order to escape this living hell, thousands of domestic servants run away from their Saudi employers each year. In 2010 alone, at least 2,800 Sri Lankan housemaids reportedly ran away from their Saudi sponsors, claiming they had been overworked, sexually abused or physically mistreated by jealous wives.
Unfortunately, escape doesn’t guarantee a return trip home since all foreign workers need the consent of their employer or “sponsor” before they can leave the country. Therefore, the runaways are forced to rely on their embassies to resolve the problem.
To that end, shelters for runaway maids have been setup by both the Philippine and Indonesian diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah. According to one Indonesian official, there are currently close to 400 maids at one shelter alone. In fact, the Indonesian embassy is so overloaded with cases of abused workers that it recently hired a full-time Saudi lawyer to deal with all of the criminal cases.
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