A couple of days ago as The Mr. headed out the door I asked him where he was headed for the day. “I’m going to pick up my mother and then I’m taking her to the slave office to order a new slave,” he answered. It was a joke, but the kind with a little bit of ironic truth to it. And it may surprise you to know it’s not the first time I’ve heard the word slave used to refer to (usually African) domestic workers.
According to Human Rights Watch, “More than 8 million migrants work in Saudi Arabia, comprising roughly one-third of its population. They fill critical gaps in the health, construction, and domestic service sectors, and also support their home economies, sending back US$15.6 billion in 2006, approximately 5 percent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product.” A large portion of the migrant workers are domestic helpers, working as housemaids or drivers, and many Saudi households would cease to function without them. Massive homes would not get cleaned and women and children would not make it to work or school without the existence of these workers.
Maids and drivers here are the norm for the majority of families, but the line between employee and servant is all too often crossed, and not many people seem to have a problem with it. As with many other cases in Saudi, people believe that if they can afford to have something, they are entitled to have it, and do not believe that a limit should be set. Unfortunately this sense of entitlement can sometimes affect the way a domestic worker is treated by his or her sponsor family. Slavery was officially abolished in Saudi Arabia in 1962, but the mentality that people from certain areas of the world are practically created to serve those of privilege is widespread here.
Drivers spend hours each day ushering kids back and forth to school, tending to the garden, washing the family’s cars, and running errands, which I’m sure is exhausting work. But that doesn’t begin to compare to the work that many housemaids are forced to do. Her typical day may begin early in the morning with getting children up and ready for school, followed by detailed cleaning of the entire house, preparing lunch for the family, more cleaning, picking children up from school, helping with homework, laundry and ironing, getting children ready for bed, more cleaning, preparing endless cups of tea and coffee for the adults of the house, more cleaning. Her day never stops. Many maids are even forced to stay awake late into the night when their host family throws a party or hosts a gathering. She’ll serve guests, she’ll clean up the mess, and she’ll still have to wake up with the kids in the morning.
There are no labor laws in place to protect the rights of these workers, and in fact Saudi Labor Laws exclude them from such things as overtime pay and days off. There are no days off unless the host family is kind enough to give one, which is nearly unheard of. The workers cannot come and go as they please, and are often locked up in the house because the host family fears their escape and the loss of their investment in getting a maid into the Kingdom.
Other than the most common conditions, which I have described above, cases of physical, psychological, or emotional abuse are not unheard of. Rape and sexual assault also takes place, but is rarely if ever reported. Incomes are withheld and visits or calls to home are denied.
Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that these people know that they’re coming to a country that is supposedly an Islamic country. They may assume that their rights as humans will be protected and that they will not face racism, abuse, or injustice. Muslim workers come here and are mistreated by their Muslim host families. Even worse, non-Muslim workers often get the most disgusting introduction to Muslims and Islam imaginable.
Many people here will argue that a domestic worker knows what he or she is getting into when they agree to come here. They know that there are no days off, they know what their salary will be, and they’ve probably heard stories from friends or family members about how tough the conditions here are. People say that large amounts of money are spent to get these workers here, so they should be allowed to lock them up and refuse to let them out of the house. Many will say that if you’re too nice to your workers, they will take advantage of you. Many will insist that these workers come here with the intention to escape and make more money as black market workers or even pimps and prostitutes.
All of the above are certainly true, but it still doesn’t make the level of abuse and harsh working conditions justified. And I would counter those arguments and say that people who hire these workers also know what they’re getting into. The risk of having a stranger in your home, the risk of them running away, the risk of an inexperienced driver wrecking your car with your children in it, the risk of the underage nanny you hired not knowing how to properly care for your baby, the risk of your personal belongings being stolen, and the list goes on.
A quick Google search on Saudi Arabia + Maid will offer up dozens of stories of abuse committed by hosts and workers alike. We hear horror stories of maids going crazy and murdering children out of spite. We hear of theft, lying, cheating, black magic, and all sorts of other headaches that these people bring upon their host families. But one has to ask…why? What pushed them? Were they crazy to begin with (quite possible since Saudi Arabia doesn’t do a mental health screening before they get here) or were they driven to madness by the circumstances they were contracted into? And why can’t people here just clean their own homes, take care of their own children, and allow the women to drive themselves?
As with so many other backwards things in this country, the situation with domestic workers’ rights will never change until the Saudi people themselves get tired of the status quo and demand change. Considering the widespread laziness and entitlement among Saudis I’m sadly not optimistic about that change, however, and have added it to the bottom of a long list of things that I hope are improved in this place before my daughter grows up.
In the meantime, I hope that those of you reading who do benefit from the help of domestic workers will treat them with the same respect that you would want your family member treated with. Give them their rights according to Islam. Remember that they are humans with value, with families of their own, and with the same limits that you as an employer have. And if that is all too much to handle, do without their help.