Though it’s no secret that life is often brutally difficult for maids working in Saudi Arabia, a new wave of atrocities has stirred outrage in the victims’ home countries and has trained a spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s failure to protect foreign workers.
Saudi Couple Hammers Nails Into Sri Lankan Housemaid
In August, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan woman, Lahadapurage Daneris Ariyawathie, returned to her home after working as a housemaid in Saudi Arabia. When she arrived, her children immediately realized she was in terrible pain and took her to a doctor. She told him the couple she worked for had hammered hot nails and pins into her hands, legs, and forehead when she told them she needed to rest. X-rays showed 24 nails embedded in her body.
After the case was publicized and Sri Lankan government officials demanded the Saudi government take action, CNN reported a Saudi couple had been arrested for the torture. The government also reportedly considered suspending the recruitment of Sri Lankan maids, though they denied there was any connection to this case. However, while the government seemed to be making concessions, the head of Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Workers’ Committee of the Saudi Chamber of Commerce told Arabic-language news organization Al Arabiya that Ariyawathie’s allegations were “absolutely baseless and illogical.” He did not — presumably he could not — explain why there very clearly were pins and nails in her body.
Doctors have removed most of the nails and metal fragments, and plan to operate to remove the rest of the nails at a future time.
Indonesian Maid Subjected To “Extraordinary Torture”
Indonesian authorities say twenty-three year old Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, an Indonesian woman working as a maid in Saudi Arabia, was tortured by her employers. They allegedly burned her with an iron, beat her severely, and cut her face and lips with scissors. (She will require extensive plastic surgery, and not just for cosmetic reasons — in the pictures accompanying the linked articles, you can see that pieces of her face have actually been cut away.) On November 6th when she was admitted to a hospital in Medina, where she is currently recovering, a doctor who treated her said she was “wounded from head to toe.” Another hospital worker told the Saudi Gazette that Sumiata’s body bore the marks of numerous old wounds, and her bloodwork showed she may have suffered malnutrition or serious blood loss.
Indonesian authorities, including the president, have called for justice, but so far there has been no news of arrests.
Indonesian Maid Murdered
According to Indonesia’s minister of labor, via BBC News, when Kikim Komalasari’s body was found on November 11th her neck was slashed and she had severe cuts all over her body. The 36-year-old Indonesian woman worked as a maid in Saudi Arabia. Her employer allegedly murdered her and dumped her body on a roadside.
Indonesia’s president said the killing was “beyond inhumane” but that the Saudi government was taking action and he was “hopeful the perpetrators will be punished according to law.”
For the three cases that came to light, there may be hundreds if not thousands of cases that remain in the dark. Al Jazeera‘s Jakarta correspondent told the news,“Everyone knows about these abuse cases [in Saudi Arabia], they happen all the time.” Because Indonesia cannot “punish” Saudi Arabia, the correspondent believes Saudi Arabia will continue to ignore the abuse of foreign workers and Indonesians working there will continue to be vulnerable to the whims of their employers. Naturally, Sri Lanka and other countries from which domestic workers are “exported” are in similar situations.
Of course, the abuse of domestic workers isn’t unique to Saudi Arabia. Al Jazeera recently interviewed a Sri Lankan housemaid who says she was tortured by the Kuwaiti couple she worked for. She says that when she asked for her wages, they held her down and pushed 14 metal pins deep into her arms and legs. Last year the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights told the story of a young Brazilian woman who was abused and forced into domestic servitude in her own country. Even domestic workers in the United States are sometimes exploited and abused: the Domestic Workers United records some of their stories on their website. Via Free the Slaves, a Cameroonian woman describes being forced into domestic slavery in Washington D.C.. Organizations like Free the Slaves say that abuse of domestic workers occurs in almost every country.
However, in Saudi Arabia the abuse of foreign workers is particularly widespread and often winked at by law enforcement. In 2004 Human Rights Watch reported that in Saudi Arabia foreign workers are systematically abused, imprisoned, and subject to unjust legal punishments. They noted that female workers were particularly vulnerable, and in some cases were imprisoned for “illegal pregnancies” after being raped and impregnated by their employers. There have been several cases of domestic workers being unceremoniously convicted of serious crime and condemned to death — Human Rights Watch reports that extreme penalties are often meted out to foreign-born workers because they do not know how to navigate the legal system and the government makes no effort to treat them fairly, even to the point of using confessions extracted under torture as evidence to support death sentences.
The U.S. State Department’s 2008 report on human rights in Saudi Arabia identified the treatment of foreign workers, especially domestic workers, as one of the country’s major human rights problems. Many foreign workers, they said, were subjected to “nonpayment of wages for months and years, debt bondage, confinement, confiscation of travel and identity documents, long hours without days off, contract switching, intimidation, and physical abuse.” The report states that domestic workers are often brought into the country through “deceptive hiring practices” and that although laws forbid employers to keep their employee’s passports it is common practice.
The report also says that the Ministry of Labor addressed a few cases of foreign worker abuse, but that in general the Saudi government “does not enforce fines or bans on hiring workers imposed upon abusive employers or recruitment agencies, and police were criticized for being unresponsive to requests for help from foreign workers.”
Photo of nails by W.J. Pilsack via Wikimedia Commons, available for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution License.