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Saudi Arabia urged to protect workers

Rights report cites abuses that domestics suffer

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter Gelling
International Herald Tribune / July 9, 2008

JAKARTA - A new report on the abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia cites the case of an Indonesian woman, Nour Miyati, who had her fingers and toes amputated as a result of being starved and beaten on a daily basis. Her case, tried in a Riyadh court, was later dropped.

The case, according to the report released yesterday in Jakarta by Human Rights Watch, is hardly unique: the study found that thousands of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia each year face similar abuses, including lashings, unpaid wages, forced labor, and slavery-like conditions.

"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, author of the report.

About 1.5 million domestic workers live in Saudi Arabia, coming primarily from Asian countries like Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal. Indonesia accounts for by far the most workers, an estimated 600,000 to 900,000.

The report, titled, "As If I Am Not Human: Abuses Against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia," is based on two years of research inside Saudi Arabia and nearly 150 interviews with migrant workers, government officials, and labor recruiters.

Varia, who has researched migrant worker rights throughout the world, said she was shocked by conditions in Saudi Arabia.

"We have looked at this issue in many other countries, and it is very common to see labor abuses like unpaid wages. But in Saudi Arabia, what really stood out was a system that allows employers to force workers to stay against their will," she said from Jakarta.

"You had not just one but many cases where women were forced to work for years against their will." She said labor laws, which exclude domestic workers, and a controversial immigration policy that ties a domestic worker's visa to the employer, are the root cause for much of the abuse. The immigration policy, known as Kafala, gives employers the right to deny workers the opportunity to change jobs or even leave the country.

"Even if a woman is able to escape to her embassy, she will still have to negotiate with employers to get an exit visa," Varia said.

Out of 86 interviews, Human Rights Watch found that 36 workers had faced abuses so severe they resembled slavery.

Female domestic workers usually seek work abroad out of desperation. In their home countries, women interviewed for the report often received unequal pay compared with men and were more often employed in unregulated industries. They travel to financially support their families back home, the report said, but often find themselves having to return again and again to Saudi Arabia to meet expenses accrued in the process.

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