Maids in the Middle East: Little better than slavery
Domestic workers in the Middle East have a horrible time
Sep 2nd 2010
AS a maid working in Saudi Arabia, Lahanda Purage Ariyawathie suffered at the hands of her Saudi employer and his wife, who skewered her body with at least 24 nails and needles (pictured). Her case was unusually brutal, but the abuse of domestic workers in the Middle East is all too common.
Huge numbers of migrant domestic workers, mostly from Asia and Africa, are employed throughout the region. Some 1.5m work in Saudi Arabia, 660,000 in Kuwait and 200,000 in Lebanon. Many work very long hours and receive little food, no time off and pay that is a fraction of any minimum wage, if it materialises at all. Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based group, says at least one domestic worker died every week in Lebanon between January 2007 and August 2008. Almost half were suicides and many were as a result of falling from high buildings, often while trying to escape their employers. Mistreatment is so widespread that the Philippines, Ethiopia and Nepal no longer let their citizens go to Lebanon to work as maids, though such bans have had little effect.
Most maids get their jobs through sponsorship systems, so their immigration status is tied to their employer. Employers can repatriate them at will, prevent them from changing jobs and, in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, stop them from leaving the country.
In much of the Middle East domestic workers are also excluded from legal employment protection. There has been talk of reform, but little has come of it. In a lonely example Jordan extended its labour laws in 2008 to cover domestic workers.
In June the Lebanese ministry of labour set up a hotline for workers’ complaints. HRW has been monitoring the hotline which, it notes, has not been advertised to migrant domestic workers, is open only between 8am and 1pm, and has no translators. In the first month it did not receive a single call from a domestic worker. NGOs and religious organisations have done better. They have set up text-message numbers so that maids trapped at home can report abuses and get free legal advice.