Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Off the Books

August 26th, 2010 · 4 Comments

The worst thing about this tale of a Sri Lankan maid’s suffering at the hands of her Saudi Arabian employers is that it’s completely unsurprising. Though the torture the woman endured is notable for its brutality, such abuse is evidently commonplace in Saudi Arabia—to the point that foreign workers are taught to expect beatings:

The teacher held up an electric cake mixer and told the class of wide-eyed women before her to clean it properly. If it smells, “Mama,” as the aspiring maids were instructed to call their female employers, “will be angry and she will hammer and beat you.”

“This is where you go wrong,” the teacher continued. “That is how Mama beats you and burns you – when you do anything wrong.”

Eighteen female hands took down every word, as if inscription could ward off ill fortune…

The problem would be easy to fix, of course, if Saudi Arabia’s foreign workers were drawn out of legal limbo. They live in the kingdom under sponsorship schemes in which their employers essentially act as immigration officials, with the power to expel their charges from the country on a whim. That reality makes it nearly impossible for abused workers to approach the Saudi Arabian legal system; instead, they can only ask their embassies for assistance, a tact that rarely bears fruit because nations whose economies depend heavily on the remittances of overseas workers are loathe to stir the pot.

The end result is that the few overseas workers who choose to flee their employers end up in desperate circumstances, stranded in shelters with no legal passage home. The recent plight of a handful of Filipino nationals is a case in point:

At least 10 female overseas Filipino workers (OFW) and their 11 children have been staying in the Philippine Embassy-run shelter in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia for about 10 months now, with some staying for more than three years, according to a migrants’ rights group…

The schedule of their repatriation is dependent on how soon the Governor will act on the Embassy’s request. [Labor Attache] Valenciano is unable to say when the workers could be sent home.

“The government is of course ready to assist them; it’s just that some of the workers do not have the necessary papers,” he explained, adding that majority of the workers escaped from their employees due to contract violations and abuse.

Currently, there are 142 adult OFWs and 11 children inside Bahay Kalinga, according to Valenciano. The Overseas Workers Welfare Administration earlier said some 800 OFWs are still stranded in Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

The bottom line: No good ever comes of letting an entire workforce exist in the shadows, without direct recourse to established legal institutions. And therein lies an important lesson for the folks crafting immigration policy worldwide.

(Image via wokka’s Flickr stream)


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4 Comments so far ↓

  • ADW

    Unfortunately, a lot of people benefit from keeping workers off the books. And, the workers have no real value in their new homes, which always leads to abuse. But, the beatings – that’s awful. The Saudi government should address this, but seeing as they don’t have the greatest respect for their own female citizens, there’s probably little chance of that happening.

  • scottstev

    This tragedy goes to show that few things are as corrosive to one’s humanity as absolute power.

  • Jordan

    Unfortunately it’d also be nearly impossible to put sufficient pressure on the Saudis to change unless all of the countries of origin for the workers banded together to make demands. Much like the situation for a lot of American workers right now, one or a few complaints are unlikely to do anything because there are plenty of others willing to fill the gap.

    It really does boggle the mind that people would do that to their hired help. I don’t even know what to say.

  • Brian Moore

    “No good ever comes of letting an entire workforce exist in the shadows, without direct recourse to established legal institutions. And therein lies an important lesson of the folks crafting immigration policy worldwide.”

    Well said.