Earlier this week, Saudi Arabia was atwitter with arguments over where the country should source its domestic workers. The sensitive subject matter was brought up via a national discussion around another controversial issue- the right for women to drive in the Kingdom- and has large implications on the future of human trafficking in the nation.
Haya al-Mani has found herself at the center of both of these debates. Her role as one of only thirty female members of the Shura Council, the state’s consultative body, makes her a lightning rod for criticism. Her activism and proposals to the Council aid in furthering the attacks.
In 2013, al-Mani and two other female Council members proposed lifting the ban on women driving. A recent official proposal has garnered quick and ferocious opposition on Twitter. In an attempt to attack and discredit al-Mani’s proposal, Sa’id Hussein al-Zahrani relied on an article written over thirty years ago when he tweeted, “Do you know that Haya al-Mani, who advocates allowing women to drive, also called for replacing foreign maids with southerners.”
In response to al-Zahrani’s original tweet, the hashtag #HayaAl-ManiSuraCouncil was used over 100,000 times within the first day. With few dissenting voices, most tweets focused on how domestic work was beneath Saudi women and southern Saudi women in particular. One tweet read, “I swear to God, Saudi girls from the north to the south and from the east to the west will never work as servants. May our heads remain high up, breathing the air and honouring our daughters.”
In the article published in the early 1980s, al-Mani stated that it may be a better utilization of the country’s resources to employ poorer Saudi women living in the south as domestic help than to rely so heavily upon importing foreign labor. For a country that employs over 1.5 million foreign maids and has a female unemployment rate of over twenty percent, this idea does not seem too far-fetched. However, due to the harsh conditions domestic workers have to endure at the hands of their employers, this prospect is assuredly insulting to Saudi women.
Many domestic workers in Saudi Arabia come from countries located in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa and are victims of human trafficking. They are lured with promises of better wages and the ability to send remittances back home to their families. However, once they arrive in Saudi Arabia, most often already in debt from their travel and visa expenses, it is commonplace for their employers to confiscate their passports and cell phones, rendering them trapped. This forced-labor practice stems largely from the sponsorship system which ties migrant workers to their employers and forces them to receive permission from their employer before being granted an exit visa among other things.
Being unable to leave to their employers without permission makes most domestic labor in Saudi Arabia illegal forced labor. Because they live in their employers’ homes, most domestic laborers are forced to work incredibly long days; their average work week in Saudi Arabia is 63.7 hours, the second highest rate in the world. They also have few opportunities to leave the home, especially without employer supervision. They are utterly dependent upon the families for whom they work and this leaves them incredibly vulnerable to abuse, both physical and sexual.
While some of the most extreme cases of abuse grab media attention, such as an Indian maid getting her arm chopped off as punishment in late 2015, many daily abuses remain out of the spotlight. Beatings and starvation are common punishments for small offenses. Domestic workers are also frequently raped and subjected to sexual abuse by their male employers. These persistent and pervasive abuses are the daily realities of many domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Many victims of human trafficking often fear for their safety and try to escape their abusers. On average 30-50 maids seek help from the Centre for Housemaid’s Affairs in Riyadh each day. However, there is little guarantee that the government will do anything to help in individual cases.
The attitude among many Saudi nationals that these workers are commodities to be bought and sold through recruitment companies plays a major role in how domestic laborers are treated. Domestic workers need to be seen as people and receive respect for the service they provide. Many Saudi women, especially those responding to Haya al-Mani’s proposal, believe they are above domestic labor because they are responding to the culture around domestic servitude, not the work itself. While there is no doubt that Saudi women perform some domestic tasks in their daily life, they are responding to the fact that they should not be subjected to the mental, physical, and sexual abuse associated with this work.
Sa’id Hussein al-Zahrani’s response to Haya al-Mani unknowingly sparked an outcry that allowed the world to see how Saudi men and women view the abundance of foreign domestic laborers within their country. The culture around domestic labor and the connotations it has in Saudi Arabia undoubtedly contribute to the government’s inability to sufficiently protect the rights of domestic workers and migrant laborers as a whole. The government and the institutions it creates need to rely upon citizens for any type of change to be effective. If the government truly wants to take significant steps toward improving its abusive migrant labor practices, it will first need to focus on rehumanizing those laborers in the eyes of its citizens. Until that happens, very the very few efforts the Saudi state currently takes will be ineffective.
Brittany Hamzy is an Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB.