Much of my adolescence was spent in Kuwait, a tiny Gulf State which then had a population of two million, half of which was composed of expatriate workers from the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia. I think in the six years I spent there, scarcely a week went by without at least four to five fairly horrific incidences of maid abuse being reported, ultimately culminating in either serious bodily injury or incipient death. News of the Indian driver hanging himself or the Filipino maid purportedly committing ‘suicide’ by throwing herself off the balcony of the third floor apartment were and are still reported on a daily basis in the local papers. Of course, they never make it to the headlines or feature on the front page, but occupy a small paragraph in the ‘local news’ section on page eight. Needless to say, these figures are staggering for a country the size of Kuwait, and because they reflect only the relatively few reported cases, it is safe to infer that they represent only the tip of the iceberg. Of course the problem not confined to Kuwait, but is endemic to the entire Gulf.
The predicament of some of these domestic workers, or members of the labour underclass has often been likened to modern day slavery or indentured servitude, and there is now general concurrence that this state of affairs, in a large part, accrues from kafala or ‘sponsorship’ system prevailing in the region. Basically this sponsorship system entails that the initial recruitment of a worker, her stay in the country, terms of employment, capacity to change employers, and ability to leave the country, is totally contingent on the acquiescence of her ‘sponsor’, who has the untrammelled ‘right’ to withhold consent on a whim. This sponsor, often also the employer, will be a GCC citizen, company or ministry. Indeed, the expatriate employee’s right to reside in the country is premised on this very ‘sponsorship’, the withdrawal of which leaves the worker vulnerable to instant deportation. This obviously gives rise to potentially exploitative situations, where an employee will have to endure much fearing the instant revocation of their right to remain in the country, earn a living and send remittances back home.
The local courts or tribunals are usually inaccessible, unresponsive and unaffordable for such workers. The mistreatment encountered by lower level expatriate employees ranges from salaries being unpaid for months or even years on end, to the infliction of gross physical and sexual violence. Indeed, in the infamous case of the Sri Lankan maid whose Saudi employers hammered nails into her body after she complained of fatigue, the maid in question, Lehadapurage Ariyawathie, only reported the abuse, and had the numerous nails and metal objects surgically removed, on returning home because ‘the compliant mechanisms in Saudi Arabia remained inaccessible’ to her. Those who do escape and are courageous enough to approach the local authorities for justice and redress, frequently encounter further humiliation and harassment, and become liable to deportation on the mere ground of having ‘absconded’ from their sponsor. They also often become the recipients of the mostly concocted counter-charges of theft, witchcraft, or immoral sexual behaviour.
Unfortunately, the limited labour protection which does exist, does not apply to domestic workers, with Jordan being the sole state in the region to extend the ambit of its labour laws to domestic workers via a 2008 legislative amendment. Moreover, while maid abuse has become a much talked about topic, and the regulation of this sponsorship system is ostensibly being considered by several Gulf States, the likelihood of real political will being exerted to not just legislate but actively enforce new protective measures, remains quite dubious. Not only has legislative reform in this area typically been extremely slow and incremental, but the broader legal framework only serves to further entrench the extremely disparate power differentials at play. E.g. In 2009 after years of prolonged and exacerbated debate within the organisation, Saudi’s Shura Council finally resolved to implement significant reforms governing domestic worker’s terms of employment, by passing an annex to its labour code. However, ultimately key provisions including the entitlement of workers to rest between 10pm and 5am were rejected, because they “contradicted the needs and traditions of Saudi families”.
What renders potential reform more problematic and difficult to achieve in the concerned States, is the absence of strong civil societies or grass roots movements which can be mobilized to exert pressure on the authorities. Saudi has placed a comprehensive ban on the establishment of any trade unions, while other Gulf States largely follow suit in barring most forms of collectivist action. Again, such action renders worker susceptible to instant expulsion from the country. The diplomatic spat between Malaysia and Indonesia earlier this year was occasioned by the large scale exploitation and abuse of Indonesian maids in Malaysia. However, what propelled the Indonesian government to action and enabled the cases in question to obtain such a high profile, was the activism and lobbying of various Indonesian NGO’s and labour groups. Under pressure, Malaysia issued a formal condemnation of the abuse inflicted by some of its citizens, and undertook to prosecute the perpetrators involved in the most publicized cases. Indonesia has also instituted a complete ban on sending domestic workers to Saudi following the widespread public indignation generated by the beheading of Ruyati binti Sapubi. Sapubi had been beheaded for murdering her Saudi employer. She had been subjected to routine abuse throughout the course of her employment, with the Indonesian Embassy remaining uninformed of both her conviction and sentencing. Moreover, the likelihood of the Saudi government publicly condemning even the vilest and most outrageous acts of its citizens, is highly tenuous, with prosecutions of reasonably prosperous and well-connected Saudi’s remaining largely unthinkable.
I remember that during my time in Kuwait, well-meaning advertising campaigns would occasionally be broadcast in Ramadan, invoking the fear of God and encouraging people to treat employees and domestic help in an equitable and kind manner. “If you seek Allah’s mercy, show others mercy” or “Do to others as you would have done unto yourself’ were the underlying themes of these broadcasts. There are also small but active bands of conscientious individuals trying to influence public opinion on the issue. However, it is important to remember that general moral exhortations and admonition can only go so far in the absence of any real legal sanctions, or punitive action being brought against the offenders. When a person with an underdeveloped sense of humanity knows that they can engage in brutal and unjust behaviour, with few attendant consequences and good chances of getting away Scot-free, there is no incentive for them to cease and desist. The condition of maids and expatriate workers has frequently, and very aptly, been described as the black mark or stain on the Gulf. It didn’t spring up recently; but has been brewing for over four decades, with little or no progress. The problem is one which has assumed massive proportions, and particularly for those living in the region, our silence or practical acquiescence to it renders us all complicit. ©