Date : 24/1/2006
Issue No : 1526
Modern Day Slavery
‘Abuse of Female Domestic Workers Biggest Problem’

By Suzan Zawawi

The Saudi Gazette 


EITTI Noor s sexual abuse started a couple of nights after she arrived in the Kingdom at her Saudi employer s house. The employer s adult son would sneak into the 35-year-old Indonesian maid s bedroom nearly every night and demand sex. I couldn t stop him, he continued to come, said a tearful Noor.

Noor complained to her employer but she was accused of being the one who initiated the affair. When Noor realized that her employer was not going to help her she contacted the recruitment office and informed them of her situation. But the recruitment office did nothing.

Finally after a couple of months of sexual abuse Noor s employer decided to send her back to the recruitment office accusing her of not cleaning the kitchen well enough.

The recruitment office then found a new employer for Noor.  The Saudi Gazette met Noor on the train to Dammam on her way to her new employer. I am praying to Allah that my new employer doesn t have any sons. I am very scared, said a scared and sobbing Noor.

Noor is just one of the thousands of maids who quietly suffer abuse from their employers. Only a few maids file formal complaints and are written about in the media while the majority are suffering silently fearing their safety every night.

The United States Department of State has made its mission to combat modern day slavery worldwide. The State Department estimates that 800,000 men, women and children are trafficked across international borders against their will each year. About 80 percent of trafficking victims are women and girls.

In Saudi Arabia the most prevalent kind of slavery is forced labor involving foreign women domestic workers, said Ambassador John Miller, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. We believe that modern-day slavery plagues every country, said Miller, who along with his delegations visited Riyadh for a three-day trip.

He met Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdulaziz Sunday to discuss the issue of human trafficking in the Kingdom.

Miller and his delegation also met the foreign, social affairs, labor and judicial ministers and officials of the National Society for Human Rights along with representative of foreign embassies in Riyadh.

We are here to learn about the Saudi efforts in combating human trafficking and are encouraged by the Saudi authorities efforts, Miller told the Saudi Gazette.

Unfortunately many domestic workers that come to Saudi Arabia from South Asia fall into slave like conditions, said Miller. Their passports are taken from them, which is against Saudi law. They are misled by recruitment agencies from their home country. They sign a contract in their home country but find a different contract when they arrive, difference in payment, job titles and location. Some even find themselves sometimes without pay, confined to home, beaten abuse, sexual exploitation.

Abuse of domestic workers in the Kingdom is not unique to Saudi society, said Miller. But because of the high number of foreign domestic workers and the loopholes in the system many fall victim to abuse and torture, said Miller.

When the fifth report came out on June 3rd last year, Miller said that countries listed in Tier 3 that do not make considerable progress in the following months will be faced with sanctions including the withholding of non-humanitarian and non-trade-related assistance.

However, Saudi Arabia did not face sanctions.

On Sept last year, President Bush decided to waver sanctions imposed on Saudi Arabia in favor of national interest, although the Kingdom did not make significant progress in combating human trafficking, according to the Department of State.

I don t know what the report will show this June and what the president will decide on any country in the report next September. said Miller.

Other form of modern day slavery in the Kingdom is the abuse of contract workers who also face similar problems as female domestic workers.

The issue here is the lack of freedom. We are really focusing on freedom such as when someone is forced or threatened into doing something they don t want to do, said Miller.

Children smuggled into the country through the Saudi-Yemeni border is another form of human trafficking. Children and women are drugged and forced to beg on the streets. However, Miller said that he doesn t think the number of children trafficking in Saudi Arabia is as big a problem as the abuse of domestic workers. It is just more visual to the public because they are on the streets, he said.

The Saudi government is in the process of launching a hotline for victims to call. Booklets have already been printed to be handed out to foreign workers, and an anti-trafficking decry that the ministry of labor has drafted might become a law soon.

Miller suggested the Saudi government to form special anti-trafficking units, special police unit and special unit in the justice department for prosecution which was positively received by the Justice Minister. One thing we urged and I personally talked to the Crown Prince Sultan about is the need for more dialogue between the Saudi government and foreign embassies, said Miller.

The Saudi government s stand is that if anyone has a complaint they should come forward but in an issue like slavery both sides need to be proactive, explained Miller. After visiting shelters affiliated with foreign embassies Miller met with scores and scores of young women staying at foreign embassies.

The feeling I got from these women is that not only they cannot get their rights protected but they also can t get justice, or see their abusers punished, said Miller.

Miller also visited Miyati, an Indonesian maid who accused her sponsor and his wife of torturing her last March. Miyati suffered from gangrene to her fingers, toes and a part of her right foot which were surgically removed. A judge later sentenced the sponsor s wife, who admitted to beating Miyati, to 35 lashes. The husband was found innocent due to lack of evidence against him. Miyati was also sentenced to 79 lashes.

We raised the case of the abused maid Miyati, we asked the authorities to look into this case because the message it sends is that victims are not welcomed to come forward and abusers will not be punished, said Miller.

After Miller s meeting with Turky Al-Sudairy the Director of the National Society for Human Rights Sudairy told Okaz newspaper that Miller s accusations were incorrect and not factual. The cases are few and rare.

However, during his meetings with Saudi ministers and officials Miller said that most if not all officials he met confirmed the report and admitted the problem exists.

Of course, it is a minority, but those who think they are rare and a few cases they are in fact cases by the thousands, said Miller. Some official downplay or do not understand the magnitude of the problem.

One foreign embassy in Riyadh reported 7,000 cases last year; another embassy reported several hundred victims last month.

The American delegation discussed with Saudi officials possible solutions such as a contract registry with one contract on file people are referred to and package of human right obligations to be distributed to both employees and employers

The Ministry of Labor is considering establishing a small number of recruitment agencies that would be monitored instead of thousands of private owned recruitment agencies. These few agencies would have the responsibility to make sure measures are taken to insure employees are treated humanly.

The United States feels it has a moral obligation to fight modern day slavery due to American history, said Miller. Our history is stained with slavery. The American people and the president believe not only should we work to abolish modern slavery in the United States itself but we should do what we can worldwide because it is an international and transnational problem.

While sex slavery is America s biggest category of modern slavery, abuse of domestic workers comes second. Child soldiery and child labor are forms of slavery around the world while child jockeys is a serious problem in neighboring Gulf countries.

Miller headed to India Sunday for similar talks with Indian officials. Italy, France, Senegal, China, Korea, Uganda, Philippines, Kuwait and Qatar all were visited by Miller the past couple of months on the same mission.

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