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A Critical View of Saudis' Treatment of Foreign Help

By Faiza Saleh Ambah
{vbar} Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, December 7, 2008

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- In each ad, the servants are depicted as animals.

In one, a woman in the back seat of a car tugs on a harness attached to a bit in her Indian driver's mouth. In another, an Ethiopian maid kneels inside a doghouse in front of a bowl full of bones as her employer holds a leash around her neck.

The public service campaign recently launched in Saudi Arabia highlights the abuse of foreign domestic workers and urges their employers to treat them more humanely.

The man behind the television announcements and newspaper inserts says that it is time for Saudis to stop ignoring the issue and that their faith should compel them to act.

"We sometimes deal with our servants as if they were not human and have no feelings," said advertising executive Kaswara al-Khatib, who came up with the idea for the campaign after noticing how badly some Saudis treat domestic workers and foreign laborers in general. "There is rampant abuse in the kingdom. Enough denial."

Khatib said the slogan, "Have mercy so that you shall be shown mercy," is meant to remind Saudis that "good manners are an integral part of being a good Muslim."

"What I'm trying to point out is that there's an inherent contradiction in being a devout Muslim, praying five times a day and mistreating your servants," he said.

Khatib has been hailed as a hero as well as accused of anti-Saudi bias and of tarnishing the country's image.

A Facebook group supporting the campaign has attracted nearly 3,000 members, and several newspapers and television channels have asked to use it since the ads first appeared on the popular Saudi-owned MBC satellite channels and in al-Hayat newspaper last month.

But writer Trad al-Asmari slammed the "mercy campaign" as inaccurate. Problems of mistreatment exist in many countries, Asmari wrote in al-Jazeera newspaper, but the campaign singles out "all Saudis as ugly and merciless."

In an editorial in al-Watan newspaper, Hassan al-Assiri wrote that "the campaign poses a very important question."

"Is it true that Saudis actually have no mercy? Have studies and polls . . . proven that the only way to treat the problem is by performing surgery on our consciences?" he asked.

Saudi Arabia has about 8 million foreign laborers, mainly from the Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Indian subcontinent. About a quarter of them are domestic servants. Many households in this country of 28 million have several servants, including drivers for women, who are not allowed behind the wheel in the kingdom.

With advances in press freedoms since King Abdullah took the throne in 2005, newspapers have routinely published articles about domestic servants who have been beaten, raped and sometimes killed. Last year, Saudi police rescued an abused Sri Lankan maid after she contacted a newspaper. She had been confined and had not been paid for seven years. Newspapers reported in May that an Indonesian maid who had been tortured was found in an empty lot in Mecca, gagged, bound and blindfolded. Her employer was later arrested.

A Human Rights Watch report in July harshly criticized the mistreatment of domestic workers, who are not protected under labor laws. The report said the workers often endure "non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse." The organization said embassies and other foreign missions receive thousands of complaints from domestic workers each year.

A Filipino diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject, said an average of one runaway maid a day walks in to his consulate. Most complain that they haven't been paid, he said, but others report confinement and a lack of food. Some have endured physical abuse and even rape, he said.

One maid from the Philippines escaped to the consulate a year and a half ago after she was raped by a relative of her employer, she said. Accompanied by a Filipino diplomat, she reported the rape, and her employer's nephew was sentenced to eight months in jail and 200 lashes after he confessed, she said. Now she is waiting for the courts to grant her $13,000 in compensation for lost income and emotional distress.

"I will never leave the Philippines to work overseas again," said the woman, who serves as a liaison between case workers and other domestic workers at the shelter.

Jowhara Ahmad, 30, an Indonesian maid featured in one of the ads, came to Saudi Arabia on a visa to perform the hajj pilgrimage when she was 17. Like tens of thousands of other migrant workers, she remained in Saudi Arabia illegally to look for work. She has spent 13 years in Saudi Arabia sending home almost all of her monthly salary of $300 to put her son and younger brothers through school, support her parents and build a home for herself there.

For the past six years, she has been working for a family with which she's content, she said. But over the years, several employers did not pay her, and she ran away from one household when she feared she would be raped by her employer's teenage son.

Khatib said that despite the criticism, the response has been mostly positive. "Our society is becoming more mature and inward-looking," he said. "I would not have been able to launch this campaign six years ago."

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