A SAUDI teacher in Samta Governorate has confessed to the police that she tortured an Indonesian house cleaner who was hospitalized and later died due to the severity of her injuries. The woman torched the cleaner and also struck her a number of times on the head; the cleaner suffered from broken ribs, a broken wrist and burns which had not been treated. According to a report published in Arab News last December, on its recent visit to the Kingdom, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) delegation received hundreds of calls from people about their grievances and a majority of those calls were concerned with maids and how they were treated.
In another statement during the visit, a member of the HRW said, “The domestic labor problems in the Kingdom could be greatly reduced if the manpower-exporting countries sent servants who were orientated before their departure.” It is my sad duty to inform the honorable member that orientation is not the problem. The problem with servants and their employers is not so simply eradicable. There can be no solution to the problem of abusing servants until Saudis learn — and put into practice — what Islam teaches about the humane treatment which each of us, Saudi or non-Saudi, is entitled to.
Our problem has many aspects and is as delicately complex as a spider’s web. We need to take a closer look and see if the aspects can be separated from one another. First of all, the problem is with morality; second, law and order; third, law enforcement; fourth, official support and fifth, the Saudi mentality. Somewhere down the list, far below these I would put orientation for those coming here to work.
A colleague was reading yesterday’s report on the tortured maid and he made a comment that is the essence of the problem, “It is about slavery,” he said. And he was right; the same attitude and mind-set still exists in 21st-cenury Saudi Arabia. At a time when the Royal Academy of Art in London has mounted an exhibition dealing with the history of slavery, I am sad to say that it has not been completely abolished in the Kingdom. Far too many Saudis think they have the right to treat others as lesser mortals; the Saudis see themselves as the masters of the universe and hence entitled to lord it over lesser breeds. It seems that the dark side of human nature is dominant, rather reminiscent of Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Fiction aside, we all know that such people exist, not only in Saudi Arabia but all over the world in every country. Abusive behavior is all too common but what matters in the end is how this sort of behavior is dealt with and controlled by governments and states.
Which brings us to our next point — law and order. It is right and proper to pass new laws to protect the rights of workers in the Kingdom. When it comes to laws, the right ones are on the books but the problem is getting them enforced. An unenforced law is as good as no law at all. People here just get away with things; they commit crimes and get away with them; they abuse their children, wives, dependants and still live, at least on the surface, normal lives, protected and shielded by a system which often does not report abuse and which infrequently punishes those known to be guilty of it.
How is it that the laws are not enforced? In many cases, it is because the guilty person has “wasta” — friends or relatives with influence and power — or, more likely, because the victim is too afraid to report anything to the police, knowing that as a foreigner, he or she simply does not stand a chance against a Saudi master. Apart from physical abuse, how do we deal with emotional abuse? What about salary delays? Or being locked in houses and treated like prisoners?
One of the major contributing factors to this problem is our country’s sponsorship law. As every non-Saudi — westerner or easterner — who comes to work in the Kingdom knows, he or she must have a sponsor and one of that sponsor’s duties is to hold the non-Saudi’s passport. This sponsorship system is not dissimilar to that in which Saudi women must have a male guardian.
It seems that we like the whole idea of having one person in virtually total control of another. By the way, isn’t that what slavery is? We ought to ask ourselves why we are so fond of these systems which are inherently flawed. They give power — but no obligation to account for its use — to those who regularly and habitually abuse it.