RIYADH, 15 November 2007 — Sri Lankan housemaids are subject to serious abuses, including violence, harassment and exploitation in Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged yesterday.
Saudi and Sri Lankan officials swiftly dismissed the charges.
In a 131-page report entitled “Exported and Exposed: Abuses Against Sri Lankan Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates,” HRW said the domestic helpers typically labor for 16 to 21 hours a day, without rest breaks or days off, for extremely low wages of 15 to 30 US cents an hour.
More than 660,000 Sri Lankan women work abroad as domestic workers, nearly 90 percent of them in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Lebanon.
The rights group, which based its report on 170 interviews with domestic workers, government officials and labor recruiters, said the Sri Lankan and Middle East governments fail to protect the women.
“Governments in the Gulf expose Sri Lankan domestic workers to abuse by refusing to guarantee a weekly rest day, limits to the work day, freedom of movement and other rights that most workers take for granted,” said Jennifer Turner, a women’s rights researcher at HRW. “The Sri Lankan government welcomes the money these women send home, but does little to protect them from exploitative bosses or labor agents.”
Waleed Al-Swaidan, chairman of the Saudi Recruitment Committee at the Riyadh Chamber of Commerce, told Arab News that HRW was “trying to make a mountain out of a molehill”.
“The report is completely one-sided; HRW should know that the majority of the Sri Lankan maids here are working happily over long periods,” Swaidan said, adding that one has just to visit the Kingdom’s airports to see maids being happily welcomed and seen off by Saudi families.
HRW found that employers routinely confiscate domestic workers’ passports, confine them to the workplace, and in many cases restrict their communication, even with their embassy. Some employers have wages withheld for months to years at a time.
Al-Swaidan said the volume of remittances made by the maids speaks for the regular salaries being paid to them. He said it was wrong to make inferences from sporadic incidents that take place time to time.
Sri Lanka also dismissed the allegations describing the report as lop-sided for not indicating the efforts made by the island’s government to overcome problems faced by maids. “The report is only the reaction from 170 interviews. We have more than 650,000 maids spread out in the Middle East,” Kingsley Ranawake, chairman of the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE), which looks after the welfare of the island’s overseas workers, told Arab News by phone from Colombo.
Ranawake said the bureau had adopted remedial measures to solve some of the issues mentioned in the report. He added that beginning this month, departing maids would present themselves before the bureau with their respective agents to ensure that they go to the right employers.
“The volume of complaints from maids working in the Middle East is less than five percent of the total maid population out there,” Ranawake said. He added that most maids regularly return to work after periodic vacations — an indication that they have been treated well.
The UAE said HRW had “once again chosen to ignore many of the positive steps adopted by the UAE in recent months to improve conditions for temporary foreign workers in the country.”
Many of HRW’s recommendations have already been met or are in progress, the state WAM news agency quoted Anwar Gargash, minister of state for Federal National Council affairs, as saying.
The report also found that Saudi Arabia’s policy of requiring employers to approve exit visas for domestic workers before they leave the country effectively traps them and greatly increases the risk of abuse and forced labor.