Are we guilty in our dealing with domestic helpers?
By : Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi
IN the weekly column titled ‘Are we innocent?’ carried by this newspaper on Feb. 27, 2013, I dealt with some of the crimes allegedly committed by housemaids. The article also examined the crimes perpetrated against housemaids and the causes and effects of such incidents.
There have been several reports of housemaids committing suicide or attempting to end their lives. They tend to commit suicide when they see that all doors have been closed for them to escape from their sponsor’s house. Some of these victims rush to windows to jump out of them or use rope or pieces of clothes to hang themselves. Some of these housemaids might have succeeded in their attempt to escape from the house of their sponsors while others met with their death or ended up in hospital with multiple injuries in their failed bid to escape.
There are several factors that lead to such incidents, crimes and tragedies. Some of these housemaids tend to do this due to misconduct, and heavy work load heaped on them by sponsors and their family members. There are some others who want to leave the job in search of a better one with a higher salary and fewer hours of work.
I don’t know who is to be blamed for this. Shall I put the blame on the housemaids who resorted to these actions or on the agents who lured them to run away by holding out promises of higher salary and better working conditions? Are they responsible who hired these maids with the knowledge that they had run away from their original sponsors?
No doubt, I will put the blame and the main responsibility on the sponsorship system and then on those who hired runaway maids. And, of course on those who facilitated hiring of housemaids and drivers in an illegal way. Had these people not there to hire these runaway workers, there would not have been any brokers to cash in on this thriving trade. In such an eventuality, there won’t be either any housemaids running away from their sponsors or flourishing of any black market for runaway domestic maids and drivers. This phenomenon came close to vanishing with the new stringent rules and regulations issued by the Ministry of Labor last year and the successive security campaigns to crack down on those who hired foreigners not under their sponsorship.
In the previous article, I drew attention to some pressing problems faced by domestic workers. In most cases, jobs of these workers were not confined to any specific period of time. I also cited some factors that are behind the tendency on the part of the workers to run away from their sponsors. Many sponsors and their wives mistreat their maids and drivers at varying levels. At the same time, I did not rule out the fact that there are some employers who are keen in treating their domestic workers fairly as well as in giving them their due rights and not burdening them with heavy jobs.
As a reaction to the article, I had received a number of e-mail messages from readers while some others posted their online comments on the newspaper’s website. There was near uniformity in the content of all these reactions, which emphasized that we are not innocent and that the domestic helpers and drivers are not receiving a fair treatment. The strangest comment came from an anonymous reader who said: “But, in the first place what made you think that you could be innocent?
I was neither annoyed nor infuriated by his comment but his candidness wondered me. However, I never agree with his viewpoint. I am totally against such a generalization irrespective of whether it is against sponsors or workers. At the same time, I emphasized that we are not innocent in the general sense but there are some who are innocent among us.
I personally know the predicament of a Saudi citizen his driver caused. That driver was allegedly notorious for his bad behavior. Even though the driver’s work was modest, he always created problems for the sponsor. The citizen was always keen to make available to him a comfortable accommodation and good meals. He always advised members of his small family not to ask the driver to do any job after the Isha (night) prayer except only under extremely urgent circumstances. Despite all these, the driver was apparently satisfied with creating problems.
The sponsor recounted his bitter experience with the driver: “Once, we left for a one-week trip, leaving the driver behind at home. When we came back, we saw the car was damaged and the driver had traveled more than 2,000 km within a week. When I asked him about this, the driver’s reply was that he had gone to meet his friends. Then, I informed him about the decision to end his service and gave him time to find another sponsor or else be deported.
“The driver then brought a sponsorship transfer request from another Saudi and I approved it and got it certified from the Passports Department. But later the driver returned to me saying that he could not work under the new sponsor. The same exercise repeated for a second and third time. When he approached me with a letter of request for transfer of service from a Saudi for the fourth time, I obeyed and got the transfer papers endorsed from the Passports Department. After this, I went out for a trip to another region. At that time, the driver’s new sponsor called me to inform me that the driver had run away…”
I knew a driver and his wife who worked for a Saudi family for about eight years. All of them led a joyful life. However, when the circumstances back home forced the couple to leave the Kingdom on final exit, their happiness had an abrupt end. All of them – the sponsor, his family, the driver and the housemaid – were crying due to their inability to endure the pain of separation. There have been several such similar situations. When speaking about domestic workers, we have to emphasize the fact that they are also human beings and the employers must respect their feelings and sentiments and take into account their psychological and social conditions. These people have left their country and family members, including little children, and landed in our country in search of a livelihood to support their family back home. Therefore, it is a must for the employers to soothe pain of their separation from family members and not to burden them with heavy jobs.
The following saying of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) must be our constitution that should guide us in our dealings with domestic workers. “Your slaves are your brothers, and Allah has put them under your command. So whoever has a brother under his command should feed him of what he eats and dress him of what he wears. Do not ask them (slaves) to do things beyond their capacity (power) and if you do so, then help them.”
— Dr. Ali Al-Ghamdi is a former Saudi diplomat who specializes in Southeast Asian affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org