There has been an outrage over the beheading of a Sri Lankan maid in Saudi Arabia. Rizana Nafeek a 24 year old maid was sentenced to death and executed despite pleas of clemency.
This has raised several questions over the manner in which the migrant workers are treated in Saudi Arabia. As per the records there are over 45 maids from various countries who are on a death row in Saudi Arabia. In this list figures a few Indian maids too who are on a death row, but the figures according to Human Rights Watch are hard to come by as the Saudi authorities never publish the exact data. While the number of Indians on a death row is much smaller when compared to those from other countries, there is also a growing problem of the number of suicides by Indian workers who have not been able to bear the work conditions.
Two women from Hyderabad who had to return to India from Saudi Arabia say that the working conditions are terrible. They come from very poor back grounds and decided a couple of years back that they would go to Saudi Arabia and work as maids in a bid to support their families. However due to ill-treatment by their employers they were forced to return home.
The problem is that in most households in Saudi Arabia, the work expected out of these people is extremely rough by nature. It almost amounts to slavery, the maids say. The women of the house do nothing but expect a world of work out of these maids. While most of the maids continue to work day and night without complaining the real problem begins when the women of the house become abusive. In some case studies it has also been revealed that some of the maids have been subject to sexual assault. Some of them bear the humiliation while other retaliate after not being able to take it.
In most of the cases in which death sentence has been awarded it has been found that the action has only been retaliatory. Unable to bear the abuse some of the maids often tend to get aggressive and end up killing one of the employers.
The maids who have gone to Saudi from India say that there is no gurantee of the work atmosphere. They get in touch with the recruiting agencies who are in touch with the employers. The recruiting agency is paid around 5000 riyals to find a maid. The maids in turn are paid anything between 800 to 1000 riyals per month. This is big money for them.
Saudi Arabia is among the top ten countries in the world where immigration is concerned. There is a desperation among people to go there no matter what the work conditions are as the money is good. Rights organizations point out that apart from the number of maids who are facing various sentences, the other problem is that of suicide. In the year 2012 there have been 33 suicides by Indian workers who have not been able to bear the work conditions and treatment by their employers.
Studies have shown that there are various factors that have led to suicides and crimes committed by Indian workers. Many are unable to bear the work conditions. The liaison between the tout and the employer is another reason as the worker is never given to understand the real picture. Many employers abuse the workers physically and also do not pay them on time. At least 10 cases of suicide and another 15 cases of assaulting the employer have come to light because of a dirty practise of withholding the passport. These workers are not paid on time but are unable to leave the work place as their passports are withheld.
Most of these workers have often tried seeking help from the embassies, but there is an overload of other cases before the embassy, which has delayed the solution.
Vishaka (name changed) had to return to India. She did everything possible to raise her concerns and finally got fed up of waiting for a solution. She explains that her employers treated her like a machine. They had no sense of timing but expected work at any part of the day or night. I worked in a house in which there were 20 rooms. I began my day at 3 AM and only wound up by 11 PM. The question of speaking to my employers did not arise as they got abusive. One night when they were asleep I decided to slip out. I headed to the embassy and fortunately they helped me return.
The big problem is that none of these maids who go to work abroad are insured. There is no safety net for them if things go horribly wrong for them. This leads to frustration and the weaker minds either resort to assaulting their employers or committing suicide.
Despite the problem being this huge none of the embassies have taken adequate measures to safeguard the interests of these maids and workers. There are over a million domestic maids in Saudi Arabia of which India accounts to nearly 3 lakh of them. There have been at least 10000 cases of maids fleeing in the past three years and the Indian embassy receives nearly 5 cases on an average daily. This means that most of the cases are not being reported and these workers tend to take the extreme step.
Apart from the harsh working conditions, Human Rights Watch points out that there is a lack of proper legal support for such workers. Accroding to the International Labour Organisation, there is a lack of legal rights and protection for such workers. The lack of legal protection only would mean that when these maids go up on a death row or a conviction, they lack proper representation. The maids who have been sexually assaulted face charges of prostitution while those who have assaulted in self defence end up with attempt to murder charges. Due to the lack of protection, they are unable to defend themselves and the laws over there have often favoured the employer. Moreover the trials have been conducted in the local language and none of these people understand and hence end up getting convicted. The Saudi authorities have not provided a basic amic curea in these cases too.
Meenakshi Ganguly, Director South Asia for Human Rights Watch says that they are getting data on the exact number of Indian maids on a death row. When compared to the rest of the countries, the data relating to India are very low. However there are many men who are on a death row. In the 2012 alone there have been 69 executions.
Rights groups point out that when the appointment process takes place, none of the touts tell the maids about the possible risks of working in Saudi Arabia. This is something that needs to be done say rights groups activists as this will give the worker a better picture of what he or she is walking into.