Overworked maids endure abuse

By Jason Burke

Shortly after dawn, as the sun rises over the hills behind the city, tens of thousands of women will wake in the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah and go to work. Maybe 14 or 16 hours later, their day will be over.

They are maids, almost all from the Philippines or Indonesia, working for $200 to $400 a month. There are more than 500,000 of them in Saudi Arabia, among nearly nine million foreign workers who sweep roads, clean offices, staff coffee shops, drive the cars that women are banned from driving and provide the manpower on the vast construction projects.

The story of the maids rarely receives attention, except when a new shocking incident reveals once again the problems many of them face.

Last weekend a 54-year-old Indonesian maid was beheaded by sword for killing her female boss with a cleaver.

Ruyati binti Satubi had, an Islamic court heard, endured years of abuse before finally attacking her "madam", as the maids call their employers, when denied permission to return home.

Another Indonesian maid also faces execution for killing her boss whom she alleges tried to rape her. Other recent incidents include a Sri Lankan maid who had nails driven into her legs and arms by her employers, and another scalded with a hot iron.

Every year, thousands of maids run away from their employers in Saudi Arabia.

Often physically or mentally scarred, they find themselves in a legal limbo. In Saudi Arabia, the consent of employers or "sponsors" is needed before any worker can leave the country.

Last week this writer visited a secret shelter where 50 women are being looked after by well-wishers.

The shelter is tolerated by local authorities, but the women who stay there, often for months on end, are not allowed to leave once they have entered and cannot use mobile phones. Sixteen sleep in a single room.

The maids say, however, that it is better than what they left behind.

Most tell of fleeing employers who did not pay their wages; many talk of physical, mental or sexual abuse.

Rose has spent five months in the shelter after fleeing from her employers after her "madam" threw keys into her face, narrowly missing an eye. "I don't know why she did it. She lost her temper," said Rose, whose wages were consistently in arrears.

Many exist in an illegal netherworld in the city.

Muneera, said she was sleeping on friends' floors after fleeing her employers. The family she worked for was kind, Muneera said, but the hours were unbearable.

"I worked from 5am to 1am, almost every day. I got up to make the children breakfast and get them ready to go to school and then cleaned the house all day, and in the evening my employers would go out and come back at midnight and want dinner. Finally it was just too much," she said.

Beth Medina said she ran away after two months. "I had no idea what it was going to be like. If there was a single hair on the floor, madam was angry at me. The only food I got was leftovers from their dinner. If there wasn't any, I got bread," she said.

Few of the maids, who are often recruited by agencies in the Philippines, have much idea about where they are going or what will be expected of them. Terms of employment are also variable. As domestic workers, they are not protected by Saudi labour law.

Riyadh recently rejected demands from Manila for medical insurance for maids and for information on employers to be supplied before their departure.

For their part, Philippine officials refused to accept a cut in the minimum wage for maids from US$400 ($493) a month to US$200. The result is a moratorium on the hiring of maids.

Indonesia has also stopped its citizens travelling to Saudi Arabia after the execution last week.

Yet the governments are likely to come to some arrangement. There have been such standoffs before, and in relative terms the foreign workers generate huge sums of cash, most of which is sent to needy families at home and provides important revenues for developing nations.

Saudi Arabia was the source of £17 billion ($34 billion) of such "remittances" last year, second only to the US. Entire states in some countries depend on the funds flowing in.

But the problems are growing. The number of foreign workers in the kingdom has been edging up, from a quarter of the total population a decade ago to nearly a third today. At the same time, youth unemployment in Saudi Arabia is approaching 30 per cent.

Rose just wants an exit visa, the money for a flight home and enough cash left over to allow her three children to go back to school. "I hope I will go soon," she said.

SUB-CULTURE OF SERVITUDE

* 9 million foreign workers

* 500,000 maids

* $34 billion funds sent home

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