By Irfan Husain
January 21, 2013
SRI LANKANS aren’t as prone to street protests as their other South Asian cousins. But when Rizana Nafeek, a young Sri Lankan Muslim girl, was beheaded in Saudi Arabia a fortnight ago, anti-Saudi demonstrations broke out in Colombo as well as in other cities.
The government added its voice to the protests, recalling its ambassador in Riyadh. Earlier, President Rajapakse had personally appealed for clemency, but to no avail. Young Rizana’s fate throws a harsh spotlight on the treatment imported domestic staff receives across the Arab world.
This case drew worldwide condemnation because of the sheer injustice that led to Rizana’s execution. In 2005, she was accused of strangling her Saudi employer’s four-month old baby. She insisted that he had choked while she was bottle-feeding him.
Arrested and allegedly subjected to torture and assault, she signed a confession, leading to her death sentence. The accused was not provided with any legal representation. Subsequently, the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission hired a lawyer to appeal the verdict.
During these hearings, Rizana’s lawyer presented her birth certificate that showed that she was 17 when the baby died. And in any case, she had been hired as a general maid, and not a nursemaid, a task she had no experience of. Apparently, her recruiting agent had falsified her date of birth in her passport so that she could enter Saudi Arabia to work and help her desperately poor parents. All this was ignored by the appeals court, and the sentence carried out despite an international outcry. In a searing investigative report for The New Yorker, Basharat Peer has dug up many of the inconsistencies and blatant errors in the case. He has also looked at the scale of the problem: there are currently around 1.5 million female domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, and many of them suffer from routine brutality and daily humiliation. He cites a 2010 Human Rights Watch report “As If I Am Not Human”:
“Most domestic workers reported working 15-20 hours a day, typically with one hour of rest or no rest at all. None of the interviewees had a day off or paid leave. Domestic workers reported having to work even when ill or injured and had little access to medical care…
“Examples of abuse included beatings, deliberate burnings with hot irons, threats, insults, and forms of humiliation such as shaving a domestic worker’s head. We interviewed women who reported rape, attempted rape, and sexual harassment, typically by male employers and their sons…”
So clearly, Rizana Nafeek’s case is only the tip of the iceberg. At the heart of this exploitative system is the kafala, or sponsorship, of migrant workers. This ties them to their kafeels, or sponsors, who typically retain their passports, thereby making it impossible for them to leave.
Construction companies across the Middle East use the same system to exploit labourers, mostly from South Asia. Often, their salaries are withheld, and they are kept in makeshift barracks in 50-degree heat. So next time you admire those soaring skyscrapers in Dubai, spare a thought for those who built them, and the conditions which these poor labourers are forced to live in.
Following unprecedented demonstrations by workers against their salaries being withheld, as well as horrific accounts of this exploitative system in the western media, the UAE is beginning to reform its labour laws. Kuwait, too, is inching towards according greater rights to foreign workers. But Saudi Arabia remains frozen in its master-slave relationship with its imported domestic staff.
Underlying this gratuitous cruelty is arrogance based on Saudi wealth and the poverty of foreign workers. And while Europeans are well treated, Asians and Africans are subjected to the kind of behaviour highlighted in the Human Rights Watch report. Arab employers exploit the grinding poverty that forces these wretched people into accepting such inhuman conditions.
Governments from Indonesia to Sri Lanka are concerned about the manner in which their nationals are treated in the Middle East. Each time there has been a particularly nasty case of murder or execution, there are diplomatic protests. But ultimately, Arab states are all too aware that these countries depend on remittances from their overseas workers. Also, high domestic unemployment drives the poor to seek jobs anywhere they can, even in places like Saudi Arabia.
Sri Lankan women are particularly vulnerable to violence and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers because they are most likely to get jobs in Arab homes. Due to the observance of purdah by most adult women, specially in Saudi Arabia, Arab families seldom hire male domestic staff.
For similar reasons, Pakistani women rarely seek domestic employment abroad. It is left to mostly non-Muslim Asian women to seek lowly, high-risk jobs in the Middle East. Local recruitment agents promise them lots of money and an easy life. But the reality is very different, as they discover very soon.
After the oil boom that began in 1973, migrant workers flooded into oil-rich countries. They not only built the infrastructure and the skyscrapers, they cooked, swept, cleaned and brought up the children. Although paid a pittance, their salaries were still much more than they could have earned back home. These remittances helped plug the gap between imports and exports, and permitted their governments to pay for weapons, among other things.
Presently, some 25 million migrant domestic workers from Asia and Africa are employed across the Middle East. The sums they send back are thus significant, and their home countries — as well as their families — cannot do without these crucial remittances.
In pure economic terms, this labour market makes perfect sense: poor countries with surplus labour exporting workers to rich nations with small populations. But the statistics conceal the cruelty and exploitation inherent in the system. Apart from the injustice and cruelty it leads to, it also fuels the racism that is so rampant in much of the Arab world.
Above all, it makes a mockery of the Muslim claim that all men are equal.