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Caitlin Vito currently works at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and has also held positions with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Her research focuses on migration.
Recent headline-grabbing events coming out of Saudi Arabia overshadow an issue which has been simmering for years: the plight of the country’s migrant workers. Western governments need to take a – albeit uncomfortable – stand against their ally.
The first planes arrived at Bole airport in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in early November 2013. As the passengers spilled out onto the tarmac, they were soon joined by hundreds of other returnees scrambling to collect their belongings and to make their way to the migrant transit centres. From November 2013 to March 2014, an estimated 160,000 more Ethiopians were to follow. Deported from Saudi Arabia during an unprecedented crackdown on undocumented migrant workers, they were given the ultimatum: voluntarily leave or face deportation.
Rights groups raised serious concerns over the Saudi’s treatment of migrants during their deportation. However, in Addis Ababa the scars on the bodies of women returning and their personal accounts told the story of abuse extending far beyond the mistreatment inflicted during their deportation. Employed as domestic workers in Saudi households, many of these women spoke of routine mistreatment, ranging from withheld wages to serious psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat, a Nairobi-based migration organisation, found that in the shelters hosting female returnees a “significant proportion” were “mentally ill”, having suffered various degrees of abuse. In one shelter a woman had arrived paralysed, having been thrown off a balcony by the family for whom she worked. A 15-year old girl recounted how she was given “medicine” by her employers but was unsure what followed, although she had a “feeling they raped me”. Reports of suicide among domestic workers are not uncommon.
Despite the immediate outrage generated in Ethiopia and internationally by these revelations, this systemic abuse was already fairly well known, but largely ignored, by Saudi authorities. Domestic workers face many barriers to speaking out. Fear of being accused of moral misconduct, adultery or even sorcery prevent many women from raising issues of abuse with the police, as do laws requiring women to be accompanied by an unmarriageable male (father, brother, son) when going to the police – a relative most female domestic workers do not have in the country. As such, their grievances frequently go unheard.
Facing a system which is already stacked against them, their vulnerability is further aggravated by the fact that these women often arrive completely unaware and unprepared for what awaits them. Many women are from rural, poor regions in Ethiopia, with limited education and knowledge – if any – of Arabic. They frequently lack the skills needed to operate the modern household equipment essential to their domestic work, drawing the ire of their employers. Despite this, the economic prospects and the hopes placed on them by relatives for financial support back in Ethiopia means that there is no shortage of Ethiopian women willing to take the risk to seek domestic work in the Saudi Kingdom, making them an easy target for exploitation and abuse.
Such a toxic mix is exacerbated by pervasive discrimination towards Africans in Saudi Arabia. Saudi media feeds this with reports of Ethiopian workers being criminals, involved in prostitution and alcohol. The Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat reports a hierarchy for domestic workers, with Filipina women considered the most desirable, followed by Indonesians, and with African women last. This prejudice fans abuse within the ‘kafala system’ governing labour migration, as Saudi employers hold excessive power over their workers, making for “slavery like conditions” according to Human Rights Watch.
The condemnation garnered by the revelations of wide-spread abuse of foreign domestic workers did prompt some, albeit belated, reforms from the Saudi government. In October 2015 the government made amendments to the Labour Law which introduced or increased fines for employers who confiscate migrant workers’ passports, or fail to pay salaries or to provide copies of contracts to employees. However, as Human Rights Watch noted, the new laws exclude domestic workers, who mostly consist of migrant women. The reforms made to laws governing domestic workers back in 2013 are insufficient. They still permit employers to require a 15-hour workday and deny domestic workers the right to turn down any work without a ‘legitimate’ reason.
Sadly, recent developments make significant change in the near future unlikely. Previous events offer insight into how Saudi domestic politics impact migrant workers. The 2013 mass deportations were partially in response to the Arab Spring and Saudi government fears that high national unemployment rates, especially among the youth, could spur the spread of political instability in the Kingdom. With current regional turmoil and government fears of domestic insecurity, there is the real risk for further government crackdowns on migrant workers and toleration of their abuse, using them as scapegoats for the country’s troubles.
Of all the headline grabbing events coming out of Saudi Arabia right now, from tensions with Iran boiling over after the beheading of a prominent Shia cleric, to its role in the war in Yemen and in triggering plummeting oil prices, the plight of migrant workers, especially that of female domestic workers, has been largely ignored by the international community. This is a grave mistake. With over nine million migrant workers – roughly the population of Sweden – in a country of only thirty million, their mistreatment is a source of both internal unrest and serious friction between the Saudis and the workers’ national governments which often lack the bargaining power needed to push the Saudi government into real action.
Moreover, and perhaps most crucially, one lesson that history teaches is that tolerating serious human rights abuses against the most vulnerable only begets more – and escalating – abuses. A country that, with some justification, believes it can act with impunity because of its status as the world’s leading oil supplier may go on to commit acts that, when compounded, have profound and destabilising consequences within the Middle East and beyond.
Change will require determined action on the part of the international community. Given its close relationship to the Saudi government, the West has a particular responsibility to apply pressure on its ally regarding its human rights record – including towards migrant workers. In their extreme vulnerability, the situation of Ethiopian domestic workers symbolises the disenfranchisement of millions of migrants working in Saudi Arabia. Human Rights organisations have continually tried to draw attention to their inhumane treatment. It is time that those most able to influence the Saudi Kingdom for change, actually do.
Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.