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'Mercy' ad campaign urges Saudis to treat foreign workforce humanely

TV and newspaper ads created by a Saudi firm depict abuse of Asian maids in an effort to stem the widespread practice.

By Caryle MurphyCorrespondent / December 10, 2008

'Mercy:' Three newspaper ads created by the Saudi advertising firm Fullstop encourage readers to treat their domestic helpers better.



Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

The one-minute video airing on Saudi-owned satellite channels shows an Arab businessman screaming at his maid, pleading poverty when a domestic server asks to be paid, and denying an employee time off to visit his daughter in the hospital.

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The clip closes with the businessman at prayer, pleading God for compassion, before fading to a line that reads: "He who is not merciful himself, will not be afforded mercy [by Allah]."

The video is part of the "Mercy" campaign, a privately funded public service effort aimed at reminding Gulf Arabs that their religion requires them to treat employees, particularly their omnipresent maids and drivers, in a humane way.

The "Mercy" campaign also includes brutally candid ads in Saudi newspapers, including one that depicts a maid peeking out from a doghouse with a chain around her neck. "Don't Strip Me of My Humanity!" the title reads.

"We want to raise public interest, to make people talk ... and remind people what Islam is saying," says Kaswara al-Khatib, managing director of FullStop, the Jeddah-based advertising firm producing the public service ads, or PSAs.

Mr. Khatib says the campaign is part of his company's social responsibility. "I look at what is going on around us and try to do something about it," he says.

The way some people treat their household help is "not good enough," he says, noting that 13-hour workdays are common and that living conditions are sometimes poor.

"We think it's normal, but maybe we need to check, to go the extra mile," he says. "We need to treat them as equals."

Mercy is an important virtue in Islam. According to its scriptures, the prophet Muhammad once said: "The merciful are shown mercy by the All-Merciful. Have mercy on those on earth, and the Lord of the Heavens will have mercy on you."

And before beginning most endeavors, Muslims invoke God's blessing by saying, "In the name of God the most merciful, the most compassionate."

Nonetheless, the treatment of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries is a sensitive and controversial matter, with critics charging that they are often underpaid and overworked.

There are an estimated 5.6 million foreigners living in Saudi Arabia, whose native population is 22.5 million, according to the CIA World Factbook. Many foreign workers are from poor Asian countries, such as Nepal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.

In July, the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a report about the conditions of the estimated 1.5 million household staff workers in Saudi Arabia. The report, titled "As If I Am Not Human," said that these workers "receive less protection in Saudi Arabia than other categories of workers, exposing them to egregious abuses with little or no hope of redress.