The brutality of attacks on four Indonesian maids last month in the Saudi town of Aflaj shocked even the most hardened observers in this kingdom, where employers have a long history of mistreating their domestic workers.
Accused of practicing black magic on the son of their Saudi employers, these domestic helpers were beaten over a period of two days beginning Aug. 3. Siti Tarwiyah Slamet and Susmiyati Abdul Fulan were killed. Tari Tarsam and Ruminih Surtim survived, but were taken away by Saudi police from the hospital just days after being admitted once they were deemed well enough to be questioned.
Since then, seven Saudi males from the same family have been arrested and are under investigation. The Saudi government never officially informed the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh of the crime, and only after migrant groups and relatives of the maids held two demonstrations outside the Saudi Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, did the Saudi ambassador to Indonesia issue a statement saying that authorities in Riyadh needed more time to complete their investigation before they could send the two surviving maids and the remains of the two slain women home.
This latest attack on foreign domestic help came as no surprise to international human rights groups and migrant workers' rights groups, who say they have been witnessing a steady rise in horrific acts of violence against foreign workers in the kingdom.
"The brutal killings of these Indonesian domestic helpers occurred in an atmosphere of impunity fostered by government inaction," says Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in New York. "Not only do the authorities typically fail to investigate or prosecute abusive employers, the criminal justice system also obstructs abused workers from seeking redress."
Now, says Ms. Varia, the Saudi government should train a special police force to investigate crimes committed against domestic workers and labor laws should be extended to cover them. Currently they are not protected by Saudi labor laws, leaving them with very little legal recourse.
She also said that she hopes Saudi human rights groups "will take a much more active and vocal role in protecting the rights of foreign workers."
According to HRW, approximately 2 million women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and other countries work as domestic helpers here. Many of them face a slew of problems, from late payment of salaries, extended working hours, beatings, and sexual assault, during the length of a typical two-year contract.
An indication of how bad things can get for domestic workers are the shelters for runaway maids run by both the Philippine and Indonesian diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah.
"There are around 300 maids now at our shelter in Riyadh, which is down from around 560 maids a few months ago, and there are around 45 maids at the shelter in Jeddah," says Eddy Zulfuat, vice consul at the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh.
"We have around 35 domestic helpers in the shelter here in Jeddah," says Philippine Consul General Pendosina Lomondot. "We have had more in the past, but never at the levels of the Indonesians."
The Indonesian Embassy has been so swamped with cases of abused workers that it has hired a full-time Saudi lawyer to deal with all of the criminal cases.
"We continue to hear of abuses being committed against migrant domestic workers as employers do not change that much in terms of negative attitudes toward domestic helpers," says Ellene Sana, the head of the Center for Migrant Advocacy in Manila. "Domestic workers are considered virtual slaves by employers who feel that they can ill-treat them as they please, without the slightest remorse."
The fate of abused workers in Saudi Arabia is further complicated by the fact that labor-exporting countries in Asia, pressured by growing populations, feel an obligation to send larger and larger numbers of workers overseas in search of work. This has caused many of these governments not to press to hard concerning abuses against their workers out of fear that protesting too much could offend Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
When Indonesia tried a few years ago to raise the minimum age and salaries of maids sent to work abroad, a coalition of employment agencies in the Gulf threatened to look elsewhere in Asia for maids and drivers. Jakarta soon backed down on the salary front and continued to send maids to the Middle East.
The Philippines recently raised the minimum salary of maids sent abroad to $400 a month, but some doubt that the Philippine government will have the means of enforcing it 100 percent.
The flip side of all of this is that some Saudi employers feel aggrieved by the high cost of having to pay for the air ticket, visa, and labor agency fees to bring a maid from abroad to work for them. Saudi newspaper opinion columns are full of stories of recently hired Indonesian maids running away within weeks of arriving. Their employers regularly accuse underground networks of Indonesian labor brokers of luring their maids away with promises of better pay and working conditions in the black market.