'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.

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

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.

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.

"While many domestic workers enjoy decent work conditions," the report said, others endure "slavery-like conditions" that included "nonpayment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse."

The report caused a furor in Saudi Arabia, where newspaper columnists and government officials slammed it for being one-sided and exaggerated.

Many Saudis say that they, too, are victims, citing instances of maids running away to look for higher paying jobs after their employers had paid several hundred dollars to bring them to the kingdom.

"I'm sure there are abuses," Turki al-Sudairy, president of the government-appointed Human Rights Commission, said in a phone interview. "But a neutral person would think that all Saudis are doing this.... We want a fair judgment….They [HRW] never thought that there are cases where the girls are hurting their employers."

Mazen Hayek, spokesman for the Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC) in Dubai, said that there has not been a lot of viewer feedback about the television ads of the "Mercy" campaign.

He attributed this to the fact that "it's not an accusatory campaign, it's an awareness campaign…. It calls for basic human rights and good treatment of human beings…. It's not controversial."

MBC and MBC-owned Al Arabiyya TV, which are popular throughout the Middle East, are both airing the three "Mercy" videos "free of charge as part of its commitment to society," Mr. Hayek says.

MBC is owned by an in-law of the late Saudi King Fahd.

Rotana, another popular satellite television network among Arab audiences, which is owned by Saudi Prince al-Waleed bin Talal, is also planning to air the "Mercy" videos, Khatib says.

Apart from the clip of the Arab businessman, two others show an Arab housewife shouting abuse at her maid, who appears to be Filipina. In one, she tells the maid to "get out of my sight" and in another, she yells at her "not to sleep until the house is spotless" as she apparently retires for the night.

The "Mercy" ads are not appearing on Saudi government-owned television stations, Khatib says.

One Saudi newspaper offered the print version of the campaign declined to take it, but several others are running it, he added.

He says he'd only seen one negative comment so far from one newspaper reader.

The $100,000 cost of the videos and print ads, which were all produced in Saudi Arabia, was borne by an individual who wanted to remain anonymous, Khatib says.

His firm has done other public service campaigns in the past, he adds, including ones against smoking and gossiping. Others have encouraged people to be good to their mothers, be devout Muslims, and demonstrate their patriotism by helping to improve Saudi society.

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