Saudi authorities in Makkah have proposed new measures aimed at addressing the escalating trend of runaway workers, who are brought in from poorer countries via Saudi sponsorship.
Saudi households suffer major inconvenience due to the huge problem of runaway maids, particularly at the most important time of the year, Ramadan. It can prove almost impossible to find replacement workers without resorting to the costly and illegal market in housemaids, ironically composed of runaway maids.
According to figures cited by Arab News, 89 percent of households have at least one maid, with approximately 1.5 million foreign maids working in the Kingdom via the sponsor system. At least 20,000 maids are estimated to runaway from their employers on an annual basis, after their employers have gone through the time consuming business of sponsoring them.
A report in Arab News states that the problem of runaway workers could be addressed through legislation which would result in daily fines of SR50 levied on the runaway. The fines would be paid to the Saudi government, and in addition the worker would pay one salary to the employer who has been deprived of their service. The runaway would not be able to leave the Kingdom until all financial obligations to their employer are settled. Yet according to Migrant Rights there is "no law in the country to make the sponsor prove his financial ability to pay for the salary of foreign domestic maids or drivers when he employs them."
This can result in housemaids working for a sponsor without receiving any payment, as in the case of Salastri Salamah, who died in service to her employer, highlighted by MR. "She worked in a remote village in central Saudi Arabia where she was held in slave-like conditions and was not paid for seven and a half years. The sponsor was completely uncooperative and allegedly owed the maid 89 months’ salary. When approached by the embassy, he claimed that he does not have the money to pay her salary or for the repatriation of her body."
Maher Jamal, spokesman of the Makkah Chamber and Commerce and Industry described runaway workers as "corrupt people" and said "They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with it without any type of punishment or penalty. If we let people violate laws and don’t punish them for it, its negative effects will increase in our society and we won’t be able to control the phenomenon." (Saudi Gazette)
Whilst there is undoubtedly a certain percentage of immigrant workers who abscond from their employers in search of higher wages, having used the sponsorship as a means of gaining admittance to the Kingdom, there is also a huge issue of runaway maids due to ill treatment by their sponsors. Many maids maintain they run away due to ill treatment, while their employers maintain the maids are dishonest in running away.
However, there is a huge body of human rights evidence that reveals many maids have no choice but to escape from intolerable circumstances, which include rape; being locked up in the household and forced to work many hours; not receiving agreed payments; being treated as slave labour or sexual slaves; and other complaints. In these circumstances the new proposed legislation would leave them more vulnerable to being imprisoned by their employers if returned to them with a financial obligation to settle.
Last year the Saudi government refused to accept requests from Indonesia to ensure greater protections were written into workers’ contracts. The controversy, which coincided with the beheading of an Indonesian housemaid in Saudi and subsequent complaints from the Indonesian government, resulted in Saudi banning new workers from Indonesia. The lack of Saudi willingness to ensure foreign workers were given adequate protection under the law reinforced the position taken byMigrant Care which concluded Arab countries were dangerous places for Indonesian workers. They reported that in 2010 there were 5,563 cases recorded of physical abuse against Indonesian workers in Saudi Arabia.
The new proposed legislation gives more protection to Saudi employers and less to immigrant workers who fall into the category of the overworked or abused, who feel the need to flee intolerable conditions. It will however help to ensure that Saudi households no longer have to endure the prospect of coping with Ramadan without domestic labour, as runaway maids will be forced to work off their government fine, and pay some of their salary to the employer, if caught and returned.