Tariq A. Al-Maeena
A few days ago, the Saudi Press Agency, the official news agency of the Kingdom, reported that the General Directorate of Passports or Jawazat, as most residents know it, had warned that “those who hire or give shelter to runaway housemaids will be penalized with up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of SR100,000, and deportation in the case of expatriates. The fines will be doubled with the number of illegal domestic workers involved in the violation.”
The directorate emphasized that the penalty “will also be imposed on all those involved in extending any help to illegal residents in the form of giving them jobs, shelter, transportation, cover up and so on.” Companies who are brought to task in such illegal acts will also have to face punitive measures, including fines “amounting to SR100,000, five-year recruitment ban, naming and shaming of the institution, and six years in jail for the firm’s manager with deportation if he is an expatriate.”
The Directorate asked all citizens and expatriates to assist them in the war against illegal residents and their practices and to refrain from such activity themselves so as to avoid “facing penal actions.” It also asked all employers to report the flight of their workers to the Ministry of Interior though the Abshir website or by calling 989.
I read the report with interest, but then wondered, now what? How many times in the past have I heard similar warnings from the same directorate and yet have rarely heard of incidents involving the apprehension of people involved in illegal trafficking of workers? As long as there is a market with Saudis willing to employ illegal help with no questions asked and with no fear of retribution, these warnings mean nothing. Warnings without the strict enforcement of the law become no more effective than nagging. In one ear and out the other!
It is no secret that many workers and specifically domestic help flee from one sponsor to work for another for more pay or better work conditions.
And as long as people are willing to pay with no questions asked, there will always exist an army of middlemen who will assist as conduits in such transactions, illegal as they may be. One of the arguments consistently brought forth is that a worker would not flee if he or she were treated fairly and humanely. I accept that to a certain degree.
However, as many sponsors will attest, there are countless incidents of domestic helpers vanishing within days of their arrival in the Kingdom. These are domestic workers who have not been ill-treated or abused. These are prearranged practices that cause a great deal of turmoil to the sponsor who has shelled out a considerable fortune to recruit domestic help.
A flight attendant once told me that on a flight to the Kingdom from one of the countries in East Asia, she witnessed an Asian man passing out his Saudi mobile phone number to a number of female domestic workers and exhorting them to call him as soon as they were settled in their sponsor’s home. He would then arrange their fleeing from their current places of employment to better pastures. While some move on to other people’s homes working on a temporary basis with no conditions attached, others, unfortunately, are turned into the victims of the flesh trade, with their bodies used to make some middlemen rich.
As a result of so many reported cases of abusive employers, it has become a natural tendency to immediately place the fault of runaway help at the door of the employer. Not much sympathy is given to a home left in dire straits by the sudden disappearance of their help without notice. Perhaps there is hardship in a home that desperately needed them and had been treating them fairly. It could be an elderly lady they worked for, or a young divorced mother with children who needed to be looked after while she was at work. To fault all sponsors as being bad or abusive is a gross generalization and a distortion of facts. Greed causes many domestic workers to desert their lawful sponsors, and especially prior to the month of Ramadan when they know their services are at a premium demand and they can get three or four times the salary their sponsor is paying.
Some of you may argue, well why not? Let them get all they can. To such people I ask: What then is the value of a contract? The Saudi Ministry of Labor and its counterparts in many of the countries from where the labor pool is imported have been making long overdue corrections to glitches in the worker/sponsor arrangement with the specific intent of protecting the rights of workers. Lost in the shuffle perhaps are the financial rights of employers when a contract is not fulfilled.
Once an agreement is reached between two parties to render reasonable outcomes to each other, shouldn’t it then be honored by both parties?
— The author can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @talmaeena