Under a new agreement Somalia is sending between 600 and 1,000 domestic workers to Saudi Arabia in time for Ramadan. The month of fasting usually brings an increase in the demand for domestic workers as employers often host large iftar meals to break their fast. This can mean long hours for the workers and more cases of overwork and abuse.
Over the last decade we have documented a plethora of abuses against domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, as well as other Gulf states. Domestic workers report that employers confiscate their passports to keep them from leaving and make them work excessive hours with no rest breaks and no days off.
Many say the employers don’t pay them their full salaries, if at all, that employers won’t let them leave the house, and often leave them without adequate food. In some cases, the employers abuse domestic workers psychologically, physically or sexually.
Major gaps in the Gulf countries’ labour laws coupled with unethical recruitment in home countries foster exploitation and violence. The Gulf countries’ kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers. Domestic workers need the consent of the employer if they want to change jobs, and those who leave before the end of their contracts can be imprisoned, fined or deported.
Steps taken by the Saudi government to address these problems have been ineffective. An online Saudi web portal, Musaned, set up to help address domestic worker grievances, doesn’t allow them to file complaints online and doesn’t even provide the addresses of labour offices where they can file complaints.
Over the years, several countries of origin have pushed for better working conditions for their citizens who go to Saudi Arabia to work. Some governments – most recently Indonesia and Uganda – have banned their citizens from working in Saudi Arabia altogether.
“Steps taken by the Saudi government to address these problems have been ineffective”
But restrictions and bans by countries of origin have just led Gulf States and recruitment agencies to seek out workers from countries, particularly in Africa, with weaker legal protection – like Somalia.
Bans have also not been effective and often cause workers to circumvent them at even greater risk. However, countries of origin can take measures to improve protection for their citizens working abroad.
The Somali Deputy Labour Minister, Osman Libah Ibrahim, recently told Human Rights Watch that the government plans to ensure its embassy in Saudi Arabia registers new arrivals and stays in contact with them. That will be helpful, but more will be needed to protect domestic workers from abuse and respond to those who have problems.
The Somali government should regularly monitor recruitment agencies in Somalia and everyone involved in the recruitment process. The deputy labor minister told us the government is working with recruitment agencies to offer vocational training to future domestic workers.
Skills training can be important, but the authorities should also make sure that before workers leave home, they understand the situation they will be working in, their rights and where to go for help.
The Somali embassy in Saudi Arabia should take some key steps to help protect workers. Embassy staff should consider requiring employers – as a condition of worker’s travel to Saudi Arabia – to provide the worker with a phone and a local sim card, as Indian embassies in the Gulf do.
“The embassy should also set up an emergency shelter for domestic workers who face violence and abuse”
When registering new arrivals in Saudi Arabia, the Somali embassy should inform both the employer and worker of her rights, and keep note of her number.
The embassy should also set up an emergency shelter for domestic workers who face violence and abuse. Women from countries that don’t provide emergency protection often end up in the Saudi deportation centers in conditions that are cramped and unsanitary and where they sometimes face ill-treatment.
Designated embassy staff should document workers’ complaints against employers or recruiters, and provide legal, medical and other assistance for abused workers. These findings should be shared with the relevant government agencies in Somalia.
Finally, the Somali government should ratify the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention for Decent Work for Domestic Workers – an international treaty to protect the rights of domestic workers – and make sure its laws and policies adhere to it.
Somalia has an opportunity to learn from other countries that have spent years developing systems to help abused workers in Saudi Arabia by putting in place necessary safeguards from the start. Failing to do so risks placing Somali women at the mercy of unscrupulous recruiters and employers who time and again seek out “cheaper” migrants with fewer protections.