Commentary: Kafala and Saudi Arabia's abuse of foreign workers

Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald.
Frida Ghitis is a contributing columnist for the Miami Herald. MCT

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — When Mrs. L.P. Ariyawathie showed up at the hospital in the town of Kamburupitiya, near the southern tip of Sri Lanka, few could imagine that the 49-year-old mother of three would make headlines across the world. Normally, the news from Sri Lanka fails to garner much international attention. Ariyawhathie's story, however, managed what decades of civil war, suicide bombings and last year's bloody end to a brutal war failed to do: It made the world pay attention.

At first, the woman whose eyes still radiate intense sadness told a story almost too bizarre to believe, except that Sri Lankans have already heard disturbing tales from poor friends traveling to strange lands to earn a living. Those stories are often most outrageous when they describe the experiences of women traveling to Saudi Arabia, as Ariyawhathie did.

In May, she started working as a housekeeper with a Saudi family. The suffering began immediately, with cruel mockery by her employer every time she tried to speak the few words in Arabic she had learned in preparation to leave her home and her family and travel to the mysterious kingdom. Before long, the taunts turned to torture. Then one day, after she accidentally broke a plate, her boss asked if she was blind, aiming his hand toward one of her eyes. When she raised her arm over her face, the first nail went in. By the time she made it back home to Sri Lanka and arrived at the hospital, her Saudi employer had hammered 24 nails and needles into her hands, legs and forehead.

This is not another story about the unspeakable sorrow that poverty inflicts on its victims. It's about how some of the wealthiest, most privileged people on Earth fail the most basic test of humanity, and how the time has come for the Saudi government -- which never tires of proclaiming its piousness -- to make reforms aimed at protecting the most vulnerable in its midst.

Saudi Arabia hosts some eight million foreigners, mostly poor people from Asia and the Middle East, desperate for work. Hundreds of thousands are women employed as domestic workers, living in conditions that are often no better than slavery. Some 400,000 Sri Lankans live there, mostly women working in private homes. Too many of them experience horrific abuse, including beatings, rape and even murder.

Sri Lankan politician Ranjan Ramanayake says he frequently receives pleading calls from relatives of workers in the Gulf. "Saudi Arabia is the worst," he noted. "It is followed by Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Abu Dhabi. Our mothers, sisters and daughters undergo unspeakable harassment."

Under a Saudi system called Kafala, workers become practically property of employers, surrendering their passport on arrival, becoming trapped in a country where law and culture leave laborers, especially foreigners, with few rights. The situation for migrant women -- impossible as it would seem -- is far worse.

Nonpayment of wages across the board has been thoroughly documented by human rights and labor organizations, as have harsh working and living conditions. But nothing compares to the plight of South Asian women in Saudi Arabia, and for that matter in much of the Middle East.

There is no shortage of examples. Earlier this year, 26-year-old Balakrishnan Dharshan, who had left the Sri Lankan city of Kandy to work in Saudi Arabia, was found dead, her body covered with burn marks. A 25-year-old Indonesian housekeeper lost fingers, toes and part of a foot after her employer kept her tied in the bathroom. A Saudi paper reported last year that the Sri Lankan embassy receives 10 runaway maids every day.

The situation is so desperate that India and Nepal have already banned their women from accepting placements in Saudi Arabia, following thousands of abuse reports.

Kafala ensures that workers have practically no recourse and often no way out. Attitudes towards women, non-Muslims, foreigners and workers in menial occupations set the stage for brutality and impunity.

If the Saudis want to earn some respect from the rest of the world, they now have our attention. All abusers should be prosecuted and punished.

But there's more. Not only should foreign workers have a right to keep their passports and leave the country without special permission, but the laws must be revised to protect their most basic rights. The Ariyawathie case made the world look in a direction it seldom does, toward Sri Lanka. What the world saw, however, is what most urgently needs to change in Saudi Arabia.

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