New laws for domestic workers

Legislation passed this week will force Saudi employers to allow their staff days off, nine hours rest daily and sick leave.

Indonesian activists sit inside a mock cell to represent abused migrant workers during a demonstration outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, May 25, 2007. Tens of rights activists staged the demonstration demanding the government of Saudi Arabia to give protection to migrant workers, especially Indonesians, from abusive employers. AFP PHOTO/Ahmad ZAMRONI
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JEDDAH // After years of debate, Saudi Arabia's parliament this week passed a bill aimed at granting more rights to the country's 1.5 million domestic workers, yet human rights groups said it failed to go far enough in preventing abuse. The bill, which still has to be approved by the Saudi cabinet before becoming law, was passed on Sunday in an effort to regulate the market and put domestic helpers more on a par with other foreign workers in the country. It ensures they get one day off a week, nine hours of rest a day and the right to lodge a complaint if they feel they are being treated unfairly.

However, the bill did not go far enough for some rights groups, that said workers were still vulnerable to exploitation by their employers who could demand long working hours and refuse to let them leave the house. Didi Wahyudi, the head of consular affairs at the Indonesian consulate in the city of Jeddah, where there are about half a million Indonesian domestic workers, said he was optimistic about the new bill but wanted to also see an end to the sponsorship, or kafala system, as it still limited the ability of workers to change jobs.

Up until now, domestic workers have been excluded from most of the kingdom's labour laws and many have complained about non-payment of wages, long working hours and sexual or physical abuse. Under the new regulations, employers cannot demand their employee carry out any task that is not included in their work contract or one that would put their health or honour at risk. They must grant the worker one day off a week, sick leave if a medical certificate is provided, suitable accommodation as well as breaks for food, entertainment and prayer. They are not allowed to send them to work for someone else.

The bill will also impose penalties including fines, jail terms and being prevented from recruiting foreign workers. In a key addition to the bill, workers can now go directly to the Labour Office to file a complaint against their employer, rather than various entities such as their embassy and other official channels. Complicating this further was the fact that workers need to gain permission from their employer to leave the home, making the process of filing a complaint almost prohibitively complicated.

Yehia al Magbool, the head of the recruitment committee at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the clause allowing direct contact with the labour department was a key addition. "I'm optimistic to see that the law is giving more protection to domestic workers than ever, but I think that abolishing the sponsorship system will end the violations," said Mr Wahyudi, of the Indonesian consulate.

Saudi Arabia's restrictive kafala system has long been criticised by international rights organisations because it imposes rigid measures on labour mobility. The system, which ties migrant workers' visas to their employers, give employers the ability to prevent workers from changing jobs or leaving the country. "The new bill will ensure that many domestic workers will have better living conditions in the kingdom as they will be treated more justly than before ? at least now they can file a legal complaint against their sponsor more easily than before," he said.

Although the bill does not prevent employers from making their domestic help work between the hours of 10pm and 5am, it did stipulate nine hours of rest each day, although this does not have to be consecutive. The clause had been hotly debated both within parliament and in public, with many employers objecting to the prohibition as the average Saudi family does not go to bed until 1am or 2am. The Shoura Council agreed that working hours of domestic help should meet the household's needs.

There had been strong resistance from the public to granting domestic workers more rights, which was why it had been several years in the drafting and took the council more than three months to finalise. The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), however, said the bill did not yet meet international standards and called on the government to provide stronger protection for domestic workers.

Amendments can still be made to the bill before it is debated by the cabinet and becomes legally binding, although no date has been given yet for its presentation to the cabinet. According to HRW, the bill contains a number of "vague provisions" that could leave workers open to abuse such as a clause that obliges workers to provide a "legitimate reason" to leave their workplace, restricting workers' freedom.

HRW said that its research found that many domestic workers are restricted to their workplaces, sometimes locked in and forbidden to leave. "The Shoura Council finally ended its paralysis on these desperately needed protections," said Nisha Varia, deputy director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch in a press release. "Now the King and the cabinet need to remove the flawed provisions and make sure the final law can stand up to international scrutiny," she said.

The Saudi cabinet yesterday also approved a bill proposed by the Shoura Council that aims to prevent human trafficking. Under the new bill anyone convicted of human trafficking could face up to 15 years in prison and pay fines up to one million Saudi riyals (Dh954,000). According to the US state department's annual human rights report in 2008, a large number of men and women have been trafficked into the country to serve as domestic workers, and into the sex trade.

There have also been many cases over the past years of maids who were subject to sexual harassment by their Saudi sponsors. Conservatives have blamed the presence of female workers in the house for such incidents and called on the government to reform the system that makes Saudi households responsible for their workers, suggesting that recruitment agencies take over this task. "The only solution to end sexual harassment is by allowing domestic workers to work on an hourly basis instead of letting them reside at the employers' houses," said Fahad Subaih, a Saudi manager at a large state-owned corporation.

"The people have been calling for the introduction of a new system for a long time but no steps have been taken," he said. Mr al Magbool said recruitment agencies did not have the resources to handle this now. "Recruitment agencies don't have enough capabilities to monitor millions of workers and co-ordinate between them and their employers," said Mr al Magbool, who owns a recruitment agency. Wael Abu Mansour, a Saudi journalist, said the new law would not end violations against domestic workers in terms of long working hours and low wages, but that it was a step in the right direction.

"Hopefully the new law will lead to more awareness for both sides, which is missing at the moment. "Saudi human rights organisations, the labour ministry, and the embassies representing domestic labourers must push for more awareness in that regard."