Saudi housemaids' tale causes stir

Revelation that Saudi women are taking jobs as domestic workers upsets citizens and fuels the debate on employment opportunities.

Jeddah // As unemployment rises, an announcement last week by a group of 30 Saudi women that they had begun working as housemaids has fomented renewed debate in the kingdom about laws limiting the ability of women to participate in business. For a Saudi woman, working as a housemaid has generally been taboo, or at least unnecessary, in the oil-rich country, but as poverty and unemployment rise local women are working in low-end jobs that have until now been performed by migrant workers, mostly from South and South-East Asia.

Social activists and legislators are in a heated battle over the opening of such jobs to Saudi women, as activists argue that recruiting women into less menial jobs should be the starting point, especially given that only 6.21 per cent of women participate in the private sector, according to official estimates. While unemployment rates among Saudi men dipped from 6.9 per cent to 6.8 per cent in the six months ended in March, it officially climbed for women to almost 27 per cent last August, up from 25 per cent six months earlier, according to the ministry of labour figures published in March, the latest data available.

The increase in women's unemployment boosted the percentage of people out of work in the kingdom from 9.8 per cent to 10 per cent over the same period, though this figure was down from August 2007, when unemployment stood at 11 per cent, the deputy minister of labour, Abdul Wahid al Humaid, said. "The ministry of labour deliberately forces Saudis into low-end jobs while high-end jobs are abundant in the country," said Mohammed Fahad al Qahtani, a leading reformer and professor of economics at the Riyadh-based Institute of Diplomatic Studies.

"The ministry should start from the top towards the bottom and not the opposite," he added. Prof al Qhatani said there was no such thing as a "socially unacceptable" job, but there are low-end and high-end ones and the time is not appropriate for opening up the lower ones for Saudi women when there are many expatriates to fill them. Saudi Arabia has come under heavy international criticism recently because its work regulations do not protect the rights of housemaids, who are forced to work long hours for low pay.

However, after years of debate, a new bill for domestic workers is waiting for the cabinet's approval after the Saudi parliament passed it in July. The bill aims to grant more rights to the country's 1.5 million foreign domestic workers. The bill 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. Saudi women who have become domestic workers will also benefit from the bill that was originally tailored for foreign workers.

The 30 Saudi women who have taken jobs as housemaids are aged between 20 and 45 and none of them have primary school certificates, the head of the agency that recruited them said in a newspaper interview. Hana Othman, the manager of the employment agency, which was not named, told Al Madina daily that the women earn salaries of up to SR1,500 (Dh1,471) per month. According to Mr Othman, the 30 women were selected after a series of interviews and intense training and another 100 women have applied and are waiting to be interviewed.

Activists, however, think the women are being unfairly forced to take menial jobs amid a lack of opportunities for women in the private sector because of severe restrictions on women's participation in the economy. "I've seen some of the applications of these women and some of them hold a university degree," said Trad al Aamari, an activist who launched the kingdom's first civil anti-poverty campaign.

"The society and the system are dealing with women based on double standards. On one hand, they provide jobs to them; and on the other, they limit their participation to certain fields," he added. Mr al Asmari said some religious figures are against increasing women's participation in the economy and are opposed to them taking certain types of jobs without any proper justification. He pointed to the recent debate on allowing women to work at shops selling women's lingerie and how that was rejected by the religious authorities who have final say over all legislation.

In ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, such shops are still staffed entirely by men as the authorities believe that it is against tradition and Islam to see women working in public, even if they sell underwear to each other. "The way that underwear is being sold in Saudi Arabia is simply not acceptable to any population living anywhere in the modern world," Reem Asaad, who is leading a campaign to get women working in lingerie shops, told the BBC in February.

Even businesses that are run by women and dedicated to serving only women lack legal support. On Saturday, the Saudi Okaz daily newspaper reported that a women-only restaurant in the northern city of Tabuk, close to the Jordanian border, was closed after its female owner said she could not obtain a licence even though it employed 15 women and had been operating for seven months. Authorities in the city told the newspaper they had no problem with licensing the restaurant, but the owner said that no one was cooperating with her to get a licence.

Businesswomen have limited control over their businesses as they can't interact with males in the workplace and are required to have a male manager to run the business if it is not operated fully by women.