By Giovanni Giacalone
The victims include skilled and unskilled workers of different religion and nationality, mainly from Asia. Christians, Hindus, Muslims, from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, Indonesia. Young adults leaving their home countries to look for a better future abroad; men and women often with children to support back home.
In Saudi Arabia these workers are willing to take those jobs that are considered "low" or "humiliating" by the Saudi population. The men deliver dairy products, clean hospitals, repair pipes, collect garbage while the women often work as maids, they clean, cook, take care of children. They are an essential working force for Saudi Arabia since without them such jobs would probably remain uncovered even if, paradoxically, the youth unemployment rate in the Kingdom is approaching 30%.
The words of Dr. Abdul Wahid bin Khalid al-Humaid, vice-Minister of Labour give a clear picture of the situation:
"We have a young population. We need to generate 6.5 million jobs. At the moment we have jobs that people don't like to do. So either we create jobs that people like, or we try to convince people to accept the jobs that are available".
According to Human Rights Watch more than 8 million migrant workers are employed in service jobs in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, giving it the highest population of foreign workers among the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council and yet the organization notes that in 2011 Asian embassies alone recorded thousands of complaints from employees forced to work 140-hour weeks with no days off, in many cases without being paid a salary and that is not enough; in fact many of these workers have to face systematic abuses carried out on a daily base by their employers.
Human rights organizations have strongly criticized Saudi Arabia's sponsorship system, which requires all expatriates to have a Saudi citizen as sponsor, usually the employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status, as an enabler of worker exploitation. It is not uncommon for employers to take possession of workers' passports, and many of them have been known to refuse workers' requests to return to their home countries for visits and deny requests to change jobs.
Excessive hours or work in extreme conditions without being paid is not the only problematic. In fact a worrying number of rapes and other abuses have been reported among domestic workers in the country by different human rights organizations. A study by the Committee on Philipinos Overseas found that 70 percent of Philipino domestic workers reported physical and psychological abuse.
In October 2012, Al-Watan reported that an Indonesian maid died after 18 months in hospital as a consequence of severe beating at the hands of her Saudi sponsor's son. Although the young Saudi man was allegedly responsible for the worker's death, he faced no legal consequences.
Frequent reports of rape from Nepalese workers in Saudi Arabia were a contributing factor in Nepal banning women younger than 30 from working in the Gulf states last year.
Many mistreated workers were refused medical assistance and some were in such dramatic conditions that they resorted to suicide, as it occurred with an Ethiopian maid who hanged herself in her employer's home in December 2012.
Saudi Arabia abolished slavery in 1962 but the conditions of these workers are still extremely worrying; it was only in August 2013 that the Saudi government passed a draft law criminalizing domestic abuse, a purely theoretical measure since it doesn't specify the details to ensure prompt investigations on the abuses.
As pointed out by Human Rights Watch director Joe Stork, Saudi Arabia has finally banned domestic abuse, but has yet to say which agencies will implement the new law and without effective mechanisms to punish domestic abuse, this law is merely ink on paper.
Abuses are still taking place daily as shown by a recent video where a Saudi man is repeatedly beaten and whipped after being accused of talking to the attacker's wife. The video has triggered public anger and pushed many human rights organizations to follow the case.
LINK TO THE VIDEO http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P9izifaUFro
In 2011 another video published online showed a Saudi young man beating a garbage collector for no reason while in another one published by Live Leak a Saudi is humiliating, spitting and beating a Bangladeshi taxi driver.
LINK TO THE VIDEOS http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waAmT5mGn3c
These abuses were caught on camera and brought to the public, but they are only a few of the many cases that target on a daily base expats in the Saudi Kingdom.
The new draft law has been passed by the government but without doubt Saudi Arabia has still a long way to go in relation to the rights of foreign workers.
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The historical experience to date has shown that identity politics have always served the interests of those who exploit such identities, not those who carry them