Immigrant worker abuse in Middle East condemned by human rights group
International human rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has implored Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to make more effort to protect its immigrant workers, after shocking stories emerged about the abuse of three domestic workers.
In a statement issued on Tuesday, HRW said that it had received allegations from a maid in Kuwait whose employer drove nails into her body, a maid in Saudi Arabia who had been made to swallow nails, and a maid in Jordan who had been both beaten and forced to swallow nails.
The watchdog said the stories implied a “broader pattern of abuse”, and that the goverments of the three countries needed to create a stronger legal framework to protect their foreign workers.
"The wanton brutality alleged in these cases is shocking, but reports of physical abuse, sexual abuse, and labour exploitation such as non-payment of wages are nothing new,'' said Nisha Varia, a senior women's rights researcher at HRW.
Many domestic workers in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait come from Asia, Africa and other countries in the Middle East in the hope of receiving higher salaries. Because employers in Middle East countries often act as workers' "sponsors" however, they exert extreme power over their staff. Employers can prevent workers changing jobs or leaving the country, and often withold salaries for years.
Several accounts of extreme abuse have made worldwide news in the past year. In August, a Sri Lankan housemaid in Saudi Arabia claimed that her employer had forced over 20 nails into her arms, legs and forehead, while an Indonesian maid has been in hospital in Saudi Arabia since November 8 after being beaten by her employer.
Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has said he wants an "all-out diplomatic effort" to investigate the Indonesian maid's torture.
Ms Varia said that foreign domestic workers often found it very difficult to report abuse. "These workers are often isolated in private homes, and have problems speaking the language or understanding their legal rights. On top of this, if they do report abuse, they are likely to be treated as immigration offenders and detained or deported before the abuse is properly investigated.
"Employers also often respond to accusations by making counter-accusations, such as accusing a maid of adultery if she reports sexual abuse. The workers need to earn money, and they see making a report as too risky until they return home."
According to statistics recently published by campaign website Migrant Rights, a migrant worker commits suicide or attempts to on average every 2.5 days in Kuwait.
Several acts have been passed in recent years to try and improve immigrant workers' rights, but human rights campaigners say that the rules are difficult to enforce.
Fatima Gomar, editor of Migrant Rights, said: "In the Middle East, cases of migrant workers' abuse, even if it is severe, usually end without any charges being brought up against local employers who continue to act with impunity."
So far, Bahrain is the only country in the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) to have entirely abolished the sponsorship system.