By: Our Correspondent

The decision last week by the Saudi Arabian government to stop hiring maids from the Philippines and Indonesia as of Aug.1 has created chaos in the overseas labor markets of the two countries, with the fate uncertain for tens of thousands signed up by labor contractors waiting to leave for the gulf kingdom.

The Philippines has some 25,000-35,000 prospective workers in the pipeline to go to Saudi Arabia and 360,000 workers there now, a government spokesman said Friday. Some 180,000 are domestic helpers.  Saudi Arabia is the top destination of Filipino overseas foreign workers in total and fourth for domestic helpers. Those numbers are dwarfed by Indonesia, which has 927,000 migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, mostly working as housemaids, according to the Indonesian government news service Antara.

It is questionable how long the ban will last. Most observers believe it will be lifted relatively soon. With nearly a third of its population made up of foreign workers, Saudi Arabia has a seemingly insatiable thirst for foreign workers and both Indonesia and the Philippines have a strong need to keep sending people overseas.  According to the World Bank, overseas workers provide 10 percent of Philippine gross domestic product and a major share of private consumption. The country has a whopping 11.2 million of its 40-million work force unemployed.

The English language news site Arab News quoted Hattah BinSaleh Al Anzi, a spokesman for the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Labor, as saying the ministry had made the decision in retaliation for moves by the two countries to impose stricter conditions on prospective Saudi employers.  However, many observers believe the decision to halt the import of foreign workers actually stems from the embarrassment the Saudis encountered after they beheaded an Indonesian maid with a sword after she had murdered her employer.  The Indonesian government recalled its ambassador for consultations, saying the Saudis hadn’t informed the Indonesian government of its decision to execute the woman, a video of which was carried on a Saudi website. Another22 Indonesian workers face beheading by sword, according to Indonesia’s justice and human rights minister.

Both the Philippines and Indonesia have sought to impose new conditions on Saudi employers.  The Philippine government has been in negotiations to require foreign employers to pay domestic workers a minimum monthly wage of US$400 plus give additional details of the living conditions in which domestic workers will reside. The Saudi government has also vetoed a Philippine proposal to require medical insurance for maids. 

A Saudi government delegation arrived in Manila in April to negotiate the labor dispute, but the talks have broken down.   A request to reconvene the talks has not been answered.

Although the Philippine government says there are other host countries willing to absorb the displaced Filipino workers, it is unsure where they will go. John Leonard Monterona, regional coordinator for Migrante-Middle East, told local media that the ban is “a huge setback to the Philippine economy, which is too dependent on OFWs’ remittances.”

Human rights organizations for years have been complaining about the treatment of overseas workers in the Saudi kingdom.  Foreign workers, Human Rights Watch said, “face torture, forced confessions and unfair trials when they are accused of crimes.”  Foreign workers, the organization said in a 135 page report. “have been denied consular visits and forced to sign confessions that they could not read.”

Amnesty International, in its 2011 report on Saudi Arabia, said that “The sponsorship system governing employment of foreign nationals (in Saudi Arabia) continued to expose them to exploitation and abuse by private and government employers, and allowed them little or no redress. Typical abuses included long working hours, non-payment of salaries, being refused permission to return home after completing their contracts and violence, particularly against women domestic workers.”

Some of the cases cited by Amnesty International are horrific. “An Indonesian domestic worker, Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, was hospitalized in Madina following reports that her employers cut her face with scissors, burned her with an iron and beat her, according to Amnesty International. “The mutilated body of another Indonesian worker, Kikim Komalasari, was found in a skip in Abha. The Saudi Arabian and Indonesian authorities were said to be investigating the cases.” A Sri Lankan employed as a domestic worker was found to have had 24 nails and a needle driven into her hands, leg and forehead after she complained about her heavy workload, the report said. 

 “When female domestic workers ready themselves for the daily treadmill of barbarously petty housework activities (there is no clear delineation of tasks), they live with the knowledge that rape and murder are occupational hazards, wrote wrote Khara J Jabola-Carolus for the website Migrant-Rights.org. “Indeed, female returnees recount stories of wearing three or four pairs of underwear at night and barricading themselves in their quarters with chairs jammed beneath their doorknobs. Rape is not sex in the sense that a woman is attractive and a man can’t resist her. Elderly women and babies are raped. It’s about being a convenient victim and dominance. The domestic worker is the highest manifestation of “convenience.”