The treatment of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia has led to protests in many parts of the world. Photo: Reuters
Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday, executed a Filipino domestic worker who was found guilty of murder, Al Jazeera reported on Thursday. The 39-year-old woman, was sentenced to death by the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council and executed after the court ruled out the possibility of her case being eligible for a ‘blood money’ settlement, known as ‘diya’ under Shariah law. Diya is a method of monetary compensation by the accused to the murdered victim’s relatives, in lieu of the capital punishment. The family of the domestic worker were informed of her execution only the next day.
The issue has brought to the forefront the issue of the horrible conditions endured by domestic workers in the Gulf countries, and Saudi Arabia’s appalling record on the issue of capital punishment.
More than 10 million Filipino workers go abroad seeking better employment and economic opportunities. Close to 2.3 million of them work in the Middle east Gulf countries and north Africa, out of which 1 million are in Saudi Arabia alone. Migrante, a group that supports the rights of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW), said the worker executed on Tuesday was just “another casualty of the Philippine government’s decades-old labor export program.” The group called upon the government to “find out what led to the OFW to commit the murder, instead of readily accepting with certainty the guilt of the OFW.”
In January 2018, the Philippines declared that it would not send any more domestic workers to Kuwait following reports of four women committing suicide due to exploitative working conditions.
In 2011, the Committee on Overseas Workers’ Affairs (COWA) of the House of Representatives of Philippines published a report following a visit to Saudi Arabia, chronicling the condition of OFW in the country. The report by the team, chaired by Walden Bello, was damning and recommended decertifying Saudi Arabia as a destination for Overseas Filipino Workers. “While professionals do not appear to be greatly dissatisfied with their lot, many domestic workers are cast into very oppressive conditions of work, where physical abuse and rape are rampant,” the report noted. It pointed out how rape was a constant specter for women domestic workers and highlighted the dubious circumstances behind a number of deaths, as well as cases of capital punishment.
The execution of the Filipino domestic worker follows the execution of an Indonesian domestic worker, Tuti Tursilawati, just months ago. She was sentenced to death for allegedly killing her employer after he tried to rape her. The Indonesian government registered a symbolic protest with Saudi Arabia in response, also saying that they weren’t even informed before the execution of one of its citizens took place. In 2015, two Indonesian domestic workers were beheaded after being found guilty of murder, leading to angry demonstrations by Indonesians in Jakarta. Then too, the Indonesian government had registered official complaints with Saudi Arabia, protesting the fact that they were not informed prior to the executions taking place. In another instance, eight Bangladeshi migrant workers were beheaded in public in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia in 2011 after they were found guilty of killing an Egyptian.
The latest execution is just one more in the long trail of instances of cruel and inhumane treatment and extremely tortuous mental, physical and sexual abuse of foreign domestic workers from the Philippines and other countries in Saudi Arabia. There is also the issue of death sentences and executions meted out to them in very suspicious, secretive circumstances. One of the most outrageous cases of ill-treatment was in 2014 when a Sri Lankan domestic worker returned from Saudi Arabia with 24 nails inside her body. The woman alleged that her Saudi employer had tortured her and driven nails into her body as punishment. In another case in 2010, 23-year-old Sumiati Binti Mustapa was beaten violently by her Saudi employer. Burns were inflicted on her head with a hot iron and she was mutilated with scissors, leaving her with internal bleeding and several broken bones. The employer only faced 3 years in jail for his crimes. Human rights organizations have been for many years highlighting the extremely abusive and harmful conditions and circumstances in which domestic workers have to live and work in Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights Watch published findings it had collected based on 142 interviews with domestic workers, senior government officials, labor recruiters in Saudi Arabia and labor sending countries. The report talked about a wide range of abusive employment practices prevalent in the country, such as excessive workload, unpaid wages, no weekly rest days, no overtime pay, working hours of 18 hours per day and seven days a week, among others. The kafala (sponsorship) system that effectively binds and chains foreign workers’ visas to their employers was also a major cause of concern. It can end up making the worker wholly dependent on his/her employer, who can also prevent the workers from changing jobs or stop them from leaving the country. HRW came across several women during their interviews, who revealed that their employers had forced them to work against their will for months or years. Instances such as taking away of the workers’ passports and locking them inside the home, were also reported. HRW concluded that this kind of treatment and conditions qualify as forced labor, trafficking, and slavery-like conditions.
What makes matters worse is the flimsy investigation procedures in place and a heavily biased criminal justice system that in most cases translates into the employers escaping punishment for their abuse and crimes, while domestic workers have to undergo arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and unusually severe punishments. Not only do Saudi nationals escape with little to no punishment, domestic workers are also slapped with counter accusations of witchcraft, theft, adultery etc. This results in many of the women not filing complaints at all, for fear of countercharges. In some cases, they drop the charges against their employers to escape living in overcrowded shelters for a long period of time, and very faint hopes of justice, due to the abysmal justice system.
Saudi Arabia is ranked as one of the top countries in terms of executions in the world. In 2018, 143 people were executed in Saudi Arabia, according to the European-Saudi organization for human rights. Rape, murder, apostasy, armed robbery and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Saudi Arabia’s strict version of Islamic law.
It is estimated that more than 45 foreign domestic workers are facing execution on death row in Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International. The actual number is likely to be much higher, since the Saudis don’t publish official figures. Most of these are from Indonesia, but activists and human rights groups say there are also domestic workers from Sri Lanka, Philippines, India and Ethiopia who are facing the death penalty.