RIYADH, JUL 22: The problem of domestic workers fleeing their sponsors is a two-way street: On one side is the worker who all-too-often is abused or the victim of other types of exploitation. But there’s the other side, too: The people who hire these workers, paying thousands of riyals, who then disappear in a matter of months.
Hala, a 35-year-old schoolteacher who didn’t want to use her family name, describes a situation that is frequently faced by Saudi families. She and her husband acquired a driver through legal channels. Later they discovered he was harboring an illegal worker in his quarters, a women he claimed was his wife. They told him he couldn’t keep an illegal resident in his quarters. He disappeared shortly afterward.
“We felt we had to inform the authorities, but now we have to wait for three months to recruit another driver,” she said. “Meanwhile we have been interviewing drivers locally as a temporary solution, and when we ask about their current sponsor we discover that they’re runaway workers themselves.”
“Who helps the Saudi employer who gets stranded between the hammer of the runaway employees and the anvil of the large amounts of money paid to recruit these workers?” she asks.
Laila, a 40-year-old Saudi working woman, said she went through the time and expense to get a caretaker from the Philippines for her elderly mother only to have to return the young woman because she had second thoughts about working in so far from home.
“Three weeks after the iqama is done the maid started feeling homesick and was crying all the time,” she said. “I took her back to the recruiting office and asked to move her to another family — thinking she might feel better in a different household.”
But it didn’t work out, and Laila ended up paying for the woman’s plane ticket home. “It was a waste of money and time and an exhausting experience,” she said. “Now my mother is alone again.”
According to Saad N. Al-Baddah, chairman of the National Recruitment Committee at the Council of the Saudi Chambers of Commerce & Industry, the national umbrella organization for the Kingdom’s regional chambers, there are two types of runaway domestic workers: Those that seek refuge for one reason or another at their local embassy or consulate and those that breakaway from their contracts in order to work illegally elsewhere.
“We differentiate between both cases,” he said. “Refusing to work might be a result of a conflict with the employer, or feeling homesick, or other reasons. On the other hand, running away means this person has disappeared from the system altogether.”
According to the Philippine Embassy’s Manpower Center, there are at least 750 workers that have sought refuge with the foreign mission. These workers have various reasons for fleeing their sponsors, from clams of not being paid in a timely manner in accordance to the work contract, complaints of physical (or even sexual) abuse, or simply having second thoughts and wanting to return home.
The rights of these workers falls under the Ministry of Labor in most cases and if the employer is found to have violated the rights of the employee then he can be black-listed from recruiting foreign workers, according to Al-Baddah.
When employers seek to hire legal guest workers, they end up paying more than SR10,000 in recruitment and visa fees.
Al-Baddah, who spoke on behalf of the employers of these domestic workers, suggests an insurance scheme that would reimburse part of the expenses should a worker suddenly disappear from the job.
“A maid signs a contract and works for three, four or even eight months, but then she decides she want to leave,” said Al-Baddah. “She is either homesick or misses her kids, or has circumstances that demand her return. What is the role of the embassies in this case? In my opinion the solution is insurance.”
According to Al-Baddah, the Ministry of Labor is studying a proposal that would reimburse employers if their workers flee.
The ministry handles dispute resolutions between employers and employee unless they involve criminal charges. Whichever side is deemed to be at fault for labor or contractual violations is supposed to reimburse the other side.
A common complaint among workers is when employer fails to pay their workers on a timely basis. These workers generally rely on timely payment because they are remitting all or part of their salaries home to their dependents. In many cases these workers borrowed money to cover their costs paid to recruiters back home, and these salaries are being used to pay off the debt, especially in the earlier months of their employment period.
But Al-Baddah dismisses delayed payment as the reason why workers leave their employers. He says that in many cases the workers and the recruitment agencies in their countries conspire that the employer quit shortly after the 90-day trial period that recruiters generally provide for sponsors to decide if the worker is satisfactory.
“I do not think workers run away because of one or two salaries (being delayed), especially if they feel comfortable in the work environment,” he said. “But, I would like to underline my statement, because of the fact that there is no regulation that protects the Saudi employer.”
He says more should be done to push the countries that export labor to Saudi Arabia to do more thorough orientation of these overseas workers. The Philippines, for example, requires a 10-day orientation seminar for its OFW (Overseas Filipino Workers) before departure, but Al-Baddah says more should be done.
“Many female workers demand a day off and expect to go anywhere without understanding the traditions of the country,” he said. “Therefore, it causes problems with their employers which casts doubt on the training they receive.”