May 28 2008
The President recently challenged Saudi Arabia to release more oil. The U.S. and international community should also pressure Saudi Arabia to improve their human rights record, in particular their treatment of women and migrant workers.
According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia employs approximately 8 million migrant workers. Foreign workers come to Saudi Arabia to earn money to send back to their families and to escape poverty themselves. To secure their residency, workers must obtain an invitation and sponsorship from local Saudi employers.
Unfortunately, this practice puts those workers at the mercy of their employers who can withhold their passport and other legal documentation and prevent them for leaving their jobs. Some workers are even denied their earnings and subject to harsh conditions unspecified in their contract.
Female domestic workers have particular challenges and are vulnerable to exploitation. Some are forced to live in complete isolation and forbidden to leave the home in which they work. In addition to being overworked and underpaid, female migrant workers also face the risk of enduring physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Even when abuse is reported by foreign workers, it is extremely rare for Saudi employers to be prosecuted.
For example, the BBC recently reported that a Saudi couple who was accused of brutally abusing their Indonesian maid had their charges dropped by Saudi judges. Initially the maid, Nour Miyati, was sentenced to 70 lashes for falsely accusing her employers of mistreatment. Finally, she was awarded $670 in damages, hardly commensurate with the atrocious cruelty she suffered during her employment.
Most recently, a shelter holding Yemeni migrants was allegedly set on fire by Saudi authorities. Despite serious injuries, they were taken into custody for interrogation for two days without food or medical attention.
These are just more unfortunate reminders to the international community that foreigners living in Saudi Arabia face discrimination and are unable to receive equal treatment before the legal system.
It's not just foreigners, of course, who fail to find justice in Saudi Arabia. Women are routinely punished for crimes committed against them. In 2006, a Saudi woman was gang raped and later sentenced to 200 lashes and 6 months in prison. This caused a worldwide uproar which later resulted in the "gracious" pardon of the victim by King Abdullah.
Western governments and international human rights institutions must place pressure on the Saudi government to be more responsive in addressing charges of misconduct against migrant workers, and women generally. Governments whose citizens are migrant workers should take measures to ensure Saudi employment sponsors do not mistreat their employees.