The oil boom years of the 70s and 80s brought in large and unexpected bounties to the countries in the region that were pumping oil. In Saudi Arabia, the largest producer of liquid gold in the region, that translated into huge amounts of petrodollars some of which made its way into the pockets of the citizens, and gave impetus to changes in social norms that had stood by for years.
One specific such change gradually began to take a hold over most households who began recruiting cheap foreign domestic help. Prior to those years, only the affluent could afford such help; help who stayed for long years and were usually considered as part of the family. Most of the other households managed from within. But since then, every home had to have one if not more.
Over time, there had been many reported cases of abuse from some of the employers of these domestic help and as a result some Asian governments have banned or restricted the recruitment of female domestic labour from their countries. Today there is a growing shortage of domestic helpers. These workers, currently estimated to be around two million, have long been in short supply as some countries baulked at the deployment of maids citing some untoward incidents.
The crisis eased a little with Philippines and Indonesia resuming sending maids to the kingdom after high-level discussions which prompted Saudi government to formulate new laws to protect the rights of domestic workers. The new laws stipulate that the maids will enjoy a weekly day-off, at least nine-hour free time daily, medical leave, one-month paid vacation every two years, etc. There is also a fixed monthly pay of 1,500 Saudi riyals (Dh1,469) for each maid from a certain country.
According to sources, “A bed of nails await the employers of domestic workers. First time violators will be slapped with 2,000 riyals and a one-year ban on further recruitment of maids. Second time violators will face a fine of 5,000 riyals with a new recruitment ban for three years. And there is severe punishment for the third-time violators who will risk life-time ban and a fine of 10,000 riyals.
“On the other hand, if maids breach the contracts, they will be fined 2,000 riyals and prevented forever from working in the kingdom and have to pay for their repatriation expenses. Under the new regulations, maids are obliged to adhere to the Saudi customs, traditions, religious teachings, family values and secrets.”
With the new laws being put into effect, domestic help deserting their rightful employers is expected to be reduced significantly. Runaway of maids has long been a headache both for Saudi employers and diplomatic missions of maid-supplying countries. According to a study, over 20,000 maids used to desert their employers a year.
Why do maids run away from the Saudi families? It’s a serious concern raised by foreign maid-supplying countries to the Saudi government to fix this crisis. The major complaints which drive maids out of their employers’ homes include irregular payment of wages, mistreatment by family members, inadequate living condition and lack of training to operate the household equipment.
Another much-talked about reason which lures the maids to run away is that there is a lucrative market for them being hired instantly by some other local families at a much higher salary. Some of the runaway domestics are also alleged to be engaged in illicit activities. The authorities have repeatedly warned that this issue will be dealt with a heavy hand.
The government has initiated an awareness campaign to dissuade Saudi families from hiring illegal domestic help. Otherwise, there is risk of facing untoward consequences. If maids are recruited through clandestine arrangement and if they commit crimes like theft and robbery, employers will not have any legal recourse to go to the police for help, as they were equally guilty in the employment of the runaway.
There are rising calls for heavy handed punishment to be slapped on those who employ illegal maids like in other GCC countries. For instance, in the UAE, any illegal recruiter faces up to Dh100,000 in fines coupled with a possible jail term and subsequent deportation of the maid. However, despite such warnings, Saudi families continue to hire illegal domestic helpers. As more Saudi women enter the job market, and more countries restrict the employment of their nationals as domestic help, Saudis desperately turn to runaways to look after their children as a solution.
A South Indian social analyst says that “this problem can be eased if local work force is shaped and there are those who are willing to work as house maids and drivers. There should also be a tendency developed among the citizens to manage their household chores by themselves.”
Shamsul Huda who has spent considerable years in the kingdom adds that, “Apart from this, professional childcare centres could be developed in almost every locality similar to the western countries where children can be reared and brought up in a homely atmosphere. It will reduce reliance on maids who are mostly ... illiterate and unable to care for children properly.” Will we ever create a workforce of nationals willing to work as drivers or housemaids? Only time will tell.