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How Indian workers end up on death row in Saudi Arabia

January 14, 2013 13:38 IST

Hostile work conditions and abusive employers are provoking some immigrant workers in Saudi Arabia to commit suicide or attack their employers. Vicky Nanjappa reports   

The sentencing and execution of Rizana Nafeek, 24, a Sri Lankan who worked as a maid in Saudi Arabia, has caused widespread outrage and raised questions over the manner in which migrant workers are treated in Saudi Arabia.

Records show that there are over 45 maids from different countries who are on death row in Saudi Arabia. This list also includes Indians. According to the Human Rights Watch, the actual numbers are difficult to get as the Saudi authorities never publish the exact data.

While the number of Indians on death row is lesser compared to those from other countries, there has been a rise in the number of suicides among Indian workers who have not been able to deal with the work conditions.

Rediff.com spoke to two women from Hyderabad who were forced to return from Saudi Arabia due to the "terrible" work conditions there. They had travelled to Saudi Arabia to work as maids but returned to India due to ill-treatment by their employers.  

"The problem is that in most households in Saudi Arabia the work almost amounts to slavery," the maids say. While most of the maids continue to work day and night without complaining the real problem begins when the women of the house become abusive. Some case studies have revealed that some of the maids have been sexual assaulted. Some bear the humiliation while others retaliate.

In most cases where the maid has been awarded a death sentence it has been found that their action has only been retaliatory. Unable to bear the abuse some of the maids get aggressive and end up killing one of the employers.

Indians who want to go to Saudi as maids usually get in touch with recruiting agencies. The recruiting agency is paid around 5,000 riyals to find a maid. The maids in turn are paid anything between 800 to 1,000 riyals per month. This is big money for them. Women from humble backgrounds agree to work in Saudi Arabia, no matter the work conditions, as the money is good.

Rights organisations also point out that suicides among Indian workers is another problem. In 2012, 33 Indian workers committed suicide unable to put up with the work conditions and treatment by their employers.

A nexus between the tout and the employer is another reason for the sorry plight of the workers. At least 10 cases of suicide and another 15 cases of assaulting the employer have come to light because of a practice of withholding the employees' passport. These workers are not paid on time but are unable to leave the work place as their passports are withheld.

Most of these workers have often tried seeking help from the embassies, but there is an overload of other cases before the embassy, which has delayed action.

Vishaka (name changed), who worked in Saudi Arabia, was forced to return to India. She did everything possible to raise her concerns but returned, fed up of waiting for a solution.

She explains that her employers treated her like a machine. "They expected me to work at any part of the day or night. I worked in a house in which there were 20 rooms. I began my day at 3 am and finished work around 11 pm. The question of speaking to my employers did not arise as they got abusive. One night when they were asleep I decided to slip out. I headed to the embassy and fortunately they helped me return to India.

Another drawback is that none of these maids are insured. There is no safety net for them if things go horribly wrong. This leads to frustration and some either resort to assaulting their employers or committing suicide.

Despite the problem none of the embassies have taken adequate measures to safeguard the interests of these maids and workers. There are over a million domestic maids in Saudi Arabia of which India accounts to nearly 3 lakh. There have been at least 10,000 cases of maids fleeing in the past three years and the Indian embassy on an average receives five cases daily.

Apart from the harsh working conditions, Human Rights Watch points out that there is a lack of proper legal support for such workers. According to the International Labour Organisation, there is a lack of legal rights and protection for such workers.

When these maids get the death sentence, they lack proper representation. The maids who have been sexually assaulted face charges of prostitution while those who have assaulted their employers in self defence end up with attempt to murder charges. Due to the lack of protection, they are unable to defend themselves and the laws often favour the employer. Also, the trials are conducted in the local language.

Meenakshi Ganguly, director south Asia for Human Rights Watch says that they are getting data on the exact number of Indian maids on death row. When compared to the rest of the countries, the data relating to India is low. However, there are many men who are on death row.

In the 2012 alone there were 69 executions.

Rights groups point out that when maids are recruited, the agency does not inform them of the possible risks. This is something that needs to be done say rights activists as this will give the worker a better picture of what he or she is walking into.
Vicky Nanjappa