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Saudi Arabia: When Domestic Workers are the Issue - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In the future, when a researcher or historian is reviewing our concerns and worries, they will find a society beset by anxiousness but not preoccupied with major issues but rather marginal ones like that of domestic workers. I do not mean to detract from these marginal issues but rather to denigrate our prioritization of events which reflects an indolent society with no major stresses, in other words a society that has lost its compass.

Our history will be seen in major news stories like “Maid cooked employer’s baby in cooking pot” and “Labourer locked employer in desert barn for twenty years” and others. This is not to mention the stories regarding the high-level diplomatic communication to solve the crisis created after the governments of Indonesia and the Philippines forbade their citizens from travelling to work as domestic workers, while another news story confirms that Sri Lanka has not taken this step after a Sri Lankan maid convicted of killing an infant was executed. The story of this Sri Lankan maid was all over the news. She claims that the infant choked to death accidently, while the child’s parents claim that she suffocated him to death. The Labor Minister became the most high-profile minister in the country after he enforced a tax on hiring foreign laborers. Reactions toward the minister’s decision vary; he was despised by some, particularly the business lobby, while celebrated by others, including the youth.

Domestic workers have become an important part of the national economy. After a number of lean years in the Saudi market as a result of the stock market collapse, the only new companies succeeding are agencies for foreign domestic workers, which have been able to eliminate the problems of bribery and sponsorship. As families complain of low incomes, statistics indicate that the foreign labour industry is worth more than 100 billion riyals, with this primarily being focused on domestic workers.

When analysing a society’s development, a social researcher will clearly see an overt relationship between Saudi women’s inability to obtain the right to drive and the presence of a system that facilitates the recruitment of foreign drivers. This has allowed Saudi households to live with a system prohibiting women from driving by facilitating one million foreign workers to enter the country and find employment as drivers. The head of a family therefore will pay no less than approximately 300 dollars per month for a driver.

Contrary to this, the social researcher will also find old prohibitions being broken down thanks to the spread of foreign domestic workers, including those working for conservative families. With the entry of this huge army of domestic workers, new traditions have been brought in to Saudi households.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the issue of domestic workers is a pivotal one that keeps government institutions busy. It is not strange for this issue to be among the most important issues for citizens. As for how states can influence a society’s daily life, they can flood the market with vegetables, workers, or cement. The state-with its apparatus and decisions-has enormous potential that can push citizens in whatever direction it believes is most appropriate. It can push them toward science and technology, enabling five million students to build a science-based society like that of South Korea and Finland. It can push girls toward sharing the same opportunities and future as their brothers or it can allow them to remain in the backseat, accepting a life that does not include working in offices or the agriculture sector. The central authority can expand construction in villages, turning them into cities. The central authority can be the reason for a city’s prosperity, or its problems.

Domestic workers being such a primary issue indicates that this society is not busy with the basics of developing resources and building an independent future. The state here cannot prevent people from filling their homes with foreign domestic workers. Families will not stop using the services of foreign domestic workers, who work for comparatively little, because this is a comfortable solution. But tomorrow, when resources evaporate and our future generations have become used to this luxury and laziness, we will see that perhaps the price was not as cheap as we thought. If our households instead spend the money they put aside for foreign workers on educating and rehabilitating our future generations, we will change both history and the future.

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed

Abdulrahman Al-Rashed is the former general manager of Al-Arabiya television. He is also the former editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat, and the leading Arabic weekly magazine Al-Majalla. He is also a senior columnist in the daily newspapers Al-Madina and Al-Bilad. He has a US post-graduate degree in mass communications, and has been a guest on many TV current affairs programs. He is currently based in Dubai.

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