Tens of thousands of women will wake in the Saudi Arabian port of Jeddah and go to work. Maybe 14 or 16 hours later, their day will be over. They are maids, almost all from the Philippines or Indonesia, working for £100-£200 a month.
There are more than 500,000 of them in Saudi Arabia, among nearly nine million foreign workers who sweep roads, clean offices, staff coffee shops, drive the cars that women are banned from driving and provide the manpower on the vast construction projects.
The story of the maids rarely receives attention, except when a new shocking incident reveals once again the problems many of them face. We hear of a 54-year-old Indonesian maid that was beheaded by sword for killing her female boss with a cleaver. Another Indonesian maid also faces execution for killing her boss whom she alleges tried to rape her.
Other recent incidents include a Sri Lankan maid who had nails driven into her legs and arms by her employers, and another who was scalded with a hot iron. Every year, thousands of the maids run away from their employers in Saudi Arabia.
Often physically or mentally scarred, they find themselves in a legal limbo. In Saudi Arabia, the consent of employers or “sponsors” is needed before any worker can leave the country. There are secret shelters in Saudi Arabia – where women are being looked after by well-wishers. The shelter is tolerated by local authorities, but the women who stay there, often for months on end, are not allowed to leave once they have entered and cannot use mobile phones. Sixteen sleep in a single room.
The maids say, however, that it is better than what they left behind. Most tell of fleeing employers who did not pay their wages; many talk of physical, mental or sexual abuse. Many exist in an illegal netherworld in the sprawling city itself. Many come from the Muslim south of the Philippines – from where many of the maids in deeply conservative Saudi Arabia come telling their story after fleeing her employers.
Some work from 5am to 1am, almost every day. They get up to make the children breakfast and get them ready to go to school and then clean the house all day, and in the evening their employers would go out and come back at midnight and want dinner. Few of the maids, who are often recruited by agencies in the Philippines, have much idea about where they are going or what will be expected of them. Terms of employment are also variable.
As domestic workers, they are not protected by Saudi labour law. Riyadh recently rejected demands from Manila for medical insurance for maids and for information on employers to be supplied before their departure. For their part, Philippine officials refused to accept a cut in the minimum wage for maids from $400 a month to $200. The result is a moratorium on the hiring of maids. Indonesia has also stopped its citizens travelling to Saudi Arabia following an execution of its national.
Yet the governments are likely to come to some arrangement. There have been such standoffs before, and in relative terms the foreign workers generate huge sums of cash, most of which is sent to needy families at home and provides important revenues for developing nations. Saudi Arabia was the source of £17bn of such “remittances” last year, second only to the US. Entire states in some countries depend on the funds flowing in.