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It is not an alien practice to Saudi Arabia alone. All over the world, there have been reported cases of household help who had been recruited from foreign lands to be subject to abuse. What is unfortunate is that they are often at a dire situation with very little recourse to escape that abuse.

In Saudi Arabia, there are more than a million domestic workers and the majority enjoy excellent working conditions with conscientious employers. Many are inducted as being part of the family and accompany their employers on outings, dinners and even vacations abroad. They are provided their own personal accommodation and their free time. Occasionally they are rewarded financially in appreciation for their good work.

Many such workers stay years and even decades with their employers, watching the children grow from infants to adults. While separated from their own families and growing children, they are content for the present to earn the money to provide their families back in their countries with a better standard of living.

Many have through the years enabled their children to grow and graduate from schools and universities and forge a better future for themselves through the toils of their parents, primarily the female house helpers who dutifully remit their earnings every month towards the welfare of the rest of their family.

But having said that, there exist a few bad apples — employers who don’t treat their staff well. Stories of salaries being held for months on end, being denied basic comfort and being placed in isolation are some of the worst-case scenarios for those leaving home and family behind to venture to a foreign country for sustenance.

This past week, a couple of news items brought to notice that even in Saudi Arabia we are not immune from some tyrants posing as employers. While their numbers are very few, the publicity generated by their abuse brings to attention the problems faced by the hapless household employee.

A case of a Vietnamese domestic worker recruited to a household in Saudi Arabia was noted earlier this month in a special statement from the UN. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights warning of “truly alarming allegations” that companies in Vietnam were recruiting girls as domestic workers and lying about their ages to hide the fact they were children.

“We are seeing traffickers targeting Vietnamese women and girls living in poverty, many of whom are already vulnerable and marginalised,” the UN said. “Traffickers operate with impunity.” The recruitment agencies in Hanoi and elsewhere would doctor up birth records to indicate a much older age to comply with Saudi regulations.

One such worker said that she was given a passport that falsely listed her birth year to make it seem like she was older than she really was. She arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2018 and according to her, she was treated badly by the family.

“I had to work around the clock while they only ate, sat, and did nothing,” she said. “They ate a lot and never let me have a rest.” Desperate for help, she said she called the Vietnamese representative in Riyadh only to be told that she “should be able to do what others could do.” At first, she was able to send her mother the salary she earned. But after a year, her employer stopped paying her.

Another woman said that she went to Saudi Arabia for work in 2019 and now lives at an entity under the Saudi Arabian government that provides legal assistance to migrant workers. She arrived in Saudi Arabia in September 2019 and was immediately taken to her employer’s home to work as a domestic aide.

“The master’s family treated me very poorly and without respect,” he said. “I had to wait until when my masters went out so that I could steal some food and hide it in my room to eat in the evening.”

She claimed that she was also beaten, but when she reached out to her employment agency for help, she was ignored. She eventually reported the abuse to local police, who allowed her to return to Vietnam. But she was stuck in Saudi Arabia because airports and borders were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Also, this past week, the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development stated that it had intervened in resolving a dispute between a Saudi citizen and a number of Filipino housemaids and they were then returned to the Philippines. The housemaids’ return was in accordance with their wish and that was in coordination with the Embassy of the Philippines in Riyadh.

The government has repeatedly emphasised its keenness to ensure the rights of workers of all nationalities, but that doesn’t stop the few miscreants among us from projecting a bad image.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena