by Raïssa Robles
This was what Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Jose Brillantes told me when he was still a Department of Labor and Employment undersecretary.
He said this to explain why many Saudi employers treat Filipino domestic workers inhumanely and abusively, such as kicking, punching or branding them with a hot iron if they make mistakes or take daily baths; or working them half to death with little rest and food; or sexually abusing them.
I was shocked by his explanation. I could not use it of course because I was then writing for Saudi newspaper Riyadh Daily.
In recent days, amid an announced ban on recruitment of Filipino and Indonesian domestics imposed by the Saudi government starting yesterday July 2, I confirmed from two separate sources that what Brillantes told me years ago was true.
A Muslim ambassador recently shared this startling bit of info: Unknown to us Filipinos, the Saudi government used to stamp on passports of Filipino domestics being deployed to the Kingdom words in Arabic that stated what Brillantes had told me. That the bearer of the passport was a household worker whom the employer could treat in a sub-human manner. Like slaves.
The other instance of confirmation came from news reports following the Saudi government’s beheading of a female Indonesian domestic worker who repeatedly stabbed her Saudi employer to death in January last year after being berated constantly.
Saudi authorities had refused to give Indonesian diplomats access to Ruyati Binti Sapubi because they said she had already confessed to the crime. Indonesia tried to ask for clemency and a chance to defend her in court. But over a week ago, it learned from news reports her head had been chopped off with a sword.
The beheading prompted Salim Said, a former Indonesian diplomat-turned-political analyst, to state bluntly to Joe Cochraine, my fellow correspondent covering Jakarta for South China Morning Post:
In Saudi Arabia, they do not have a tradition of having maids or helpers – their ancient tradition is having slaves. So the mental attitude of their culture is treating their helpers and maids as if they are slaves.
Said even shared the information that when he was Indonesia’s ambassador to Prague, his embassy became a de facto shelter for runaway domestics whose Saudi employers were vacationing in the Czech Republic.
The beheading had further inflamed Indonesians who were earlier enraged by the abuse that Sumiti Binti Salan Mustapa, 23, had suffered in the hands of her female employer.
Saudi’s ban on Indonesian domestics preempted a moratorium on their deployment that Indonesia said it would impose. Hikmahanto Juwana, an international law expert at University of Indonesia, told Jakarta Globe he agreed with a ban because:
Migrant workers do not go abroad to commit crimes. If they do commit a crime, it must be because of the violent treatment they get from their employers.
In sharing these stories with you, I am not trying to denigrate the Saudis. I am trying to put their recent ban on Filipino and Indonesian maids in a wider context. And to say, no need to press the panic button and accede to Saudi’s request.
I find it very interesting that despite the previous government’s aggressive deployment of Filipinos overseas, it was loath to share statistics on the actual number of those currently deployed, including Filipino maids in the Kingdom.
According to a 2008 New York Times article, Saudi Arabia has around 1.5 million domestic workers, mainly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Philippines and Nepal. The bulk or from 600,000 to 900,000 were Indonesians. A recent news report put the number of Filipino domestics there between 200,000 and 300,000.
So you can see, Indonesian and Filipino household workers altogether account for over a million of the 1.5 million maids in the Kingdom.
You will notice that the Saudi government did not say it was sending home the existing maids there, but only freezing new hires.
Well-off Saudi families, including members of the royal family, cannot exist without their Indonesian and Filipino maids.
And that’s where back channel negotiations can be made, before any more beheadings are carried out. There are 216 Indonesians and at least eight Filipinos on death row there.
I remember that during the time of Labor Secretary Pat Sto. Tomas, she had this initiative where every legally deployed Filipina domestic was sent over to the Kingdom armed with a letter saying she was under the protection of the King of Saudi Arabia, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques.
Personally, I have often felt that the Philippine government’s deployment of Filipina domestics to Saudi was tantamount to pimping them because the circumstances of their employment rendered them quite vulnerable to sexual and physical abuse.