Friday, January 19, 2007

Women Workers: Forced Confinement, Labor Exploitation, and Sexual Abuse

“We were always kept in our rooms…they locked the doors from the outside.” -- Indian Muslim woman employed as a hospital cleaner in Jeddah, 1998 - 2000.

“I was not allowed to leave the house.” -- Filipina Christian woman who worked for a Saudi family in Jeddah for four months in 2003.

Many low-paid women migrants in Saudi Arabia endure abysmal working conditions. Work days of at least twelve hours are typical for many of them. Overtime is at best a privilege that employers bestow, not a legal right. Other frequently mentioned complaints include being obliged to perform tasks not remotely relevant to a job description (such as massage), inadequate food, denial of vacation benefits, and prohibition of telephone contact or any other form of direct communication with family members in their home countries.
Some of the women whom we interviewed also noted that their living conditions afforded little in the way of personal privacy and security. In some cases, women did not have private, locked sleeping quarters. In other cases, women who were locked in at their places of employment around the clock and had no way to exit safely in emergency situations, such as fire, if their employers were not on site.
Pia, a beautician from the Philippines, who was a victim of sexual abuse and labor exploitation in a succession of jobs in Saudi Arabia, emphasized to us how locked and unlocked doors and exterior gates often determined the fate of women workers. For women facing intolerable working conditions or sexual violence at the hands of male employers, locked work places forced them to attempt escape from upper-story windows or balconies, at the risk of serious injury or death. In other cases, a carelessly unlocked gate presented the only opportunity to flee safely from a hellish employment situation. Describing sleeping quarters, Pia pointed out the variety of conditions that increased feelings of personal insecurity for women workers: doors that locked only from the outside, doors without locks, doors with locks but no keys, and rooms without windows.

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