Have governments or advocates failed Saudi domestic workers?

Lys Anzia – WNN Features

Children in Sri Lanka stand around a petition table for domestic worker Rizana Nafeek
Sri Lankan children look at a table with a petition that asks the government of Saudi Arabia to save the life of foreign domestic worker Rizana Nafeek. Nafeek was sentenced to the death penalty in Saudia Arabia in a controversial case that exposed the need for greater legal protections for foreign domestic workers worldwide. Work sponsors who have the power to decide the legal fate of their domestic workers are only part of what contributed to a January 9, 2013 execution by beheading of Rizana, in spite of international efforts to save her life. Now human rights activists are asking what more could they have done to save Nafeek’s life. Image: HRO/Kandy

(WNN) Riyadh, SAUDI ARABIA, GULF STATES REGION: On Wednesday January 9, 2013 a young woman in Saudi Arabia was executed by the government in a case that has brought together global advocates, agencies and governments. The campaign to save her life lasted almost 7 years. But the campaign failed. Despite the global appeal from human rights activists worldwide, including the Islamic Human Rights Commission based in London and a personal appeal for clemency from Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa sent to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud.

Even Britain’s Royal Prince of Whales is said to have contacted the Saudi King Abdullah in October 2010, although the Royal Office did not deny or confirm this story. If the story is true the Prince is only one of many who asked for clemency for the young woman.

The truth of the matter is that the combined international work to save the life of one Sri Lankan foreign domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Rizana Fathima Nafeek, could not reach its goal. Advocates worldwide are now exploring why this campaign failed and why this order for execution stayed.

But the question all advocates are asking now is this: can lives be saved in the future?

When the completion of the order of execution by beheading for Rizana Nafeek was confirmed on Wednesday 9 January, 2013 by the Office of the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Affairs from the capital of Riyadh, advocates worldwide realized at that moment their petitions, letters, articles and protests, in the attempt to save the life of Nafeek, had not worked.

It is assumed that numerous advocates and activists on that day who had worked for years in hopes of saving Rizana’s life felt personal failure after hearing that orders in the beheading execution had been completed.

“International law, accepted as binding by Saudi Arabia, is clear that it is unlawful to execute someone who was under 18 years old when they allegedly committed a crime,” said United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns on January 11, two days after Rizana was executed. “Moreoever, beheading is a particularly cruel form of execution,” he added.

Latest statistics now reveal that there are currently 52.6 million domestic workers worldwide with Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia employing the most domestic workers. Africa, Europe and the Arab region are next in the count of domestic workers. Today the number of foreign domestic workers inside the Saudi Arabian region has reached somewhere between 876,596 to 1.5 million.

Saudi Arabia is known as one of the world’s largest employers of domestic workers in the Gulf region, although forced labour is currently illegal in Saudi Arabia. But this does not mean that illegal forced labour does not exist in the region. Domestic workers are especially vulnerable to forced labour and other conditions of hardship because they are viewed widely to be ‘outside’ the ‘public’ labour system in Saudi society.

“Domestic work has been absent for a very long time from public policy debates and this is mainly the case because domestic workers are employed by private individuals, in private households, they work for families and homes rather than for workplaces such as factories or offices, so for a long time domestic workers were absent from the debate on social reforms and labour protection,” said Martin Oelz, Legal Specialist on Working Conditions with the ILO – International Labour Organization.

In April 2012, according to the Jakarta Globe, Saudi Arabia had 1,700 Indonesian nationals serving out prison terms. The previous year on the same month, in April 2011, 22 migrant domestic workers were pardoned from sentences they had received in Saudi courtrooms. Along with pardons from King Abdullah and formal releases from the families who had charged them with crimes, they were allowed to return to their home regions.

Although labour laws in Saudi Arabia require that all workers be at least 18 years of age, the Royal Embassy of Saudia Arabia in Washington, D.C. states that the Law “does not apply” to domestic workers. This essentially means that domestic workers have little to no protections or legal recourse in any Saudia Arabian court under the Law.

In spite of this Saudi Arabia has continued to convey that they are supporting efforts to “fully protect domestic workers” in the workplace. This guarantee was made specifically in a 2011 joint statement made during the ILO – International Labour Organization’s annual conference.

“…all countries [which includes Saudi Arabia] supported the efforts to fully protect domestic workers, in line with the specificities of that type of work…,” said a portion of the joint statement during the 100th Session of the ILO conference in June 2011 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Over the last decade, discrimination against migrant domestic workers throughout the Gulf has become a growing and serious issue. Rising pressures in the domestic job market inside the region is at an all time high and has contributed to increased migrant racial discrimination. Gender for domestic workers is also a factor that works against women workers in Saudi Arabia who work off-the-grid. Specific restrictions that exist for all women in Saudi Arabia often exists doubly for women domestic workers.

Although the government of Saudi Arabia has formally disagreed with the true age of Rizana at the time of her sentencing, documentation shows that she was a 17-year-old from Sri Lanka who wanted to help make money for her family at the time of her employment. As a member of a family with six children with a father who struggled as a woodworker, Rizana was asked if she wanted to go to Saudi Arabia and signed on willingly with a Sri Lankan based employment agency. When she was asked by the agency if she would go as a housemaid her answer, and the answer of her family, was yes.

When Rizana Nafeek arrived on April 1, 2005 to begin working in Saudi Arabia, she didn’t know then that her entire lifetime of having a job would span only 55 days. She didn’t know then that she and her family had been cheated by job agents who were also trying to cheat the labour system and the government of Saudi Arabia.

To enable Nafeek to work legally inside the region, her documents of employment along with her passport were falsified by her Sri Lankan employment agents. Numbers were changed to show that she was not underage, making her appear instead to actually be 23-years-old. Presenting the teenager as a housemaid ‘with experience’ the agents made money on the deal. Later they were fined, arrested and sanctioned by the government of Sri Lanka for falsifying documents.

Before this, in April 2009, the Sri Lanka Cabinet adopted the National Labour Migration Policy. It’s goal was to: “Enhance the benefits of labour migraton on the economy, society, and migrant workers and their families, and minimize its negative impacts.”

But this goal was never reached in Rizana’s case. As the months and years passed following her arrest, detention, and the years passed in her long wait on death row, Nafeek’s needs and protections under the new Sri Lankan policy was never of benefit to her.

“…new overseas markets and opportunities must be explored and promoted,” outlined Sri Lanka’s Migration Policy. “This will ensure the promotion and development of employment opportunities outside Sri Lanka for Sri Lankans. Labour market surveys, market analyses and market promotion plans in foreign countries will help ascertain the emerging opportunities and new demands,” the policy added.

Less than eight weeks later after Rizana began her employment, the 4-month-old infant son of the Al Otaibi family died while under Nafeek’s care. Charged with the murder of the infant son Nafeek was arrested and sent to jail on May 25, 2007 in the city of Dawdami.

At the time, with her very limited understanding of Arabic, it unknown how much Rizana understood what was actually happening to her.

In her arrest there are no records available of any police investigation, DNA or forensics evidence. There also appears to be no evidence recovery or crime scene investigations in her case. There was also no attorney summoned to give Nafeek knowledge of her rights under arrest. Her case had no jury, no witnesses speaking in her behalf, no clarification of her false employment documents or mention of her true age.

Originally signing a confession that she killed the child, Rizana outlined later that her confession was completely false and made against her will. Stating that she signed a confession while under duress during the time of her arrest, Rizana later retracted her original confession in the court of appeal explaining that the infant died without her volition during what appeared to be a choking accident while he was bottle-feeding.

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