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The Business of Servitude

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The World is Flat – with the increasing cross border trade and movement of labor force across international boundaries having a substantial impact on the local economies and bearing significant influence on the social milieu of many emerging economy countries, there is the need to understand the present trends and future ramifications of the economics of worker migration, and also consider the wider aspects of human trafficking and international labor agreements.

This research paper presents the specific case of servant maids of Philippines and Indonesian origin working in Saudi Arabia, their travails and tribulations, and the particular impact of international remittances to personal lifestyle and that of immediate family members, and to their respective domestic economies. The paper further delves into the positive and negative ramifications of this business of servitude - the Arab who sponsors the servant maid expecting life style services, the servant maid who chooses to work in this foreign environment whether under duress or as a matter of personal choice, and the wider subject of international labor laws setup to safeguard against exploitation and sexual abuse.

Saudi Arabia has been the destination of choice for many servant maids from emerging economies mostly from Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Philippines over the past several decades. Most Saudi middle class income families have at least one servant maid in their house, and with richer households having many more, the dependency on the servant maids is felt in every aspect of their life style. The hiring ban imposed by the government of Saudi Arabia few months ago on domestic employees from Indonesia and Philippines made the problem more acute all around both for the Saudi households employing servant maids and for the servant maids themselves. The situation came to a boil with the recent beheading of an Indonesian servant maid implicated in a murder case by the Saudi Arabia government without prior consultation with Indonesian embassy officials. Subsequently, the Indonesian government prohibited its citizens from working as domestic servants in Saudi Arabia, while Philippines quickly followed with new guidelines for hiring its domestic servants and demands on better working conditions.

International labor agreements

The need for international labor agreements, setting up of legal cells and governance structures to ensure protection of the immigrant labor force from exploitation in the foreign soil is made apparent by these fast paced developments in the particular case of servant maids of Saudi Arabia. It is necessary for further discussions on this emerging scenario to add focus on its possible effects and pitfalls to the Arab society, the servant maids, on the disruptions it has caused to cross border movement of labor force and possible impairments to mutual trust. It will help to integrate observations gathered from mainstream media and other knowledgeable sources that provides a wider perspective of the issues at hand and consider possible remedial actions.

Oil-rich countries, specifically Saudi Arabia, has been recipient of a large number of foreign migrant workers over the past two decades, who today constitute nearly 96% of private workforce and 70% of total labor workers in the country. This continued predominance of foreign workers in the population has led to adoption of several policy measures to regulate and manage worker immigration. With a demographic tidal wave of Saudi nationals aged less than 20 expected to enter the labor force in the next two decades, there is mounting pressure to create nearly 100,000 new jobs every year.

Working environment

The fact remains that Saudi nationals are actively discouraged from taking up certain category of jobs, such as that of servant maids, due to traditional Arab restrictions with Arab women working in other households. However, it is acceptable to the general Saudi populace to engage foreign workers as servant maids who are most likely to be of Indonesian origin or Filipinos in descent. Here, Islamic traditional rules that abhor exploitation of women and children, and explicitly advices against sexual abuse are never seen to be in practice. There is a very high frequency of rape and other forms of sexual abuse reported on the servant maids over the past many years, but almost nothing is seen in terms of delivering justice and convicting the guilty, more so when a Saudi national is seen to be involved.

Despite the adverse working environment and the Saudi government being very reluctant to engage on international immigration treaties or in terms of implementing effective immigration policies to protect worker interest, the influx of foreign workers continue with increasing volumes.

Emerging economies hugely benefit from this cross border movement of its citizens in terms of the international remittances they receive annually, which sometimes contribute up to 15% of their GDP. It is not surprising that they easily capitulate to the Oil rich nations and provide no checks and balances on the Arab nations when hiring its labor force, in the absence of any formal international immigration treaty. But a case in point is that of Indonesia which has initiated a very bold action by way of putting out a total ban on worker immigration to Saudi Arabia few months ago, due to the appalling human rights situation in the country.  Philippines, in its measures to control abuse and raise worker environment has revised hiring standards and put across demands for a higher minimum wage limit. An immediate effect has been that Saudi Arabia reciprocated with a ban on fresh hiring for all migrant workers from Indonesia and Philippines.

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Though both the immigrant countries will suffer short-term pain in terms of reduced remittances from its workers in Saudi Arabia, it nevertheless is a step in the right direction. With Saudi Arabia equally impaired due to lack of availability of quality domestic workers, there is pressure from all sides to restore normalcy on the worker migration situation and to raise the standards of the worker environment. Here, the inter-dependency of both the sending and receiving countries will mean that a quick mutually beneficial solution will be sought to the ongoing immigration crisis.

The paper highlights the fact that where there is a balance of power between the sending and receiving countries of international immigration, it is seen to be mutually beneficial to setup a conducive mechanism of international immigration and to build adequate safeguards against worker abuse.

With more economies opening to the benefits of globalization – international trade, migration and capital flows; the poorest people of the poorest nations are seen to benefit from the continuing trend of migration of low skilled and semi skilled workers to richer nations.

Emerging economy countries enriched by the international remittances from its migrant workers are further beholden to open their economies to international trade, and in the process moving towards better wages and equalizing worker conditions. However, acceptance and adherence to international labor laws are a necessary step towards equalizing worker conditions for migrant workers. Very few countries have taken initiatives towards setting up legal infrastructure for handling cases of foreign worker abuse, a particular case in point is the government of Saudi Arabia which has consistently over the past many years failed to remedy the gaps in its foreign worker labor policies and continues to languish as a Tier 3 country amongst immigrant nations, as per classification with United States Department of State.

Research papers about international immigration

The authors, in the chapter on ‘Globalization of International Immigration’, while exhaustively depicting the patterns and consequences of international immigration have failed to throw sufficient light on the plight of the migrant workers subjected to substantial abuse on foreign soil and on the need for an international consensus to protect migrant worker interests. Relaxing barriers to international migration, setting up of international labor laws and governance structures offers the most promising opportunity for expansion of the positive impact of globalization on labor conditions.

‘Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific - Issues Paper FROM Indonesia’ research paper published by UNESCO Asia Pacific Migration Research Network (APMRN) covers details on the reasons behind Indonesian immigration and the experiences shared by migrant workers in Arab countries.  The other body of research to consider will be ‘Saudi demand for Filipino workers: labor migration issues in the Middle East’ published by US National library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health. This research paper considers the effects of various social, political, and economic features of Saudi Arabian development on the demand for Filipino workers. International Labor Organization (ILO) has published a white paper on the subject titled ‘Recent Labor Immigration Policies in the Oil-Rich Gulf’ which analyzes the effectiveness of the current policies at ensuring migrant worker interests.

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