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Inside Saudi Arabia
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MONDAY:
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TUESDAY:
Foreign workers:
   Modern-day slavery?

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‘The world must know about this’

photo
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
A sponsor lured Mohamed Sakoor, 33, to Saudi Arabia from Sri Lanka with the promise of high wages. The sponsor keeps his passport, and Sakoor must pay $160 to $220 a year for an Iqama ID, a booklet which costs most workers an equivalent of a month's salary.
photo
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Sakoor eats a late dinner that he and his roommates will share in their rat-and-roach-infested room. He often works 14 to 15 hours a day, seven days a week with no overtime.

Many of Saudi Arabia's 6-million foreign workers labor under conditions that are sometimes compared to "modern-day slavery.''

By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 23, 2002


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- When 29-year-old Ramani Prianka accepted a job in Saudi Arabia, she thought it would be a pleasant way to earn more money than she could ever make in her native Sri Lanka.

After all, she would be working indoors -- as a housemaid -- for a well-to-do, educated Saudi couple. He was the manager of a big hospital; she was the principal of a school.

How tough could it be? Very tough, Prianka quickly discovered. The house had 20 rooms and 13 bathrooms, and Prianka, the only maid, was expected to clean every one every day. There were nine children, and Prianka had to wash all their clothes and cook all their food. Seven days a week, she was up at 4:30 a.m. and never got to bed before midnight. All this for the equivalent of $26 a week.

After nine months, depressed and exhausted, Prianka had enough. As the family slept, she sneaked out of the villa, flagged down a taxi and told the driver to take her to the Embassy of the Republic of Sri Lanka.

Prianka was not the only Sri Lankan maid to seek refuge in the embassy's safe house this hot June morning. There was Pushpa Chandra, 30, who was sick of fighting off sexual advances from her sponsor's teenage son. And as tears slid down her smooth brown cheeks, a tiny 26-year-old woman whispered that she had been raped by her sponsor's adult son.

Now, she sobbed, she thought she was pregnant.

Last year, at least 2,800 Sri Lankan housemaids ran away from their Saudi sponsors, claiming they had been overworked, sexually abused or physically mistreated by jealous wives. They are among the countless foreign "guest workers" in Saudi Arabia who live and work under conditions that are sometimes compared to modern-day slavery.

"The world must know about this," says Mohamed Sakoor, a Sri Lankan driver and translator who works at Riyadh's international airport. He shares a roach-and-rat-infested shed, just 8 feet by 10 feet, with three other men hired by two rich Saudi brothers.

Despite efforts to "Saudize" the work force by replacing foreigners with Saudis, the kingdom remains highly dependent on foreign labor. About two-thirds of all jobs are still held by foreigners, including almost 90 percent of those in the private sector.

No foreigner can work in the kingdom without a Saudi sponsor, who typically provides accommodations and pays travel expenses, including a trip home every one or two years. In most cases, the sponsor holds the employee's passport, and an employee cannot leave the country or change jobs without the sponsor's permission.

For nurses, engineers and other professionals from First World countries like the United States, working in Saudi Arabia can be extremely lucrative and surprisingly pleasant. Most Westerners live in walled compounds with swimming pools, tennis courts, attractive landscaping and well-stocked commissaries.

But for unskilled workers from poor countries, life in Saudi Arabia can be a very different story -- one of broken promises and stomach-churning squalor.

'There is nothing'

Sri Lanka, the former British colony of Ceylon, is considered one of the most beautiful islands on earth. Just 18 miles off the southern tip of India, it is covered with lush rain forests and vast plantations that produce a good share of the world's tea.

But years of civil war stoked by the Tamil Tigers' demand for a separate state have claimed 65,000 lives and devastated the economy. With few prospects at home, many of Sri Lanka's 19-million people leave their country to work in the oil-rich kingdoms of the Persian Gulf.

Among them is 33-year-old Mohamed Sakoor. One of five children, he lost his father as a teenager and went to work as a driver in Kuwait to help support the family. He returned home once a year, first to marry, then to watch the births of his own three children. He liked Kuwait and made good money, but had to give up the job when he needed leg surgery.

Sakoor was still recuperating at home two years ago when an acquaintance dropped by. Sakoor knew him as one of the many agents who prowl the impoverished villages of Sri Lanka, recruiting men and women to work in the gulf. Sakoor -- who had learned Arabic in Kuwait -- could get a job driving and translating for other Sri Lankans in Saudi Arabia, the agent told him.

But it would come at a price. Such jobs are so coveted that Sakoor had to pay a finder's fee of 80,000 rupees -- $900. That is a huge sum in Sri Lanka, and to help him raise it, 18 relatives sold their jewelry. Sakoor's wife pawned a gold necklace and her wedding ring.

But Sakoor figured he would still come out ahead. The agent promised him a monthly salary of 800 Saudi riyals -- about $213 -- plus free food, housing, medical care and round-trip air fare.

As soon as Sakoor arrived at the Riyadh airport, he began to think he had made a mistake. There was no one there to meet him as promised. He called the office of his Saudi sponsor and was rudely brushed off.

"If you have money, take a cab here," he was told. "If you don't have money, go back to Sri Lanka."

Sakoor had no money and no prospects in Sri Lanka. So he spent the next two days at the airport, going hungry and sleeping on the terminal floor. He finally sold his watch to a taxi driver and got just enough cash to share the cab with four other new arrivals. They dropped him off at a restaurant owned by Sakoor's sponsor.

Sakoor spent the next two nights at the restaurant before he finally started his job.

A typical day goes like this: to work at 7:30 a.m.; break from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m., when almost everything stops because of the heat; on the job again until at least 10:30 p.m.

Sakoor says it was three months before he got paid; now, his pay is routinely 20 days late. Despite what his contract says, he gets no overtime even if he works 14 or 15 hours a day, seven days a week, as he often does. But if he is five minutes late, he says, his sponsor will dock him half a day's wages.

In two years, Sakoor has never missed work because of illness. If he did, he would lose more pay. The promise of medical care is a joke, he says -- all anyone gets is a bottle of aspirin.

(Sakoor's sponsors did not return calls seeking comment.)

As Sakoor tells his story, he is sitting on a metal cot with a filthy, wafer-thin mattress. There are only three cots for four men, so they take turns sleeping on the floor. Even when the light is on, roaches swarm over the small bags of rice that make up most of the men's meals.

One of the roommates, an Egyptian accountant, does the cooking on a tiny gas stove in a kitchen no bigger than a broom closet. Next to it is an even smaller bathroom, with a squat toilet and a couple of cheap plastic buckets to bathe in and wash clothes. There is no hot water.

Contrary to what Sakoor was promised, he and the others have to buy their own food. They eat just twice a day, once in the early afternoon, again at 11 p.m. when they finally get off work.

Except for the cots and stove, the place came unfurnished -- everyone chipped in to buy a small Sony TV and a used refrigerator. For their clothes, they have a couple of nails and a little white chest Sakoor salvaged from a trash pile. In the bottom drawer he keeps his most prized possessions -- 27 thin, blue airmail envelopes postmarked Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Letters from his wife.

In his free time, which isn't much, Sakoor arranges a pillow on his lap as a makeshift desk and writes home. He never complains; he doesn't want his wife and kids to worry about him.

But he recently gave word to his sponsor. When his two years are up in August, he will be on a plane to Sri Lanka. Maybe he can find a job at home as a driver; if not, he'll go to Kuwait again. Anywhere but Saudi Arabia.

"There is nothing," he says. "No food, no medicine, no overtime, no air tickets. There is nobody to help us. This is the reason to leave -- there is nothing."

'The police have no evidence'

According to their embassy in Riyadh, 300,000 Sri Lankans guest workers now live in Saudi Arabia, more than twice as many as in any other country. About 65 percent of them are unskilled employees like Mohamed Sakoor.

"Our expatriates here are working hard and have comparatively less problems than in other nations," says Ameer Ajwa Omer Lebbe, the embassy's No. 2 man.

The embassy says the "success" rate for placements runs from 80 percent for housemaids to 90 percent for other workers. But that means as many as 60,000 Sri Lankans report problems with their Saudi sponsors, ranging from physical abuse to nonpayment of wages and benefits.

Engineers and other professionals can seek redress in Saudi labor courts, which are generally considered fair. But the proceedings are conducted entirely in Arabic and can drag on for months, during which time a sponsor can prevent the employee from leaving the country.

For unskilled workers, there is no legal recourse. They are forced to rely on their embassies to try to contact the sponsor and resolve the problem.

That's what happened when a Sri Lankan house maid working in Khobar became so depressed by sexual harassment and other alleged mistreatment that she jumped from a window and broke her spine. While she was still in the hospital, the embassy negotiated with her Saudi sponsor, who agreed to pay for several seats on the plane so she could lie down during the five-hour flight home.

While Sakoor and other men typically stick it out until the end of their contracts, scores of Sri Lankan women seek refuge each year at their embassy's safe house. They are allowed to stay there two days while attempts are made to contact their sponsors. If there is no luck, they are sent to a Saudi welfare center.

Sri Lankan diplomats say the centers are clean and well-run. As evidence of official Saudi concern, they say, the deputy governor of Riyadh last year visited a center and personally gave several women money for airplane tickets and years of back pay.

Foreign housemaids have had so many problems in Saudi Arabia that India no longer lets its citizens work here as maids. Sri Lanka, faced with high unemployment, has not yet gone that far. But embassy officials say they and Saudi authorities are working together to monitor recruitment agencies and blacklist those that continue to refer Sri Lankans to problem employers.

"I may forget my troubles but I am increasingly concerned about the bitter experiences of my fellow Sri Lankans" who may be approached by the same agent, Sakoor wrote to his embassy.

So far, some agencies have been warned but none has lost its license, embassy officials say. It also remains extraordinarily rare for a Saudi sponsor to be criminally prosecuted. In the past few years, the Sri Lankan embassy has referred 10 alleged cases of rape to the police, but nothing came of them.

"Sometimes it is very difficult," says Nimal Atukorala, the embassy's minister of labor affairs. "The police have no evidence, and women would just like to get some compensation and go home."

Although a few runaway maids return to their Saudi sponsors, most go back to Sri Lanka. Some sponsors refuse to turn over the employee's passport or otherwise cooperate; in such cases the embassy has to draw up new travel documents and pay for a plane ticket.

Before she ran away, Ramani Prianka, the maid who worked 20 hours a day, asked her wealthy Saudi sponsor to release her so she could take another job. He agreed only on the condition that she pay him 10,000 riyals -- the equivalent of more than two years' salary.

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.
photo
[Times photo: Jamie Francis]
Translator and driver Mohamed Sakoor shares a rooftop room with three men. Seven men share a bathroom and kitchen in their sponsor's building.