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(New York) - The apparent brutality by Saudi employers against a Sri Lankan domestic worker highlights the severe shortcomings in labor laws and practices that foster abuse and exploitation, Human Rights Watch said today. The exclusion of the estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers from labor protections and their subjection to a sponsorship system that governs immigration status and employment relations facilitates systemic abuses of these workers, Human Rights Watch said.

Doctors in Sri Lanka on August 27, 2010, operated on Lahadapurage Daneris Ariyawathie, 49, to remove nails and metal objects she said her Saudi employers had hammered into her body after she complained of being overworked. Ariyawathie had worked in a Riyadh home since March before her Saudi employers returned her to Sri Lanka in late August.

"The abuse suffered by this woman is not an isolated incident, but one of countless cases of abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers," said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The government should address the systemic problems made possible by Saudi laws that put all power in the hands of private employers and allow them to abuse their workers with no fear of consequences."

As documented by Human Rights Watch in its 2008 report, "As If I Am Not Human," domestic workers in Saudi Arabia suffer physical and sexual abuse and economic exploitation, but face obstacles to redress. Saudi law specifically excludes the estimated 1.5 million, mostly Asian, domestic workers from protections of the labor law.

In 2005, the government drafted an annex to the labor law specifying rights and duties of domestic workers, including limits to working hours and annual leave. The consultative Shura Council approved the annex in 2009, but the Council of Ministers has not yet passed this legislation.

As a result, domestic workers, unlike other migrant workers in the kingdom, are not protected by any legal provisions specifying their working hours, weekly rest or annual leave, payment of salaries, health insurance, freedom of movement and abode, or responsibility for costs of repatriation outside of contractual agreements.

Saudi employers typically confiscate a domestic worker's passport and confine her to the house, even when she is not working. Many are locked in. Saudi law also requires an employer's written consent for a domestic worker to change employers or to obtain an exit visa to leave the country. These measures, known as the sponsorship, or kafala, system, combine to give the employer inordinate control over the worker and to block avenues for the worker to seek redress for abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

"The Saudi government should abolish the sponsorship system and make passing the annex to the labor law extending protections to domestic workers an urgent priority," Wilcke said. "Without these legal reforms, and a real system of regulatory oversight of employers, we will continue to see horrific cases of brutality, such as that suffered by Ms. Ariyawathie."

The satellite news channel CNN reported that Sri Lankan officials in Colombo said Saudi authorities had arrested Ariyawathie's employers, but a Sri Lankan embassy official told Human Rights Watch that the Saudi authorities had not yet informed the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh of any steps they had taken to investigate the matter.

In the past, Saudi police and prosecutors have failed to investigate criminal complaints by domestic workers against their employers. In January, Saudi authorities summarily deported Fatma Athman, a domestic worker from Mombasa, Kenya, a week after she suffered injuries she said resulted from her employer pushing her off a third-floor balcony in an attempt to kill her. She survived because she fell into a swimming pool, The Nation, a Kenyan newspaper, reported.

In the 2008 report, Human Rights Watch found that investigations and trials of domestic worker abuse were deficient. In one of the cases in the report, Ponnamma S., a Sri Lankan domestic worker, described to Human Rights Watch in 2006 her experience of approaching the police after escaping from her employers:

A senior officer came...I complained that Baba had beaten me up. Baba claimed that he was not there at the time. Then they asked if Baba paid me. I said, "For one-and-a-half years I have not been paid." I refused to go back to Baba. I insisted to go to the embassy...The police told Baba to drop me at the embassy, but he took me back to the house...The lady beat me really badly. She told me, "Anywhere you go in Saudi Arabia, they'll return you back here. Even if we kill you, the police won't say anything to us. If you hadn't run, we would have killed you and thrown you in the trash."

Another Sri Lankan domestic worker, Chamali W., in 2006 related her experience with the justice system after she filed a rape complaint against her employer's son:

They examined me and proved that I was raped, but not pregnant. Since then, I haven't stepped into a court at all...The police have not given me any more information. I ask every two months. For the last six months, I have been staying here [at the embassy shelter]. I've taken a loan of 50,000 rupees [in Sri Lanka] with interest. My husband has no job; my father is sick. My husband's mother is taking care of my child. I am not able to go back to Sri Lanka because the police case is still going on.... I'm clueless about what people are doing, about whether my employer's son is in jail. I have to go back home and pay my debt. If I left now and worked, I could do something about it... I have wasted six months.

In another case, a Saudi court dropped charges against the employers of Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker. She said they had severely beaten her and locked her in a cellar with almost no food for a month in 2005 and that she had developed gangrene resulting in amputations of some fingers and toes. The court awarded Miyati a mere US$670 in compensation.

The criminal case against the employers of Keni binti Carda, an Indonesian domestic worker who says she was severely burned by her employers in September 2008 before they put her on a plane back to Indonesia, was only investigated following international pressure.

"As If I Am Not Human" documented numerous cases of physical abuse against Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, including beatings and cases in which employers burned the workers with a hot iron and cigarettes, cut the worker with sharp objects, forced a worker to ingest toxic chemicals, and cut off the worker's hair.

New reports of abuse surface periodically. In March, worshippers found an Asian domestic worker in a local mosque in al-Shafa stripped of her clothes and with severe burn marks and signs of beatings on her body, the Saudi daily Al-Medina reported. The worker said that her Saudi employers had abused her and then abandoned her in the mosque restrooms.

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