Story of Sri Lankan maid comes amid bitter row between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia over execution of Indonesian maid
Authorities in Saudi Arabia have discovered a Sri Lankan maid who had been kept against her will without pay for nearly 14 years by her local employers, in the latest case of abuse of domestic workers in the kingdom.
The discovery comes amid a bitter diplomatic row between Indonesia and Saudi Arabia following the execution of an Indonesian maid at the weekend. The Saudi authorities are sensitive to the global reaction to the execution and may hope the apparent rescue of the Sri Lankan maid helps to deflect some of the negative headlines.
According to local news reports, the 45-year-old was found in the south-western Jizan province following a tipoff from a neighbour and her employer was arrested.
Family members contacted by local journalists said they had not heard from the woman for so long that they thought she was dead.
"I am very happy to know that she is living and we want her back home as quickly as possible," her husband told the Jeddah-based Arab News.
The Indonesian government on Wednesday told Saudi Arabia it would allow no further workers to the country until a deal on migrant labourers' protection was signed. Around seven million foreigners work in Saudi Arabia, of whom more than a million are Indonesian.
Most are domestic workers, mainly cooks, maids and cleaners.
Ruyati binti Sapubi, 54, was convicted of murdering her Saudi employer's wife and was beheaded with a sword in Mecca on Saturday. She was the second Indonesian maid to have been executed in Saudi Arabia since 2008.
Saudi Arabia was reported to have apologised to Indonesia for not notifying its diplomats of the execution. The moratorium on workers travelling to the kingdom from Indonesia will begin in August, Indonesian officials said.
John Monterona, Middle East co-ordinator for campaign group Migrante International, condemned the execution of Sapubi.
"We are against all capital punishment and we are calling for rehabilitative measures and not execution by sword," he said.
But Monterona, who is based near the Saudi capital, Riyadh, said the travel ban would hurt both those looking for jobs and the Indonesian government as remittances from migrant workers in the Gulf were an important source of revenue.
"Though there are serious concerns about abuses, overall we would prefer diplomatic efforts to bring about better treatment of workers here," he added.
There are more than 100 expatriates awaiting execution in Saudi Arabia. They include 12 from the Philippines and 24 from Indonesia, mainly maids, as well as Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis.
The foreign labourers in Saudi Arabia include nearly a million drivers, needed primarily because women in the kingdom are not permitted to drive.
Labourers earn between £100 and £500 a month and have few rights in practice.
Ruyati binti Sapubi, was convicted of killing her female employer with repeated blows using a cleaver after suffering protracted abuse and being told she could not return home.
A second maid facing execution in coming weeks for killing her employer may now be saved after the Indonesian government said it was considering paying blood money. She too has been convicted of killing her employer.
The woman says she acted in self defence when the man tried to rape her.
In Saudi Arabia, the family of a murder victim is offered the option of taking a cash payment as compensation. The culprit is then freed.
Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesian foreign minister, has said that the government may find the sum of £350,000 as the maid's family is too poor. One major problem facing migrant workers in Saudi Arabia is the sponsorship system, which effectively means a domestic worker cannot leave the country without the consent of their employer.
Campaigners say this leads to widespread abuse, and conditions close to slavery. Sexual abuse and physical violence are often reported.
One recent incident, which received widespread publicity, involved a Sri Lankan maid repatriated after having nails hammered into her legs, hands and forehead.
There was also anger last year over a three-year prison sentence for a Saudi woman convicted of repeatedly stabbing, beating and burning her Indonesian maid. The maximum sentence was 15 years.
The news of the Indonesian government's ban on work caused concern in the port city Jeddah last night. "It makes me worried that if I leave now for some reason I will never get back in," said Zaqi, 34, a hotel worker from Surakarta. "It would be a big problem for my family."
More than a thousand migrant workers remain in prison in Saudi Arabia where convictions for crimes such as possession of alcohol, gambling or sex can result in jail sentences of up to a year and lashes.
The Saudi authorities are trying to cut the proportion of foreign workers to reduce high levels of unemployment. One recent measure is to restrict immigrants to a six year stay in the country.
There have been 28 executions in Saudi Arabia so far this year, more than the total for all of 2010.