From Saudi Arabia to the United States, the Human Rights of Domestic Workers Must Be Recognized


Wednesday morning this week, news broke that Saudi Arabia’s authorities had gone ahead with the public beheading of Rizana Nafeek, a young woman accused of killing a baby in her care in 2005 when she was 17 years old. Nafeek insisted the baby had died in a choking accident.

The case had long been the concern of the international community, not only because the death penalty is inherently cruel and inhumane and should be abolished, but also because there are reasons to believe Nafeek had been forced into making a confession—which she later retracted—and that the trial against her was anything but fair. In addition, the young woman was a Sri Lankan migrant domestic worker in Saudi Arabia, had limited access to legal counsel, and is likely to have understood little of the legal proceedings, making the situation even more inhumane.

Rizana Nafeek, was among the approximately 1.5 million women, predominantly from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Philippines, working in private homes in Saudi Arabia. While some are treated well, domestic workers in Saudi Arabia enjoy fewer legal protections than any other type of workers, and human rights groups have documented horrific abuses against them, including physical brutality and deprivation of food, rest, and water. 

But ill-treatment of domestic workers happens closer to home too. In the New York metro area there are an estimated 200,000 domestic workers, 99 percent of whom are immigrants. The abuse suffered by these workers was highlighted in a documentary in 2010, which also brought to light the lack of legal protection. Later that year, New York State became the first jurisdiction in the United States to pass a law to protect the rights of domestic workers. 

In fact, most everywhere, domestic workers are subject to lesser legal protection than others, sometimes justified by reference to the difficulty in carrying out workplace inspections in private homes or the trite notion that domestic workers are treated as “part of the family.”  In mid 2011, the International Labour Organization adopted the first international treaty on the rights of domestic workers, providing hope for scores of women who are, even now, working without legal protection. 

This is not a niche issue either. Across the world, an estimated 53 to 100 million persons—most of them women and girls—currently work as domestic workers. Some travel from rural areas to the city, others cross borders with or without permission. Their main motivation is to improve the situation for themselves and their families. 

And it is perhaps this, the most human of conditions, that is lost in the back-and-forth over how and why some people “deserve” rights and other don’t: the search for survival and dignity through work.

This week’s execution in Saudi Arabia and the successful fight for legal protections for domestic workers in New York State highlight the central concept of humanity in the struggle for human rights.  Abuse is possible where domestic workers remain “other”—a foreigner, poor, a woman—and alone—isolated from their community and trapped in the workplace that doubles as “home.”  Change happens when we start seeing each other as humans, deserving of dignity and respect.

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