Financial Times

Saudi campaign against worker abuse triggers concerns

A Saudi Arabian campaign against the abuse of domestic workers including Sri Lankans in the country has sparked controversy, news reports said. There are an estimated 1.5 million foreign domestic workers in Saudi and many complain of abuse but critics say the ads misrepresent Saudi society.

According to the reports, rights activists say abuse is common, and acknowledging it is a first step towards solving the problem. A report by Human Rights Watch earlier this year said some foreign workers are treated like slaves. The adverts appeared on Saudi-owned satellite channels and newspapers, the reports said. A television advertisement, the first of its kind, shows a Saudi man shouting angrily at a foreign maid for failing to iron his clothes properly. “We are obliged to treat servants well. Why ask them to do things that we can't bear ourselves? If we have mercy on them, then Allah will have mercy on us,” the man is quoted as saying.

Another sequence shows the man in his car honking and yelling racist abuse at an Asian man. The sketches end with him praying, asking God for help and mercy. The reports said the print version of the campaign, which appeared in the London-based Al Hayat, showed a maid held inside a kennel with a dog collar around her neck, and a foreign chauffeur harnessed like a horse with a Saudi woman holding the reins.

But major Saudi newspapers have refused to publish the advertisement, apparently because for them, it was too shocking. Some writers and journalists have called for an end to the campaign because they believe it shows Saudi people as cruel and heartless, the reports said.

Journalist Terad Al al-Asmari was quoted as saying the campaign overlooked abuse of domestic workers in other societies. "It could lead to hatred between foreign labour and the Saudi citizen," he argued. A Saudi academic, Dr Moutlaq al-Mouteery, criticised airing the campaign on satellite channels. Dr Mouterriy wrote saying that "discussing domestic problems on satellite channels turns them into a scandal [for Saudi Arabia]".

The director general of the Saudi advertising agency, behind the campaign, Qaswara al-Khateeb, defended the media drive. "We sometimes forget that those who we deal with are helpers and are actually human beings," Mr Khateeb told the Saudi newspaper Arab News.

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