RIYADH // In a bid to curb abuses of their nationals, Indonesia and the Philippines are seeking mandatory new working conditions for household staff in Saudi Arabia, but Riyadh is resisting several of the demands, diplomats from the South-east Asian countries said.
The new terms, which include the release of more information about prospective employers and a mandatory minimum wage, come after high-profile cases of abuse of foreign workers over the past year, including the maiming of an Indonesian maid employed by a Saudi family in Medina.
Angered by the abuses, labour officials and activists in Indonesia and the Philippines are pressing their governments to better protect their nationals.
Meanwhile, both countries are losing revenue because their workers are not being sent to the kingdom. Currently, maids are not being recruited from the Philippines because of Saudi objections to proposed work terms.
The same is true for Indonesians, who have also have been scared away from working in Saudi Arabia by the stories of abuse, an Indonesian diplomat said.
Indonesians and Filipinos make up the bulk of household staffers, including maids, drivers and gardeners, in Saudi Arabia, with an estimated 250,000 Filipinos and 900,000 Indonesians working in these jobs, according to labour sources from both countries.
In an attempt to break the impasse, a delegation of senior Indonesian labour officials met with officials from the Saudi Ministry of Labour and the Saudi National Recruitment Committee, in Jeddah yesterday.
Officials at the Indonesian embassy and the Saudi Ministry of Labour reached by phone declined to comment on the talks. Saudi officials recently visited Manila to resolve the stalemate over Philippine demands.
Ezzedine Tago, ambassador-designate for the Philippines in Riyadh, said yesterday that "the talks went well and there was agreement on major points". However, the two sides continue to disagree over the major sticking point of salary for maids.
Manila is demanding a minimum monthly wage of $400 (Dh1,469), with $25 extra each time a maid is asked to work on her one day off a week. The Saudis counter-proposed $200.
So far, the Philippine government has "not agreed to the lower rate", Mr Tago added.
Asked why Saudi Arabia objected to $400 a month, Saad Al Baddah, president of the National Recruitment Committee, said by phone yesterday that "from our side, the people don't accept this salary".
The Philippine government is also asking for a photograph and map of prospective employers' homes, proof of income to show that they can afford household help, and bank accounts set up for workers to receive pay. They also want a description of the maid's workload and how many family members she will be serving.
John Leonard Monterona, regional co-ordinator of Migrante, an organisation promoting the rights of Filipino migrant workers world-wide, said that many times, Filipinas sign contracts in Manila offering $400 a month in salary, but once in the kingdom are forced to accept new contracts with lower wages. On average, Filipina maids currently earn between $213 and $266 a month, according to Mr Monterona.
Hendrar Pramutyo, minister in charge of consular affairs at the Indonesian embassy, said in an interview on Wednesday that Saturday's talks in Jeddah were meant to discuss "the stalemate" that has led to a large decrease in the volume of Indonesian workers coming to Saudi Arabia.
"A crisis happened at the end of 2010 after the Sumiati case," said Mr Pramutyo, referring to Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, a 23-year-old Indonesian maid who was brought unconscious to a Medina hospital with burns and cuts all over her face in November.
Ms Mustapha accused females in the house where she worked of inflicting her injuries with scissors and a hot iron. Her employer was initially found guilty of abuse and sentenced to three years in prison. But last month, that verdict was reversed and she was freed.
The abuse and the release of her alleged assailant, which were widely covered in the Saudi press, outraged Indonesians. As a result, said Mr Pramutyo, "people are afraid to come to this country".
The incident also severely strained Saudi-Indonesian relations, prompting Jakarta to order recruiting agencies to use a new contract for workers coming to Saudi Arabia starting March 1, Mr Pramutyo said.
"The main point" of that new contract, he said, "is that we want the employer to respect the human rights of our workers."
In addition, the contract demands proof of a prospective employer's salary. It also wants all men living in the home where maids will work to provide photographs of themselves, along with a letter from local authorities stating that they have not been involved in past criminal activity.
"The Saudi side is unhappy with this policy and they want the Indonesian government to withdraw the new contract," Mr Pramutyo said Wednesday. "But this is impossible for our government."
Two months before Ms Mustapha was abused, a 22-year-old Filipina maid, was found unconscious in the home of her employer with stabs wounds and acid burns. Saudi police ruled the death of Romilyn Eroz-Ibañez a suicide, but her family and many Filipinos working here are not convinced.
"Many Filipinas end up in a miserable life, or they lose their life here," said one Filipino worker living in the kingdom.
But, he added, "there are also generous Saudis who don't question" paying their maids fairly.