Friday, July 8, 2011

It's an interesting time to be coming to Saudi Arabia. Up until the last year, Riyadh was an unaccompanied post for State and there were no families here. This spring and summer has seen a surge of families with young children arriving at post. This is great because it means that the CLO and leadership at the embassy are very focused on helping make the post accommodating for families and easing their transition. One area where our transition was a little difficult though was when it came to finding child care.


I was very fortunate to find a job before we got here and the timing worked out perfectly so that I could transfer from FERC to State without a break in my federal service. In order to make this transition seamless though, I needed to start work right away- just 5 days after we arrived at post. Obviously that also meant that we had to secure child care almost immediately upon entering the country. No easy task regardless of the circumstances.


What makes finding child care particularly challenging in Saudi Arabia is the fact that day care centers are very rare. There happens to be one just outside of the DQ that some people use, but its hours are pretty much exactly the same as our duty hours with no wiggle room and there is still the matter of getting Ezra there and back since we don't have a car. Because of this, and other reasons, most families have taken to hiring nannies.


This is where life gets complicated. First, we are not familiar with the process of hiring and working with a nanny. Second, Saudi Arabia has some interesting peculiarities when it comes to hiring domestic help. It is pretty much unheard of for a Saudi woman to work as a maid or nanny. Most domestic workers are third-country nationals from places like Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. Because of this, hiring a maid here presents unique legal issues.


When it comes to actual working contracts, there are essentially no labor laws for maids in KSA, meaning you can ask them to work as much as you want and offer to pay them as little as you want. As long as you can find someone willing to accept your terms, anything goes. For some domestic workers here, that means that work conditions can be deplorable and pay paltry and they have no recourse.


This lack of worker protection has led to strained relations between KSA and the Philippine and Indonesian governments recently. First, there was the case of an Indonesian woman who was prosecuted and executed for killing her employer in the Kingdom after he refused to allow her to return to Indonesia (see www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13860097).  In addition to concerns about human rights abuses against domestic workers, the Philippine government has been stymied in their efforts to negotiate a minimum wage for their citizens working in the Kingdom. The Philippine government wants a guaranteed minimum wage of approximately $400 per month, while the Saudi government has refused to guarantee more than about $200/month.  The most recent sign of the deterioration of relations between the Saudi and Philippine and Indonesian governments was the announcement last week that the Kingdom would stop issuing work visas to citizens of those countries (see www.arabnews.com/saudiarabia/article464001.ece).  


This is a bit of a tangent, but when taken in tandem with the fact that there are lots of families arriving at post right now and a very limited pool of domestic workers that have connections and references from within the diplomatic community, it makes finding help that much more challenging.  There is no shortage of workers interested in working within the diplomatic community as the work pays better and they are generally treated much better, but people are understandably reluctant to hire someone that doesn't come with references within that circle.


Coming in we were able to collect a short list of recommended potential maids from others at the embassy.  We called around the day after we arrived and set up an interview with one potential candidate for the next day.  The maid we interviewed is from Sri Lanka.  Her husband works at another embassy and her daughter was already working part-time for one of our neighbors.  Our interview went well and we were able to agree to basic terms for hours, work duties and pay with her.  The only complicating factor was that she needs someone to sponsor her.  


Here in Saudi Arabia, every non-Saudi individual or family has what is called an iqama.  Foreign workers must have a sponsor for their iqama.  What we've been told happens all too often is that a Saudi will sponsor a foreign worker and then deduct from their monthly pay a fee for their sponsorship.  Even if that worker goes to work for someone other than their sponsor, the Saudi sponsor may require them to pay them a monthly fee.  It's basically modern day indentured servitude.  Because of this, taking over sponsorship of someone's iqama from a Saudi can be expensive as some Saudi's will demand a lump sum payment to compensate them.  


We are understandably concerned about this potential additional cost.  We decided to negotiate a short-term contract with the maid, Mrs. M., and revisit the issue of her iqama after six weeks.  Mrs. M. claims that her Saudi sponsor is not requesting to be paid for transferring her sponsorship, but we're still nervous that they may change their mind once we get the paperwork going.  We wanted to start her on a trial basis so that we could ensure that things were working out before we made any major commitments.  We had originally hoped to take on a live-in maid since we have the space and need the flexibility for additional babysitting that a live-in provides.  Obviously a live-in arrangement is not possible with Mrs. M. because her husband and much of the rest of her family is here, but we liked her and wanted to give her a shot.  We were able to agree to enough flexibility with hours in her contract that we are hoping she will turn out to be a good fit for our family and our needs.


Mrs. M. has been working for us for almost at week at this point and so far we are very happy with her. Imogen warmed up to her quickly of course.  Ezra has been a little slower to adapt, but he too has started to take a shine to her.  In addition to her child care responsibilities, she will also being doing housekeeping and cooking for us.  Since it was her first week we started off with just housekeeping and she has been amazing thus far.  Every day we come home and the house is immaculate, the beds are made, our laundry is ironed and folded.  It is so nice to not have to worry about that at the end of the day.  This week Mrs. M. is going to start cooking dinners for us too.  She says she can cook almost anything, we just need to ask.  I am very much looking forward to trying her cooking.  


I'm still a little worried in the back of my mind that things won't work out for one reason or another and I get a little anxious about the thought of sponsoring someone, but I'm going to be optimistic that we've lucked out.  Hopefully Mrs. M. will be the right fit for us and hopefully we can help her out in exchange and secure her iqama so that she can stop stressing about the status of her work permit.  This is new territory we're navigating here so Brandon and I are trying to take it one day at a time.


  

{ 1 comments... read them below or add one }

  1. oh my, all that sounds incredibly stressful (and horrifyig) for everyone involved. The pay sounds horrible for the work that they are (require?) to do.

    I hope things work out with Mrs. M - It sounds lovely to have someone doing laundry/cleaning/cooking. You are going to be spoiled when you come back stateside ;-)

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