THE WORLDPOST
03/26/2012 04:54 pm ET Updated Mar 26, 2012

Kusuma Nandina, Sri Lankan Maid, Worked 17 Years Without Pay In Saudi Arabia

A Sri Lankan woman who worked as a domestic servant for a Saudi Arabian family for 17 years without pay has received $19,000 in compensation for her labor, Arabian Business reports.

After traveling from Sri Lanka to the Saudi capital Riyadh in 1994, Kusuma Nandina was "sponsored" by a family who agreed to employ her as a maid, the paper reports. Over the next 17 years, Nandina, now 57, worked without pay and was cloistered in her employers' home without any access to the outside world, including her children back home.

Then two years ago, after years of silence from her mother, Nandina's daughter reported her mother missing to officials at the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry, who traveled to Saudi Arabia to find her. When Nandina's sponsors first lied about employing the woman, officials continued to press the issue until she was released and flown back to Sri Lanka.

Nandina is one of about 1.6 million migrant workers currently employed in the Middle East and one of 600,000 at work in Saudi Arabia, according to the Asian Times. Sri Lankan workers -- many of whom are employed by families as domestic servants -- annually send about $3.8 billion in wages home to their families.

Yet because the strict sponsorship system in many Middle Eastern countries gives sponsors control of their employees visas, a great number of women employed as domestic servants find themselves working without pay for extended periods of time without any hope of leaving an abusive employer, the New York Times reports.

In 2008, Human Rights Watch issued a 133-page report, "As If I Am Not Human," detailing the extent of abuses faced by Asian domestic servants in the Middle East.

"In the best cases, migrant women in Saudi Arabia enjoy good working conditions and kind employers, and in the worst they’re treated like virtual slaves. Most fall somewhere in between," Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, told the Times. "The Saudi government should extend labor law protections to domestic workers and reform the visa sponsorship system so that women desperate to earn money for their families don’t have to gamble with their lives."

Facing pressure from human rights groups to reform sponsorship policies for Asian workers, many Saudi households are simply choosing to recruit domestic servants from countries in Africa, according to the Ethiopian Review.

In 2009, over 42,000 Ethiopian women traveled to Saudi Arabia seeking work as domestic servants, and 93% of them earned between $100 and $150 per month, the paper reports.

In response, governments around the world have taken positive steps toward cracking down on the abuse of domestic workers by passing the Domestic Worker's Convention, an organization dedicated to making sure maids, nannies and cooks are afforded the same rights as other workers.

Flickr photo by Jeremy Jenum

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