Poverty, high unemployment rate drive thirty Saudi women to work as ‘cleaning agents’ in oil-rich kingdom.
Par Habib Trabelsi - PARIS
Hit hard by poverty, thirty Saudi women between 20 and 45 years old broke the wall of shame by agreeing to work as domestic workers, an unprecedented news in the oil superpower kingdom, which houses nearly 1.5 million domestic workers, mostly women, from countries of the Indian subcontinent.
Thirty women, none of whom has got a certificate of primary education, have agreed to work as "cleaning agents", according to their interview with Al-Madina daily.
"We refuse to be classified as domestic workers or 'chaghala' (maids). We are only cleaning agents," they stressed.
These ‘cleaning agents’ earn 1,500 Saudi riyals (around 400 US dollars) per month on a basis of eight hours a day. However, they insist that they never ever work in the presence of the master of the house.
These are the conditions set by the Ministry of Labour in June 2007 when it allowed Saudis to work as domestic workers or, euphemistically, "Moudabbirat Manazil" (household managers).
Between "shame" and "cure"
The Ministry's decision has sparked a lively debate and led to controversial statements.
Some saw this decision as an insult to the citizens of the oil superpower, who are generally reluctant to work in the private sector and perform jobs deemed degrading.
"What a shame! A country that produces 12 million barrels of oil per day, lets its women sink to the ‘maid’ level," said a Saudi national.
Others saw it as a lifeline, a solution to economic difficulties and social pressures emanating from poverty, which now affects over 22% of the indigenous population, estimated at more than 18 million people).
Others hoped to find in domestic jobs a cure to unemployment, which particularly affects the female labour force. Unemployment rate among Saudi women officially climbed to almost 27 percent in 2008 while, paradoxically, 78 percent of them are unemployed university graduates.
Others saw it as an opportunity to reduce the huge problems caused by the million and a half of domestic workers particularly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, whose recruitment costs the country more than SR 500 million (USD 134 million) per year, in addition to a loss of more than SR 38 million (USD 10.1 million) due to the escape of some 7000 domestic workers.
Ulema, yes, but with safeguards
Obviously, the official Ulemas, like Sheikh Abdul Mohsen Bin Nasser Al Obeikan, member of the Saudi Shura Council and a judicial counselor, had endorsed the decision by putting in place enough safeguards to approve the paradox.
"The Saudi woman must have an imperative need to carry out this job. Then, she must not work in the presence of the master of the house. She must, in no circumstances, not be obliged to spend the night and most importantly, never take off her veil," underlined Sheikh Hassan Al-Shamrani, defending the title of "Moudabbirat Manazil."
Since the announcement of this first contingent of "Moudabbirat,” editors and readers of both written and electronic press have kept themselves busy commenting about this unprecedented issue as most of them were "shocked" by the idea that the kingdom, which sits under the largest oil reserves in the world, could not ensure a decent life for its own citizens.
Al-Madina published the testimony of Ibtissam, a student in third year of History, forced to beg by poverty.
"I have been looking for work, but in vain. In desperation, I secretly went out several times to search for food leftovers in the bins, "she said.
Every cloud has a silver lining
"Poverty is going to Saudize (nationalize) the jobs which are considered low," wrote Saud bin Hashem Saud Jlidane in "Aleqtissadiya."
But Habib Rakan disagreed. "Solving the problem of unemployment among women is not to make them work as maids. We must seek a solution to this endemic problem which also affects men," he wrote in Al-Watan.
That is why the Council of Ministers endorsed July 28 a recommendation of the permanent committee of the Supreme Economic Council on the "strategy of recruiting nationals.”
This "strategy" seeks to "control the unemployment in the next two years", "reduce unemployment rate in three years’ time and make the economy truly competitive on the international scene thanks to its national human resources in twenty years "... wishful thinking?
Translated and edited by Dr. Saad Guerraoui.
The article is also available in French at