Labour laws questioned after Indian maid loses arm in Saudi

Kasthuri Munirathinam, a 55-year-old mother of four from southern India, was plunged into debt after borrowing money to marry off her daughters. Like millions before her, she was recruited through an agency and promised an opportunity to earn 1,000 Saudi riyals (USD 267) a month by working as a live-in maid in Saudi Arabia, the Arab region’s largest economy where domestic help is in high demand.

On Sept. 29, just a few weeks after arriving in the kingdom, she tried to escape from her employer’s house, using two of her saris to fashion a rope and climb from a third-floor window.

What happened next is unclear and disputed. What is clear, however, is the price Munirathinam is paying for trying to leave. She lost her most of her right arm and is now lying in a hospital bed in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

The incident highlights the precarious situation migrant workers across the Gulf face under a sponsorship system that ties their livelihood and residency visas to their employer.

Rights researchers say domestic workers, who number at least 2.4 million across the Gulf, are among the most vulnerable because the majority are women and live with their sponsor. Labor laws in Gulf Arab nations often exclude domestic workers from their protections.

Munirathinam’s sisters, speaking by telephone to The Associated Press in India, say her employer was overworking her and not feeding her enough. In calls to her family, Munirathinam told relatives that when she complained to Saudi authorities about her treatment, her employer punished her by locking her in a room.

According to her relatives, Munirathinam alleges that she lost her arm as a result of her employer’s actions. But a Saudi police spokesman said their investigation showed she fell from her makeshift rope and that the amputation of her arm resulted from injuries from her fall.

“She feared that they might try to harm her or kill her, so she tried escaping through the window,” her sister Vijayakumari Shankar said. “The recruitment agency told her that she would be able to make a lot of money and help her family out of poverty.”

Munirathinam’s older sister Mallika Jayavel says the sponsor is alleging she jumped from the window because she is mentally ill.

“This is completely untrue,” she said. “They are trying to put the blame on her instead of admitting their guilt.”

India’s Foreign Ministry has pressed for an independent inquiry and for the employer to be charged with attempted murder. The family is demanding she receive compensation since she will no longer be able to work. She also underwent back surgery as a result of the fall.

Across the Middle East, domestic workers typically hail from the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Ethiopia. They work as nannies and live-in maids, often for six and even seven days a week.