A South African nurse in Saudi Arabia has been barred by Saudi authorities from returning home for two years after patients at the hospital where she works lodged complaints against her. South African authorities have extended consular services to her, but her fate remains uncertain.
The Sunday Independent claims it has seen correspondence between officials at a Riyadh Military Hospital, where the passports of four South African nurses have been confiscated.
According to the letter, dated March this year, the passports were being held as a result of complaints by patients.”The midwife is not informed that her passport is on hold and only becomes aware of this fact once she files for annual leave,” the letter is reported to state.
One of these nurses is banned from leaving Saudi Arabia for two years. Responding to the report on Sunday, the department of international relations and co-operation (Dirco) released a statement on Sunday noting that the South African embassy in Riyadh has rendered consular support to this nurse.
“The foreign affairs consular section in Pretoria is in contact with her family through their appointed attorney. The South African diplomatic mission in Riyadh is working with the Saudi authorities and her employer to facilitate the nurse’s return to South Africa as soon as is possible,” the statement said.
The practice of confiscating labourers’ passports is in violation of the kingdom’s own laws. In October 2000, the late King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al-Saud issued a decree specifically prohibiting the confiscation of a migrant’s passport.
But the law has done little to protect migrant workers in this regard. Several further attempts to protect the basic human rights of migrant workers in the kingdom have failed to eradicate the deeply entrenched practice.
In the case of the Riyadh Military Hospital, there is reported to have been an agreement between nurses and their employers that a passport could be confiscated if a nurse happened to be involved in a serious incident. The letter obtained by the Sunday Independent, however, states that nurses at the Riyadh Military Hospital have been prevented from leaving the country for trivial complaints – or even for queries lodged against the doctors. In one case a patient is said to have complained that a midwife had kicked her, in another, that a nurse opened a window in the ward.
Although the department of international relations and co-operation knows the details of the complaints levelled against the “detained” nurse, her offences have not yet been made public. In informal conversations with South African nurses living and working in Saudi Arabia, it is the demands of patients and their families that pose the greatest challenge to nurses.
Nurses complain of being left entirely at the whim of the patients and their families – even administering medication at their behest. Though whatever complaints have been raised against the detained nurse will certainly have to be investigated, the confiscation of her passport is a stringent violation of her right to freedom of movement.
According to the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, the term “migrant worker” refers to a person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a state of which he or she is not a national. Clause 21 of the same convention implies that it shall be unlawful for anyone, other than a public official duly authorised by law, to confiscate, destroy or attempt to destroy identity documents, documents authorising entry to or stay residence or establishment in the national territory. It further states that no authorised confiscation of such documents shall take place without delivery of a detailed receipt.
Like much of Saudi life, however, there exists great discord between the niceties of international law and the reality on the ground. The confiscation of passports is not exclusive to this hospital. It is practised widely throughout the private sector in the kingdom. The kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to their “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or exit the country.
Without their passports, workers remain at the whim of their employers, unable to flee the country even if they are abused. The International Labour Organization has identified confiscation of passports as a key element in identifying situations of forced labour.
Last month, the Saudi labour ministry’s announced a host of proposed reforms to labour laws in the country, most notably the abolishment of the kafala system. In addition, the ministry also proposed the creation of a new governmental commission to oversee migrant workers’ affairs. The commission would monitor the newly established recruitment companies and ensure compliance with regulations such as the ban on taking migrant workers’ passports. Such a commission may prove crucial in combating the inefficiency of Saudi authorities towards police abuses like the confiscation of passports.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s failure to protect the rights of migrant workers in the country, South African nurses continue to stream there. According to the WHO, it’s low pay, poor working conditions and a failure to recognise the value of nurses in South Africa that has encouraged thousands of nurses to seek employment in the kingdom. The financial rewards certainly are excellent – nurses can earn an annual tax-free salary of between R228,000 to R360,000 compared to a salary of approximately R75,400 at home.
As this case plays out over the next few days, however, it is the price of human dignity that may well have to be negotiated. DM