Key Reforms Stalled, Few Remedies for Slavery-Like Conditions
July 9, 2008
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.
Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch

(Jakarta) - Saudi Arabia should implement labor, immigration, and criminal justice reforms to protect domestic workers from serious human rights abuses that in some cases amount to slavery, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. Employers often face no punishment for committing abuses including months or years of unpaid wages, forced confinement, and physical and sexual violence, while some domestic workers face imprisonment or lashings for spurious charges of theft, adultery, or "witchcraft."

The 133-page report, "'As If I Am Not Human': Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia," concludes two years of research and is based on 142 interviews with domestic workers, senior government officials, and labor recruiters in Saudi Arabia and labor-sending countries.

"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," said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "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."

Saudi households employ an estimated 1.5 million domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal. Smaller numbers come from other countries in Africa and Asia. While no reliable statistics exist on the exact number of abuse cases, the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs and the embassies of labor-sending countries shelter thousands of domestic workers with complaints against their employers or recruiters each year.

Excessive workload and unpaid wages, for periods ranging from a few months to 10 years, are among the most common complaints. The Kingdom’s Labor Law excludes domestic workers, denying them rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly rest day and overtime pay. Many domestic workers must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

The restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ visas to their employers, and means employers can deny workers the ability to change jobs or leave the country. Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of women who said their employers forced them to work against their will for months or years. Employers often take away passports, and lock workers in the home, increasing their isolation and risk of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. After interviews with 86 domestic workers, Human Rights Watch concluded that 36 faced abuses that amounted to forced labor, trafficking, or slavery-like conditions.

"The Saudi government has some good proposals for reform but it has spent years considering them without taking any action," Varia said. "It’s now time to make these changes, which include covering domestic workers under the 2005 Labor Law and changing the kafala system so that workers’ visas are no longer tied to their employers."

The Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs, in cooperation with the police operates a shelter in Riyadh to assist domestic workers to claim their wages and return home. However, in many cases shelter staff negotiated unfair wage settlements between employers and workers, often leaving workers empty-handed because they had to forego back pay in exchange for their employer’s permission to leave the country.

Poor investigations and criminal proceedings that often stretch for years mean that abusive employers are rarely punished through the criminal justice system. For example, after three years of proceedings, a Riyadh court dropped the charges against the employer of Nour Miyati, despite the employer’s confession, ample medical evidence, and intense public scrutiny. Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, had her fingers and toes amputated as a result of being starved and beaten daily by her employers.

Human Rights Watch said that rather than seeing their abusers brought to justice, domestic workers are more likely to face counter-accusations of witchcraft, theft, or adultery. And in such cases, domestic workers often face severe delays in getting access to interpreters, legal aid, or consular assistance, or are denied help.

The punishments are severe. In a sample of cases studied by Human Rights Watch, punishments for "witchcraft" and "moral" crimes such as adultery and being in the presence of unrelated men included up to 10 years of imprisonment and between 60 and 490 lashes. Domestic workers who are pregnant as a result of rape also risk prosecution if they cannot meet strict evidentiary standards to prove the rape.

"Many of the women I talked to did not file complaints for fear of countercharges," Varia said. "In other cases, they dropped the charges against their abusers, even if they had a strong case, because otherwise they would be stuck in an overcrowded shelter for years, away from their families and unable to work, and with very little chance of ultimately getting justice."

In the absence of effective local redress mechanisms, the foreign missions of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal often play a critical role in providing shelter, legal aid, and assistance to those who have wage claims or court cases. The demands placed on these embassies far outweigh their resources, and many domestic workers complain of long waiting periods with little information about their cases and, in the cases of Indonesia and Sri Lanka, overcrowded and unhygienic shelters.

Human Rights Watch called upon Saudi Arabia to investigate and punish abusive employers and to protect domestic workers from spurious countercharges. It also called upon Saudi Arabia to cooperate more effectively with labor-sending countries to monitor domestic workers’ employment conditions, facilitate rescues, ensure recovery of unpaid wages, create shelters for survivors of abuse with comprehensive support services, and arrange for timely repatriation. Both Saudi Arabia and governments in labor-sending countries should also establish mechanisms for rigorous and regular monitoring of labor agencies and recruitment practices.

More than 8 million migrants work in Saudi Arabia, comprising roughly one-third of its population. They fill critical gaps in the health, construction, and domestic service sectors, and also support their home economies, sending back US$15.6 billion in 2006, approximately 5 percent of Saudi Arabia’s gross domestic product.

Select accounts featured in the report:

“My employer didn’t allow me to go back to Indonesia for six years and eight months…. I never got any salary, not even one riyal ... My employer never got angry with me, she never hit me. But she forbade me from returning to Indonesia.”
– Siti Mujiati W., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006

“After awhile, the employer started showing some affection for me. He called me into his bedroom. He said, ‘I want to tell you how I got you from the agency.’ He said, ‘I bought you for 10,000 riyals.’…The employer raped me many times … I told everything to madam … The whole family, madam, the employer, they didn’t want me to go. They locked the doors and gates. [After escaping and waiting in the embassy for nine months for the trial to conclude,] I don’t want to go home feeling empty like the others…. One day, they told me the case was unsuccessful [and I will be sent to deportation to return home.]”
– Haima G., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006

“For one year and five months, [I received] no salary at all. I asked for money and they would beat me, or cut me with a knife, or burn me. There are markings on my back. My body ached all over. They would take my head and bang it against the wall. Whenever I requested my salary, there would be a fight.”
– Ponnamma S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006