Letter to the Governments of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka
November 23, 2010

To the Governments of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka,

In the wake of recent cases of alleged abuse against Indonesian and Sri Lankan migrant domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia, we write to urge your governments to ensure a timely and comprehensive response to these individual cases and to implement systemic reforms to prevent such abuses in the future.

Since August 2010, three cases of migrant domestic workers suffering extensive physical injuries, and in one case, death, have surfaced. These include:

  • Kikim Komalasari, a 36-year-old Indonesian domestic worker whose body was recovered in Abha this month with signs of extensive physical abuse.
  • Sumiati Salan Mustapa, a 23-year-old Indonesian domestic worker who is currently in a hospital in Medina with burns and severe physical injuries.
  • L.D. Ariyawathie, a 49-year-old Sri Lankan domestic worker who had 24 nails removed from her body upon returning to Sri Lanka in August 2010.

We acknowledge the steps your governments have taken thus far to provide health care to the survivors of alleged abuse, and to open criminal investigations in these cases.

While there are a few examples of Saudi courts convicting employers for abuse, we are concerned about the Saudi judicial system's failure to provide consistent access for migrants to qualified translators and lawyers during legal proceedings.  Restrictions and gaps in Saudi policies compound difficulties faced by migrants seeking justice, such as immigration rules that prohibit victims from working or moving around freely until the conclusion of criminal cases, which make it extremely difficult to stay in the country legally after employment has terminated. Migrant workers who have been abused also suffer because of the poor and overcrowded conditions in embassy shelters where victims usually stay, and threat of spurious counteraccusations by former employers.

For example, in 2008, a 28-year-old Indonesian domestic worker in Medina, Keni binti Carda, accused her employer of burning her repeatedly with a hot iron all over her body, prying her teeth out, and subjecting her to psychological abuse including murder threats. She was only able to report her allegations of abuse at the airport upon return to Indonesia. Almost one year passed before the Indonesian and Saudi governments were able to arrange for Keni binti Carda to return to Saudi Arabia and for criminal proceedings against her employer to begin. Since early 2009, she has been confined to the shelter at the Indonesian consulate in Jeddah along with her baby, unable to work or to resume her life in Indonesia while waiting for the court case to conclude.

In another case, Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, sustained serious injuries and lost her fingers due to gangrene in 2005 after her employer locked her up, physically and verbally abused her, and deprived her of food. Her employers then filed a countercharge against Miyati for making false accusations, for which a court sentenced her to 79 lashes. Another court subsequently overturned her conviction, but then dropped the charges against her employer in 2008 despite strong evidence, including her employer's confession and medical reports indicating physical abuse.

Complaints mechanisms that are weak and not easily accessible to migrant workers also mean that some cases are never reported. We are seriously concerned that many additional cases of abuse never reach authorities because domestic workers are isolated in private homes, unfamiliar about the ways and means of seeking help, isolated by language barriers, and subject to their employers' ability to arrange their repatriation at will. As in the cases noted above, sometimes victims of abuse are only able to seek help when they return to their home countries.

Systemic reforms

Approximately 1.5 million migrant women, primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, are employed as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. This work constitutes an important source of income for them and for their families in their home country, while meeting a strong demand for caregiving services in Saudi Arabia. Many domestic workers find good employers and have satisfactory experiences. However, deceptive recruitment practices in home countries, gaps in labor laws, and the consequences of Saudi Arabia's kafala (sponsorship) system create conditions that facilitate abuse while providing victims little means of redress. Our organizations have documented abuses such as nonpayment of wages, forced confinement in the workplace, confiscation of passports, excessive work hours with little rest, physical and sexual abuse, and forced labor including trafficking.

The recruitment and placement of migrant domestic workers remains poorly regulated and monitored. In their home countries, recruitment brokers frequently give migrant domestic workers inadequate or misleading information about their future employment abroad, or charge them excessive recruitment fees. The burden of servicing exorbitant debts from recruitment fees can put pressure on migrant women not to report workplace abuses for fear of losing their jobs and income. 

Under Saudi Arabia's kafala system, a migrant worker's residency status is tied to her employer, who can repatriate her at will, and must grant explicit permission before the worker can transfer employment or leave the country. These policies give the employer immense control over the worker. Our organizations have documented numerous cases where these restrictions have contributed to workers getting trapped in abusive conditions. This system is practiced in many countries across the Middle East and elsewhere, but is increasingly facing well-justified attacks by government reformers, United Nations agencies, and human rights advocates who accuse it of fostering conditions of exploitation and abuse.

Another major problem is the government's failure to date to amend the Saudi labor law to include domestic workers among the types of workers who receive legal protections. This lack of status for domestic workers increases the risk they may be subject to exploitative working conditions. In 2005, the government drafted an annex to the labor law that would extend certain protections to domestic workers, including a weekly rest day and annual leave. While the consultative Shura Council approved the annex in 2009, the Council of Ministers has not yet passed this legislation. Currently, domestic workers still have no legal provisions specifying their working hours, weekly rest or annual leave, or payment of salaries.

The Indonesian and Sri Lankan diplomatic missions in Riyadh and Jeddah play a critical role in providing services for victims, such as shelter and legal aid. However, they struggle to handle the high volume of complaints and require sufficient financial resources and staff. Domestic workers approaching the missions for help complain of long waiting periods with little information about their cases. In previous visits to those cities, Human Rights Watch found the shelters grossly overcrowded with unhygienic conditions.

We recognize that the Saudi, Indonesian, and Sri Lankan governments have taken steps in recent years to start addressing protection of migrant domestic workers, such as pre-departure orientation programs and incremental labor and immigration reforms. We urge you to increase cooperation to better monitor recruitment practices, ensure provision of qualified translation services during legal proceedings, and provide comprehensive support services to survivors of abuse.

Recommendations to the Saudi Government:

  • Cooperate with labor-sending countries to conduct investigations into cases of abuse in a timely manner; prosecute alleged perpetrators, including where appropriate under the anti-trafficking law; allow victims to return to their home countries before the trial and to be flown in or give video testimony when required; and seek both criminal penalties and financial compensation.
  • Fulfill promises to reform or abolish the kafala system so that employers cannot summarily cause the repatriation of migrant workers, and so a worker does not require her or his employer's consent to change jobs or obtain an exit visa to leave the country.
  • Adopt the proposed annex to the labor law on domestic workers and ensure that it guarantees protections equal to those afforded to other workers, including a weekly day of rest where workers are free to leave the workplace.
  • Conduct public awareness campaigns about domestic workers' rights and provide complaints mechanisms geared to the needs of migrant domestic workers, including hotlines with staff who speak relevant languages and help desks at airports.
  • Provide practical mechanisms to reduce domestic workers' isolation, such as requiring provision of mobile phones and establishing community centers for domestic workers on their days off.

Recommendations to the Indonesian and Sri Lankan Governments:

  • Coordinate between the relevant authorities to ensure legal representation for migrant workers already repatriated to Indonesia or Sri Lanka who have pending cases in Saudi Arabia.
  • Improve services, including quality of shelters, legal aid, availability of counseling, and numbers of trained staff for migrant domestic workers at embassies and consular offices in Saudi Arabia.
  • Improve regulation and monitoring of recruitment agencies and village-level brokers, with an emphasis on ensuring provision of accurate and enforceable employment contracts and ending the charging of illegal and excessive fees.

 

Anis Hidayah

Migrant Care

Jakarta, Indonesia

 

Nisha Varia

Human Rights Watch

New York City, United States

 

P. Samaranayaka

Migrant Services Center

Dehiwala, Sri Lanka

 

Viola Perera

Action Network for Migrant Workers (ACTFORM)

Colombo, Sri Lanka