July 14, 2008

V. Forced Labor, Trafficking, Slavery, and Slavery-like Conditions

Human Rights Watch documented a wide range of abuses against migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, including deception during recruitment, violations of freedom of movement, physical and sexual abuse, labor exploitation, and double victimization in the criminal justice system. Subsequent chapters will discuss all of these issues in greater detail. In some cases, domestic workers experienced several of these abuses simultaneously.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 women and girl domestic workers whose situations clearly amounted to forced labor, trafficking, slavery, or slavery-like conditions. The following case studies demonstrate how the multiple abuses domestic workers may experience during recruitment and employment can intersect to create these conditions.

No estimates exist regarding the number of such cases in Saudi Arabia, though these egregious abuses likely comprise a minority in comparison to more typical complaints involving delayed payment of wages and overwork. However, many cases of forced labor, trafficking, slavery, or slavery-like conditions are likely never to be identified or reported, due to the worker's isolation, lack of information about her rights, and the employer's ability to repatriate her at will.

International law proscribes forced labor, trafficking, and institutions and practices amounting or similar to slavery or servitude. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the ILO Forced Labor Convention, the Trafficking Protocol, the Slavery Convention, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (Supplemental Slavery Convention), and the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court are the principal sources of international law that define and prohibit these practices.[67] In 1962 then-King Faisal abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree.

Forced Labor

Nour Miyati

This was my third time migrating. The first time I was in Medina for four years. The second time I was in Ta'if for two years. My previous employers were good and provided my full salary.

[The third time in Riyadh], the wife of the employer beat me, she did not work. Everyday she beat me. She beat my head, so I would cover it with my hands. She hit my foot with her sharp high heels. Everyday she did this until my foot was injured. When I told the husband about his wife's behavior, he also beat me. After she beat my hands and they became swollen, [they made me] wash my hands with one whole cup of bleach. I felt very hurt and had a lot of pain. I never got enough food. After one year, they still had not paid my salary.

I never got a chance to rest, I woke up at 4 a.m., made breakfast for the children, I worked all day without rest. I went to sleep at 3 a.m. So many times I didn't get a chance to sleep at night, I worked around the clock.

My employer had my passport. He is a policeman [a member of the National Guard]. I never got a chance to leave the house. They locked me in from the outside. When I had stayed there for one year, I got a chance to escape, it was a Thursday and I ran out. My condition was bad, my left eye couldn't see, I was swollen all over. I got a taxi that took me to a police officer. My employer came to the station and took me back. I refused, I said, "My employer is a bad person." My employer said, "You haven't finished your contract yet, it should be two years."

When I reached the house, they beat me again. They beat my mouth and one tooth fell out [shows scar on her lip]. After that, they locked all the doors, only the bathroom door was unlocked. I was never allowed to go out, not even to throw out the garbage. They didn't let me use the telephone. The situation got very bad. The husband and wife beat me every day, they never gave me medicine.

It got worse after I tried to run away. In the last month I slept in the bathroom. they put tape on my mouth so I couldn't say anything because my employers didn't want the neighbors to know about me.

I didn't escape, I asked [my employer] to take me to the hospital because of my condition. First I had to promise not to tell about their behavior to me. They forced me to stay silent.

[A doctor identified the abuse and notified authorities. Nour Miyati then underwent intensive medical treatment over several months, including amputation of her fingers due to gangrene.

The criminal proceedings of her case have stretched over three years, while Nour Miyati has waited in the overcrowded Indonesian embassy shelter for its resolution. A Riyadh court initially convicted Nour Miyati of making false allegations, sentencing her to 79 lashes, but later overturned this decision. The court dropped charges against her male employer. It sentenced the female employer to 35 lashes for committing abuse, but on May 19, 2008, a judge also dropped the charges against the female employer. That judge still awarded Nour Miyati 2,500 riyals ($668) in compensation, a small fraction of the amounts typically awarded for the types of injuries sustained.[68] The Indonesian embassy plans to appeal the latest judgment.][69]

[crying] I just worry I cannot work because of my hands. I don't know about my future.

Nour Miyati (real name used upon request), Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006, and March 11, 2008

According to the ILO Convention on Forced Labor, Number 29, forced or compulsory labor "shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily."[70]

The ILO elaborates examples of "menace of penalty" to include: "physical violence against a worker or close associates, physical confinement, financial penalties, denunciation to authorities (police, immigration) and deportation, dismissal from current employment, exclusion from future employment, and the removal of rights and privileges."[71] In the majority of Saudi Arabia forced labor cases we reviewed, employers confined domestic workers to the workplace, including by locking them in from the outside, and withheld their passports, placing them at risk of arrest and punishment if they escaped. As in the case of Nour Miyati, several employers committed or threatened physical violence, and punishments often increased in severity if the domestic worker attempted to escape.

Examples provided by the ILO of the involuntary nature of work include: physical confinement in the work location, psychological compulsion (order to work backed up by a credible threat of a penalty), induced indebtedness (by falsification of accounts, excessive interest charges, etc.), deception about types and terms of work, withholding and non-payment of wages, and retention of identity documents or other valuable personal possessions.[72]

We documented numerous cases of domestic workers whose experiences met these criteria. Saudi government officials, embassy officials, and domestic workers agree that as a standard practice employers retain domestic workers' passports. Withholding and nonpayment of wages is the most common complaint presented by domestic workers to authorities. As will be discussed in more detail, many labor agents deceive domestic workers about the terms of their work.

Saudi Arabia's requirement that domestic workers obtain their employers' consent in order to receive the necessary clearance ("exit visa") to leave the country greatly increases the risk of forced labor. Human Rights Watch interviewed several domestic workers who were forced to work for months, and in some cases, years, beyond their contracts, because their employers would not allow them to leave the country. This requirement and its consequences are discussed more fully in Chapter VI, below.

Even if migrant domestic workers have arrived in Saudi Arabia willingly and with full information, they may end up in situations of forced labor. The ILO notes that it is possible for workers to revoke freely given consent: "many victims enter forced labour situations initially of their own accord only to discover later that they are not free to withdraw their labour. They are subsequently unable to leave their work owing to legal, physical or psychological coercion."[73] For example, many domestic workers in Saudi Arabia migrate voluntarily but end up in forced labor situations because their employers do not approve their exit visas to leave the country, withhold months or years of wages, or lock them in the workplace.


Ani R.

I married a Saudi, he's a teacher. We married in Indonesia. He came to P.T. Sariwati [labor agency], he told the [labor agent] he was looking for a wife. I met him in the P.T., because [an intermediary] from Cianjur introduced us.

I met him at 5 p.m. and I married him at 12 o'clock at night. I did it because I wanted to help my parents' economic situation [starts crying]. He promised me 15 million rupiah [$1,636][74] before marriage, but the dowry was not given. He promised he would give it to me when I went with him to Saudi Arabia, that he would send this money to my parents via the person from Cianjur. [still crying]

My father received 6 million rupiah. I don't know what happened to the other 9 million. When I got married, my husband took me to Saudi Arabia, and for the first month he was nice. Then he treated me like a housekeeper and he beat me up. My husband didn't let me make phone calls or write letters.

When he asked me to marry him, he said he was unmarried. After we had sex, he told me he had two wives and six children. Each wife has three children. I wanted to go home when I heard that. The labor agent in Indonesia knew that my husband was married and he still let me marry him. That Cianjur lady was working in his sister's house as a maid [and had deceived me].

When [my husband] faced problems outside, he was angry at home. He would check the bookcase with a tissue to see if there was dust or not. If he saw dust, he grabbed my hair and said, "You are lying," and he grabbed my hair and took me to the bedroom and beat me several times. He always told me I didn't work very well and beat me.

The first time I ran away, I was [in a shelter]. They were all runaways, with the same problems as me, their sponsors beat them. I stayed there for one week and my husband came and a police officer asked me to go with my husband. The police told me to go with him because they only knew that he was my sponsor, they thought that I was his maid.

The police forced me to go back to my husband, my sponsor. They forced me to go with him. I told the police, "I don't want to go with the sponsor, because he is not good, he always beats me, I want to go to the Indonesian embassy." The police said, "You are better off with the sponsor because you didn't even earn enough for your ticket home." After I came home, my husband gave money to the police. A lot, I don't know how much.

When I came back with him in his car, he threw away my clothes. I took two dresses and two pairs of underwear and on the way home, he threw out the rest of my clothes. When we reached home, he beat me again. I said, "I'm hurt," but he never stopped. I was crying, but he didn't care.

At his mother's house, she treated me like a maid, because she didn't know that I was his wife. Even his sister didn't know.

I just want to go home. [crying] I don't want to see my husband anymore. I am afraid of my husband. I have been traumatized because he beat me, I always remember how he beat me. If I stay here, I will be stressed and depressed. It is better for me to go home to Indonesia to my parents.

Ani R., 17-year-old Indonesian girl led to believe she was marrying a Saudi man but brought in on a domestic worker employment visa, Riyadh, December 5, 2006

Trafficking includes any act of recruitment, transport, transfer, receipt, sale, or purchase of human beings by force, fraud, deceit, or other coercive tactics for the purpose of placing them into conditions of forced labor or practices similar to slavery or servitude.[75] Such conditions occur when labor is extracted through physical or non-physical means of coercion, including blackmail, fraud, deceit, threat or use of physical force, or psychological pressure.

Migration and trafficking are interlinked, as traffickers often exploit the processes by which individuals migrate. For example, recruiters may deceive prospective domestic workers about their actual working conditions. In the case of Ani R., a Saudi man, an Indonesian labor agent, and an Indonesian migrant worker deceived her into believing she was migrating for marriage, yet the Saudi man brought her into the country as a domestic worker and treated her accordingly. Trafficking victims may be found in situations of forced domestic labor and other forms of forced labor, forced sex work, and forced marital arrangements.

Saudi Arabia's anti-trafficking decree (see "Recent Reforms," above) prohibits all forms of trafficking, and includes specific provisions addressing migrant workers and children. For example, the decree prohibits the sale of work permits, receiving commissions in return for employment, breaching contractual agreements, and immoral treatment.[76] The penalties are relatively light, with violators prevented from recruiting foreign workers for five years. Repeat violations can result in a permanent ban on recruiting foreign workers.[77]

The annual United States Trafficking in Persons report has repeatedly highlighted Saudi Arabia as one of the worst countries in the world regarding its response to human trafficking. The US State Department has noted that recruitment abuses, the kafala system, and employers' treatment of migrant workers contribute to trafficking for forced labor. The 2008 report stated,

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The government continues to lack adequate anti-trafficking laws, and, despite evidence of widespread trafficking abuses, did not report any criminal prosecutions, convictions, or prison sentences for trafficking crimes committed against foreign domestic workers. [78]

Given Saudi Arabia's failure to institute even minimum standards to fight trafficking, it is eligible for punitive sanctions from the United States. However, for three years, the United States has waived these sanctions in the name of its national interest.

Slavery and Slavery-like Conditions

Haima G.

I am 17 years old, from Mindanao. I have finished three years of high school. I was 15 when I left. I wanted to help my family. My cousins fooled me into coming here, my parents thought I'd be with them, but actually they were far away. They really fooled me, if I had known what Saudi Arabia is like, I wouldn't have come, not even if they gave me millions [eyes filling with tears]. My father didn't ask my permission, I had to go. I thought I would babysit children and go to school at the same time. I did not know I would be a full-time maid, cleaning. I didn't even know my wages.

They took me to an agency [in Saudi Arabia] where they trick people. I stayed in the agency for one week. I had to work in five houses in one week. One day the agent said he would take me to his sibling's house. He was the only one there. He started holding me, kissing me. He said he would marry me, that he would call my family, and give me money. He asked how old I am. I said, "I am 24." He said, "I know you are not 24." He was kissing me. I was crying, "don't do this to me, I am Muslim."

When we went back to the agency, my true employer, the one I would be sold to, was there. I didn't want to go back to the agency because he touched me all over and kissed me and I thought maybe he would rape me. The true employer got me and brought me to the house. He said, "Be good so I don't send you back [to the agency]."

After a while, 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." That is when I found out I had been sold.

He said, "I will do something to you, but don't tell anyone." He injected me with something, but I don't know what it was. He said, "If you don't want to go back to the agency, you better stay here." I felt dizzy and feverish after the injection. He really threatened me, "Don't tell madam."

[gets quiet] I felt there was no hope. The employer raped me. The lady employer was noticing something about me, that I was exhausted. The employer raped me many times. Not in my bedroom, because I locked the door, but around the house.

[crying] I thought, I can't take it anymore, I stayed in my bedroom for two days, I had a phone in my room because they are rich, and they called me. I told everything to madam. Madam also cried. Madam said, "We can't do anything about it, I know he's really bad, every time that he is drunk, he does bad things."

I said, "I want to go to the Philippines." The whole family, madam, the employer, they didn't want me to go. They locked the doors and the gates. One night, still in February, there was a party. I thought, now I can escape, and I prayed and prayed. I saw that the gate was unlocked [and escaped to the embassy.]

I went to the [police] station with an embassy official. After that, they brought the employer to Suleimaniya, he was put in prison. They brought me to the SSWA [a shelter run by the Ministry of Social Affairs]. I was there for one month. After four days in the SSWA, the employer who was in prison came to the SSWA and we had another interview. He asked how much money I wanted [for an out of court settlement]. I said, "I don't want money, I want him to suffer and go to jail."

I don't want to go home feeling empty like the others, without bringing money, even just one riyal. I cry, how long will I have to wait here in the embassy? I have been here nine months.

One day, they told me the case was unsuccessful [and I will be sent to deportation to return home.]

I was treated really badly. It is as if I don't have a family and I am not a human being.

Haima G., Filipina domestic worker, 17 years old, Riyadh, December 7, 2006

Situations of slavery are distinguished by exercising powers of ownership over a human being.[79] The Elements of Crimes, which elaborates how the Rome Statute (establishing the International Criminal Court) should be interpreted, provides the most contemporary definition of enslavement: "The perpetrator exercised any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more persons, such as purchasing, selling, lending or bartering such a person or persons, or by imposing on them a similar deprivation of liberty."[80] It adds that

such deprivation of liberty may, in some circumstances, include exacting forced labour or otherwise reducing a person to a servile status as defined in the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery.[81]

Haima G.'s situation amounts to trafficking and conditions of slavery, as relatives deceived Haima G. about her promised job abroad, her agent sexually harassed her, and her employer threatened to return her to her abusive agent if she complained. Her employer sexually assaulted her, retained her passport, and locked her in the workplace so that she could not escape.

We found that the combination of the high recruitment fees paid by Saudi employers and the power granted them by the kafala system to control whether a worker can change employers or exit the country made some employers feel entitled to exert "ownership" over a domestic worker. According to recruitment agents and embassy officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch, employers typically pay approximately 6,000-9,000 riyals ($1,560-2,340) to hire a domestic worker. The employer's reference to "buying" Haima G. for 10,000 riyals because he had paid a recruitment fee illustrates the sense of ownership that creates slavery-like conditions.

Some employers justify retaining domestic workers' passports and restricting their freedom of movement on the basis of having paid large sums of money for their recruitment and not wanting them to run away, thereby losing their "investment." Throughout this report, there are examples of employers who refer to having paid a lot of money to justify abusive behavior. As in the case of Haima G., employers may convey to their domestic worker the impression that they have been bought, often manipulating migrant women's isolation and fears about their rights in Saudi Arabia.

We interviewed many domestic workers, embassy officials, and Saudis who felt that some employers' dehumanizing treatment and attitudes towards domestic workers resembled slavery-like conditions. In several interviews, domestic workers specifically referred to their employer as their "master" or "owner," or their experience of being "sold." A senior consular official told us, "Saudis treat them like chattel, slaves, like cattle. A domestic worker is like a slave and slaves have no rights. That is why they are not covered under a labor law."[82]

Recruitment agents may also subject domestic workers to slavery-like conditions or conditions of servitude by forcing them to work for new employers when they wish to go home, mistreating them, and taking their salaries. Human Rights Watch interviewed domestic workers who thought they were being bought and sold. Gina R. said, "When I was in the agency, it was locked. I was only given plain rice once a day. I wanted to go to the Philippines. I told him I want to go. They didn't tell me anything, they were going to sell me to another employer. I said, 'I don't want to work anymore.' I slept on the floor without any blanket."[83]

Once Haima G. approached the Filipino embassy and the Saudi police, they were able to arrest her employer. According to the system of diya (blood money) in qisas (retribution) cases, a victim can accept financial compensation from the perpetrator after receiving a final judicial guilty verdict. Haima G.'s case failed, and after waiting for more than a year for her case to conclude, she returned to the Philippines with nothing.

[67] ILO Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (Forced Labour Convention), adopted June 28, 1930, 39 U.N.T.S. 55, entered into force May 1, 1932, ratified by Saudi Arabia June 15, 1978; Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Trafficking Protocol); Slavery, Servitude, Forced Labour and Similar Institutions and Practices Convention of 1926 (Slavery Convention), adopted September 25, 1926, 60 L.N.T.S. 253, entered into force March 9, 1927; UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, adopted September 7, 1956, 226 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force April 30, 1957, acceded to by Saudi Arabia July 5, 1973; and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), U.N. Doc. A/CONF.183/9, July 17, 1998, entered into force July 1, 2002.

[68] This figure uses the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Saudi riyal on May 21, 2008.

[69] "Saudi Arabia: Nour Miyati Denied Justice for Torture," Human Rights Watch news release, May 21, 2008, http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2008/05/21/saudia18914.htm.

[70] ILO Forced Labour Convention, art. 2. The European Court of Human Rights also uses this standard to interpret the prohibition on slavery, forced or compulsory labor in the European Convention on Human Rights (Van der Mussele v. Belgium, November 23, 1983 Series A No. 70; Siliadin v. France February 1, 2005 ECHR 2005).

[71]ILO, A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour: Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights of Work (Geneva: ILO, 2005), p. 6.. The European Court of Human Rights has also found that in the absence of a specific "penalty" being imposed, an equivalent situation arises where there is a perceived seriousness of a threat of a penalty such as a fear of arrest or deportation if found without a passport or papers, or if they try to escape. Siliadin, para. 118.

[72] ILO, A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour, p. 6.

[73] ILO, A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour, p. 6.

[74] This figure uses the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Indonesian rupiah on December 5, 2006.

[75] UN Trafficking Protocol, art. 3.

[76] Decree, Ministry of Labor No. 738/1 dated 16/5/1425h.

[77] Ibid.

[78] US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2007 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, June 2008), http://www.state.gov/g/tip/rls/tiprpt/2008/105389.htm (accessed June 10, 2008).

[79] Slavery Convention, art. 1.

[80] Elements of Crimes, ICC-ASP/1/3, art. 7(1)(c).

[81] Ibid.

[82] Human Rights Watch interview with consular official E from a labor-sending country, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

[83] Human Rights Watch interview with Gina R., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.