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In the wake of the attacks against civilians in Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s rulers pledged to make foreigners and citizens safe from terror. But there is another campaign that needs to be fought with similar vigour, against the exploitation and abuse of millions of foreign workers.

There are 8.8 million foreign residents in Saudi Arabia, according to the Labour Ministry. This figure is significantly higher than any previously reported. In other words, for every two Saudis, there is one foreign worker. Foreigners account for 67 per cent of the workforce and hold 90 to 95 percent of private-sector jobs.

The overwhelming majority are low-paid, skilled and unskilled workers who arrived legally, to work hard and send money to their families back home. Many came heavily indebted due to exorbitant fees charged by manpower agencies.

They clean hospitals and schools, repair water pipes and collect garbage. They are plumbers, carpenters, bakers and barbers. Women clean, cook, care for children, work in beauty salons and sew custom-made clothing for the elite.

Millions are from rural and urban areas in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, where unemployment is high and poverty pervasive. Their monthly salaries in Saudi Arabia – if they are lucky enough to be paid on a regular basis – typically range from US$200 to US$300.

In testimonies to Human Rights Watch, these men and women detailed how some employers impose slavery-like work conditions. They recounted how they worked 12 hours or more daily without overtime, had salaries unpaid for months, and never received benefits specified in their contracts. Women workers were locked into places of employment around the clock and denied freedom of movement during the contract period. Tragically, most tolerate the exploitation because they feel vulnerable and powerless.

During a visit to Riyadh in January last year, Human Rights Watch saw young Indonesians in a women’s prison for “illegal pregnancies”. In India and the Philippines later that year, men told of torture in police stations and Interior Ministry interrogation rooms. They described beatings, sleep deprivation, and detention for months. They were forced to sign confessions in Arabic, which they could not read. “You won’t be brought to court; we’ll kill you right here,” one interrogator told a Filipino truck driver. In the courts, judges called defendants “liars”, ignored complaints about torture, and handed down guilty verdicts without evidence. Indian and Filipino men were executed without their embassies being notified, and the bodies were never returned to their families.

As the voices of scores of migrant workers returned from Saudi Arabia make clear, the Saudi government must tackle these abuses, and the international community must insist they do so urgently. Asian governments sending their people to work there must join together to insist that basic rights of their citizens are enforced.

Since September 11, much has been written about how the terror attacks forced liberal Saudi officials and citizens to reflect on how intolerance has been incubated and still thrives. But officials and citizens alike need to confront the systemic abuse of foreign workers. The rulers of Saudi Arabia cannot pretend to preside over a modern state without addressing these problems with an urgency that matches their declared war on terror.

Virginia Sherry is associate director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch

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