DURING our last visit in March 2008 to Riyadh, we talked with a Sri Lankan woman in her fifties who worked as a housemaid. She told us that she was returning home, because her mother was dying. A year earlier, she had come to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker after her husband had died in the 2004 tsunami, and her house and life savings were washed away. Her salary as a schoolteacher was insufficient to support her two sons in university.
She had nothing but praise for her employers, who had spontaneously agreed to give her leave, arrange for an exit visa, and pay her ticket home. She was comfortable in their home, managed the work, and regularly received her pay, albeit only SR400. Sadly, too many Asian domestic workers do not have such a positive experience working in the Kingdom.
In Human Rights Watch’s new report, “As If I Am Not Human,” Asian domestic workers tell of the darker side of being a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia. Many enjoy decent working conditions, but too many other women fall victim to labor violations or horrific physical abuse. We conducted 142 interviews with domestic workers, government officials, and labor agents for this report. Human Rights Watch had previously examined the general plight of foreign workers in a 2004 report, “Bad Dreams” and found little change in the nature of their complaints.
Many domestic workers do not know their rights. Given their precarious legal status and financial desperation, they are often coerced into accepting a lower salary than promised, working from dawn until late night, or performing extra work duties such as cleaning more than one house. Many do not know where to turn, especially when employers delay their wages for months or lock them in the home.
The Human Rights Watch report documents grave abuses such as the forced labor of Nour Miyati, whose employers beat her, deprived her of food, and locked her up until she developed gangrene. It also discusses less well-known cases, such as Ani R., who was trafficked as a domestic worker to Saudi Arabia by a Saudi man who married her in Indonesia. Then there is Haima G., a Filipina domestic worker living in slavery-like conditions; her employer told her that he purchased her before repeatedly raping her and locking her in the house.
The Saudi government has taken some steps to improve the situation. For example, the Ministry of Social Affairs operates a shelter in Riyadh for domestic workers who need assistance securing exit visas to return home or claiming unpaid wages from their employers. The Ministry of Labor has started to penalize employers who have mistreated their workers by barring them from hiring foreign workers in the future for five years, and sometimes for life.
These reforms point in the right direction but do not make the changes necessary to prevent abuse from occurring in the first place. The current system of sponsorship means that an employer has immense power over a domestic worker because she cannot leave the country or change employers without his consent. Domestic workers are especially at risk of abuse because they are not covered under the Labor Law and its protections concerning limits on working hours, weekly days of rest, and overtime pay. Unfortunately, this deep power imbalance and lack of regulation too often results in exploitation.
The Ministry of Labor has proposed key reforms to address these issues, but the government has been slow to adopt them. One proposal would change the sponsorship system so that a few large labor agencies would act as foreign workers’ sponsors instead of individual employers. Such a change would help workers leave abusive employers more easily, though such agencies would need to be monitored rigorously and are likely to be more interested in their profits than their workers’ rights.
The Ministry of Labor has also drafted, but not yet adopted, an annex to the 2005 labor law specifying the rights and duties of domestic workers. If this annex gives domestic workers equal rights as those guaranteed to all other workers under the Labor Law, it could provide a model for the region.
The area where the government has yet to propose or implement meaningful reforms has been redress for domestic workers through the criminal justice system. In criminal matters, such as locking up a domestic worker in the house, depriving her of food, or beating and sexually harassing her, the Saudi police and courts have not investigated their complaints diligently, at times giving more credibility to the employer’s claims that she is a witch, or has stolen from the family. Alone and without meaningful support or resources, domestic workers facing such abuse often have limited access to translation, a lawyer, or their embassies.
How many more Nour Miyatis, Ani R.s, and Haima G.s will there be before the government implements these changes? Such abuse counters Saudi Arabia’s values and stains its reputation. The government has had years to consider and revise these proposals. They should not wait any longer to protect domestic workers’ rights, but instead, adopt and enforce these reforms now.
Christoph Wilcke and Nisha Varia are, respectively, senior researchers for Saudi Arabia and Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch.