In its new report, “As If I Am Not Human,” Human Rights Watch presents an in-depth look into the lives of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. After two years of research and more than 140 interviews with Asian domestic workers, recruiters, and government officials, the report details cases of forced labor, human trafficking, and slavery-like conditions and the much more widespread abuses of non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. 

Reliable  statistics on the extent of the violations do not exist, and many domestic workers in Saudi Arabia enjoy decent working conditions. Yet, based on our research, exploitation remains far too common, and occurs with near complete impunity. At the crux of the abuses is that employers also act as sponsors and exert near-absolute power over foreign domestic workers. Human Rights Watch recommends transforming immigration, labor and criminal justice policies and practices by ending employers’ sponsorship over domestic workers, extending equal protection under the labor law to domestic workers, and improving their access to the criminal justice system. The government has begun to consider reforms on some of these issues.

In order to effectively prevent and punish abuse, officials  should aim to achieve four main goals that Human Rights Watch believes would help to better protect domestic workers’ rights. First, Saudi Arabia and  labor-sending countries, should improve the recruitment process so that domestic workers are fully informed about their work conditions, are qualified for the job, and are provided detailed information about their rights and where to seek help if needed. Correspondingly, employers should be aware of their duties to respect workers’ rights. These changes require rigorous monitoring of labor recruitment agencies and training for both employers and workers.  

Second, changing the individual sponsorship system is necessary. When an employer controls a worker’s exit from the kingdom or her ability to change employers, domestic workers often get trapped in abusive situations with little recourse . Currently, only workers with difficult-to-prove hardship cases are allowed to change employer without the sponsor’s consent. In response to the widely acknowledged failings of this system, the Ministry of Labor proposes to transfer sponsorship of migrant workers from individual employers to three large labor agencies monitored by the government. The National Society for Human Rights has called for transferring sponsorship of domestic workers to the state. Either proposal would mark a significant improvement over current conditions, but if the lucrative industry of recruitment is placed under the control of a few large agencies, rigorous monitoring must take place to ensure that corruption and thereby abuse of migrant workers does not develop. 

Third, domestic workers should have the same rights to overtime pay, limits on working hours, and a guaranteed day of rest. In a promising measure, the Ministry of Labor has drafted an annex  to the labor law setting out the rights and duties of domestic workers, who are currently excluded from the law’s protection. The proposed annex should be adopted quickly, fully integrated into the body of the law, and enforced, including though specialized labor courts.  Fourth, regular courts must work more efficiently and overcome bias and language barriers to protect migrant workers’ labor rights and adjudicate allegations of violent and sexual crimes. Courts and labor authorities should quickly administer stiff penalties  against employers who fail to pay a worker or grant her vacation. Criminal behavior, such as locking a domestic worker inside the house, failing to pay her for years, depriving her of food, beating or sexually harassing her, must be diligently investigated and prosecuted. Domestic workers need better access to translation, legal representation, and information about their cases. While they await the outcome of their claims, the government should provide a safe environment either in their embassies or a government shelter that meets international standards on support services and care. The current debate and the cooperation by the Ministry of Labor with non-governmental experts are positive signs that such solutions may be in sight. However, these proposed reforms have been considered for years; the government should act now to adopt and implement them.

These reforms should not sideline domestic workers, but include them and the groups that represent them in consultations.. These women leave behind their own families at great sacrifice in order to earn money and to care for Saudi families. Saudi Arabia should in turn care for them and ensure complete protection of their rights. 

Christoph Wilcke and Nisha Varia are, respectively, senior researchers for Saudi Arabia and Women’s Rights at Human Rights Watch