(New York) - Saudi Arabia's Shura Council passed a bill on July 8, 2009, to improve legal protections for the estimated 1.5 million domestic workers in the country, but the measure still falls short of international standards, Human Rights Watch said today. The bill goes from the Shura Council, an appointed consultative body, to the cabinet, which can make further changes before it is enacted into law.
The bill, under consideration for several years, would require employers to give domestic workers at least nine hours of rest every day, suitable accommodation, and rest breaks. However, the bill contains vague provisions that would leave workers open to abuse, including the duty to obey employers' orders and a prohibition against leaving the place of employment without a "legitimate reason."
"The Shura Council finally ended its paralysis on these desperately needed protections," said Nisha Varia, deputy director of the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "Now the king and the cabinet need to remove the flawed provisions and make sure the final law can stand up to international scrutiny."
Approximately 1.5 million women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and other countries are employed as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. The current labor law excludes domestic workers, denying them rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly day of rest, limits to hours of work, and overtime pay. A 2008 Human Rights Watch report, "‘As If I Am Not Human': Abuses Against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia," documented how domestic workers often worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week, and had little power to collect owed wages in labor disputes.
Saudi authorities and the missions in Saudi Arabia of the domestic workers' home countries receive thousands of complaints of labor exploitation or abuse each year. Excessive workloads and unpaid wages, for periods ranging from a few months to 10 years, are among the most common complaints. In addition, Human Rights Watch research found that many domestic workers are restricted to their workplaces, sometimes locked in and forbidden to leave.
Many more cases of abuse probably go unreported, Human Rights Watch said, given domestic workers' isolation in private homes, employers' ability to have workers summarily deported, and migrants' lack of information about their rights.
Saudi Arabia's restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers' visas to their employers, means employers can deny workers the ability to change jobs or to leave the country. Human Rights Watch interviewed dozens of domestic workers who said their employers had forced them to work against their will for months or years. Other domestic workers were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
"This bill is a step forward, but Saudi Arabia needs to strengthen the protections and make sure they are enforced," said Varia. "Comprehensive reforms in immigration policies and police response to violence against domestic workers are also necessary."