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Foreign laborers work on the construction of new luxury houses in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, April 2019.  © 2019 FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia should put in place labor and immigration reforms to protect domestic workers, including personal drivers, Human Rights Watch said today. New Human Rights Watch research highlights that domestic workers remain the least protected and most vulnerable to abuse.

The Saudi authorities announced reforms in October 2020 to the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties the legal status of millions of migrant workers to individual sponsors, facilitating abuse and exploitation, including forced labor. The reforms, relating to when a worker can change employers or leave the country, are scheduled to roll out in March 2021, though details are yet to be announced. However, they do not apply to 3.7 million domestic workers, who are excluded from the labor law. Bloomberg reported a Saudi official stating that they are looking to review the regulations for domestic workers.

“Saudi Arabia has one of the most abusive versions of the kafala system, and while the announced reforms could be a step in the right direction, they by no means dismantle kafala in full,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Most important, millions of domestic workers are denied the proposed reforms, leaving them at the mercy of their employers as they work out of sight in private households.”

Under Saudi Arabia’s kafala system, migrant workers need an employer to sponsor their entry and stay in the country and their employer’s permission to change jobs and leave the country. Saudi Arabia is the only Gulf state to still require all migrant workers to have an exit permit to leave the country. If they leave their employer, they can be reported for “absconding,” arrested, and deported.

Based on Saudi authorities’ statements and media reports, the reforms will ease restrictions to allow migrant workers to change jobs after finishing their contract or after a year with a notice period, and allow them to request an exit permit from the government without the employer’s permission. But these are small changes to two of the most abusive elements of the kafala system. Since full details have not been made public, it is difficult to assess whether these will qualify as reforms.

In November, Human Rights Watch interviewed seven migrant domestic workers from India and Pakistan, who serve as drivers for private employers across Saudi Arabia, including in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. According to the Al Eqtisadiah daily, drivers in Saudi Arabia make up 55 percent of domestic workers. All seven said that their employers had delayed, deducted, or not paid their salaries for up to six months at a time, affecting their ability to repay loans for recruitment fees. They said their employers force them to work long hours and verbally abuse them.

They said their employers forced them to work up to 18 hours a day, without a day off. That violates Saudi Arabia’s domestic worker regulation, which requires providing them with nine hours of continuous rest a day and a weekly day off. The regulations, unlike the labor law, do not limit the workday to eight hours or require overtime compensation.

One Indian driver who has been working for a Saudi family since January 2019 said that his employers expect him to work continuously from 7 a.m. until well after midnight, making him fear that the overwork could cause him to have a traffic accident. “When they no longer need me to run their own errands, they send me to the madam’s sister’s house to run her errands,” he said. “It’s like they own me, so they must use me every moment. Most days I do not have time to eat a proper lunch.” Another Indian driver in Riyadh said that since September 2019 he has been working up to 16 hours a day without a rest day.

All the drivers said their wages had been delayed, unpaid, or paid with unexpected deductions. A Pakistani driver in Riyadh said he had arrived in Saudi Arabia in January. He said that in July he had a car accident for which the police concluded he was not at fault, but that his employer has withheld his monthly salary of 1,200 Saudi Riyals (US$319) ever since as punishment. “Because my employer is angry that I had an accident, my family back home is starving,” he said. “I am starving, I don’t have money to eat a proper meal.”

One Indian driver said his employer pays him only 50 percent of what the contract states. In 2017, the Saudi authorities required employers to register domestic workers for Household Payroll Cards, which work as debit cards to withdraw wages, to ensure electronic documentation of payments. But none of the drivers interviewed had been registered for these cards.

As a result of exploitative recruitment practices, migrant workers are often already in debt when they arrive, and further delays or deductions in their wages hamper loan repayments. The drivers paid between $626 and $1,355 for their work visas and air travel to Saudi Arabia, leaving them in debt.

Under the Saudi labor law, it is illegal to charge recruitment fees to migrant workers, but these fees are not explicitly prohibited for migrant domestic workers. Some of the men took private loans with interest to pay recruitment agents for visa fees, while others used their life savings.

In 2017, the Saudi authorities said that domestic workers can change employers in some circumstances, including if they have not been paid for three months or their employer failed to renew their permits. But Migrant Rights reported that this is rarely enforced because of problems with complaints and justice systems.

Five of the seven workers said they have complained to government labor offices about wage abuses, overwork, and psychological abuse, but have received no assistance. “It is useless to go to the maktab al-amal (labor office),” said the driver who had the accident. “The men there are ruder and even less cooperative than my own employer.”

In 2013, the Labor Ministry – now Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development – set up a helpline where workers can register their grievances in multiple languages. Two people who worked for the helpline between 2013 and 2018 told Human Rights Watch that the majority of calls they received were from domestic workers, although workers employed by private companies also used the service.

They said that the most common reasons that domestic workers call is to ask for help regarding delayed, underpaid, or unpaid wages, but that among female domestic workers the major complaints were about verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch has previously documented the range of abuses that female migrant domestic workers face, including non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workloads, and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Some of these cases amounted to forced labor or trafficking.

“There were domestic workers who hadn’t been paid in five and sometimes 10 years, and they didn’t know what to do,” one former helpline worker said. “There were workers who were risking their lives by secretly using their employers’ phones to call us because they had no other contact with the outside world. It took a lot of time to convince the workers not to be afraid of telling me the truth. They live in constant fear. After telling me their grievance they would often have second thoughts and ask me to delete everything because they were too scared to lodge a formal complaint.”

Once the helpline workers submit migrant workers’ complaints in their system, depending on their urgency, they were either forwarded to the local police or the Labor Ministry. “After that, when the worker called again to say their problem was not resolved, all we could do is give them their tracking numbers,” said a former helpline worker. “We didn’t have powers beyond that.”

“Saudi Arabia should fully dismantle the kafala system for all migrant workers so that no worker is dependent on a single employer to enter, live in, or leave the country,” Coogle said. “The authorities should also extend and implement equal labor law protections to the millions of migrant domestic workers who cook, clean, and drive for families in Saudi Arabia.”

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