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“It was like a bad dream” is the way one migrant worker from the Philippines summed up his experiences in Saudi Arabia.  Another worker, from Bangladesh, told us: “I slept many nights beside the road and spent many days without food.  It was a painful life.  I could not explain that life.” A woman in a village in India, whose son was beheaded following a secret trial, could only say this: “We have no more tears, our tears have all dried up.” She deferred to her husband to provide the account of their son’s imprisonment and execution in Jeddah.

It is undeniable that many foreigners employed in the kingdom, in jobs from the most menial to the highest skilled, have returned home with no complaints. But for the women and men who were subjected to abysmal and exploitative working conditions, sexual violence, and human rights abuses in the criminal justice system, Saudi Arabia represented a personal nightmare.

In 1962, then-King Faisal abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree.  Over forty years later, migrant workers in the purportedly modern society that the kingdom has become continue to suffer extreme forms of labor exploitation that sometimes rise to slavery-like conditions.  Their lives are further complicated by deeply rooted gender, religious, and racial discrimination. This provides the foundation for prejudicial public policy and government regulations, shameful practices of private employers, and unfair legal proceedings that yield judicial sentences of the death penalty.   

The overwhelming majority of the men and women who face these realities in Saudi Arabia are low-paid workers from Asia, Africa, and countries in the Middle East.    

This report gives voice to some of their stories.

It is based on information gathered from migrant workers and their families in mud brick houses off dirt roads in tropical agricultural areas of southwest India, in apartments in densely packed neighborhoods of metropolitan Manila, and in simple dwellings in rural villages of Bangladesh. The victims include skilled and unskilled workers; Muslims, Hindus, and Christians; young adults traveling outside their home countries for the first time; and married men, and single and divorced women, with children to support. 

In Saudi Arabia, these workers delivered dairy products, cleaned government hospitals, repaired water pipes, collected garbage, and poured concrete. Some of them baked bread and worked in restaurants; others were butchers, barbers, carpenters, and plumbers. Women migrants cleaned, cooked, cared for children, worked in beauty salons, and sewed custom-made dresses and gowns. Unemployed or underemployed in their countries of origin, and often impoverished, these men and women sought only the opportunity to earn wages and thus improve the economic situation for themselves and their families.   

This report is the first comprehensive examination of the variety of human rights abuses that foreign workers experience in Saudi Arabia.  The voices of these migrants provide a window into a country whose hereditary, unelected rulers continue to choose secrecy over transparency at the expense of justice.  The stories in this report illustrate why so many migrant workers, including Muslims, return to their home countries deeply aggrieved by the lack of equality and due process of law in the kingdom.  In an important sense, this report is an indictment of unscrupulous private employers and sponsors as well as Saudi authorities, including interior ministry interrogators and shari’a court judges, who operate without respect for the rule of law and the inherent dignity of all men and women, irrespective of gender, race, and religion.

Some of the most frightening and troubling findings of the report concern mistreatment of women migrant workers, both in the workplace and in Saudi prisons. The report also provides an intimate view of the workings of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system, through the eyes of migrant workers with first-hand experience of its significant flaws.  And it is the families and friends of migrants who were beheaded, pursuant to judicial rulings, who describe how Saudi authorities kept them and consular officials in the dark until well after the executions were carried out. The mortal remains of these victims were not returned to their families, who until now have no information about what happened to the bodies.

Labor Exploitation

Each chapter of this report includes testimonies from migrant workers who entered the kingdom legally, in full compliance with Saudi government regulations. Many of them paid hefty sums of money to manpower recruitment agencies in their home countries to secure legal employment visas, often assuming substantial debt or selling property to finance the cost.  Once in the kingdom, they found themselves at the mercy of legal sponsors and de facto employers who had the power to impose oppressive working conditions on them, with effective government oversight clearly lacking.  Unaware of their rights, or afraid to complain for fear of losing their jobs, the majority of these workers simply endured gross labor exploitation. 

To cite only a few examples, we interviewed migrant workers from Bangladesh who were forced to work ten to twelve hours a day, and sometimes throughout the night without overtime pay, repairing underground water pipes for the municipality of Tabuk. They were not paid salaries for the first two months and had to borrow money from compatriots to purchase food.  An Indian migrant said that he was was paid $133 a month for working an average of sixteen hours daily in Ha’il. A migrant from the Philippines said that he worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day at a restaurant in Hofuf, leaving him so exhausted that, he told us, he “felt mentally retarded.”  The employer of a migrant from Bangladesh, who worked as a butcher in Dammam, forced him to leave the kingdom with six months of his salary unpaid.

Women Migrant Workers

Some women workers that we interviewed were still traumatized from rape and sexual abuse at the hands of Saudi male employers, and could not narrate their accounts without anger or tears. Accustomed to unrestricted freedom of movement in their home countries, these and other women described to us locked doors and gates in Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina, and Dammam that kept them virtual prisoners in workshops, private homes, and the dormitory-style housing that labor subcontracting companies provided to them.  Living in forced confinement and extreme isolation made it difficult or impossible for these women to call for help, escape situations of exploitation and abuse, and seek legal redress.

We learned that hundreds of low-paid Asian women who cleaned hospitals in Jeddah worked twelve-hour days, without food or a break, and were confined to locked dormitories during their time off.  Skilled seamstresses from the Philippines told us that they were not permitted to leave the women’s dress shop in Medina where they worked twelve-hour days, and were forbidden to speak more than a few words to customers and the Saudi owners.

Many women employed as domestic workers in cities throughout the kingdom reported that they worked twelve hours or more daily. Most of them also lived in around-the-clock confinement, at the decision of their private employers, cut off from the outside world.  One woman from the Philippines, whose employers in Dammamdid not provide her with sufficient food, described how she enlisted help from the family’s Indian driver, to whom she was forbidden to speak. She told us that she wrote lists of what she needed and threw them out the window to the driver. He made the purchases, and “delivered” them to her by tossing the packages onto the roof of the house, where she retrieved them. Another Filipina, who also worked for a family in Dammam, said that she constantly watched the locked front gate of the house, waiting for an opportunity to escape after her male employer raped her in June 2003.

Human Rights Abuses in the Criminal Justice System

Some migrant workers experienced shocking treatment in Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system. For those migrants who were executed following unfair trials that lacked any form of transparency, it was their still-grieving families who provided us with pertinent information. 

In many cases, the condemned men did not know that they had been sentenced to death, and their embassies were only informed after the fact.  “No advance information is given to us before beheading of Indians,” an Indian diplomat said in a television interview in 2003. “We generally get the information after the execution from local newspapers.” 

In cases of execution documented in this report, the bodies were not returned to the families, and relatives told Human Rights Watch that they received no official information about the location in Saudi Arabia of the mortal remains. 

An undetermined number of foreigners have been sentenced to death in the kingdom and are now awaiting execution. Details of their trials, and the evidence presented to convict them, are treated as closely held state secrets.

Saudi Arabia continues to flaunt its treaty obligations under international and domestic law.  Consular officials have not been notified promptly of the arrests of their nationals. Criminal suspects are not informed of their rights under the law.  Interrogators from the ministry of interior torture suspects with impunity, behind the curtain of prolonged incommunicado detention, in the quest for confessions whose veracity is tenuous at best. Migrant workers told Human Rights Watch of how they were forced to sign confession statements that they could not read, under the threat of additional torture. A twenty-three-year-old Indian tailor described two days of beatings in police custody.  On the third day, his interrogators gave him two pages handwritten in Arabic and instructed him to sign his name three times on each page. “I was so afraid that I did not dare ask what the papers were, or what was written on them,” he said. 

Migrants’ accounts of their trials before shari’a courts provide evidence of a legal system that is out of sync with internationally accepted norms of due process. No one we interviewed had access to legal assistance before their trials, and no legal representation when they appeared in the courtroom. One Indian migrant worker told us about a judge who repeatedly called him a liar when he answered questions during his trial. A worker from the Philippines, who was imprisoned for five years before he was brought before a court for the first time, described how a judge sentenced him to 350 lashes because his interrogators had extracted a false confession. The judge justified this corporal punishment because the coerced confession, obtained under threats and torture, was untrue. Interviews with women migrants in the women’s prison in Riyadh indicated that most of them had not been informed of their rights, had no understanding of the legal basis for their arrest or the status of their cases, and had no access to lawyers or other forms of legal assistance.

The Need for Government Action

The stories narrated in this report underscore the pressing need for the government of Saudi Arabia to recognize that its laws and regulations facilitate the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable migrant workers, and reform its laws and practices accordingly.

Some major recommendations are highlighted below, and a full range of recommendations, to Saudi government officials and actors in the international community, is presented in Chapter IX.

One of the most tragic aspects of the situation is that many migrants silently accept the exploitation and deprivation of their rights because they view themselves as powerless and without effective remedy.  These workers arrive in Saudi Arabia ignorant or only vaguely informed about the rights they have under existing Saudi law and the actions they can take when inequities and mistreatment occur. 

This is a problem that their own governments could address, in part, by way of substantive and effective education before these workers depart for the kingdom. But the government of Saudi Arabia has the primary responsibility to promote and protect the rights of the country’s large migrant worker population in a much more aggressive and public manner, consistent with its obligations under international law.  Authorities should provide a clear enumeration of the specific rights that migrant workers are entitled to enjoy under the kingdom’s laws and regulations. They should spell out the specific legal duties of sponsors and employers, provide a comprehensive list of practices that are illegal, and offer detailed instructions about how and where migrant workers can report abuses.  This information should be practical, not theoretical.  It should draw on specific abuses that migrants are most likely to face, such as those described in this report, and provide authoritative comments and advice.  The information should be translated into the languages of the countries of origin of migrant workers, and provided to every worker on his or her arrival in the kingdom as a routine matter of immigration practice. The government should also identify additional means to communicate this information to migrant communities throughout the kingdom as a further demonstration of its commitment to greater protection of their rights. 

Saudi authorities must also recognize that many migrant workers are simply too afraid to report abusive treatment for fear of alienating sponsors or de facto employers, inviting retaliatory punishment, and losing their jobs.  Government officials must take steps to communicate directly with migrant workers in the kingdom – using all available means, including broadcast as well as print media – to provide assurances that no one will be rendered jobless and summarily deported for complaining about illegal practices and abusive working conditions.

The Saudi government says that it plans to reduce the number of foreign workers by 50 percent over the next decade.1  This objective does not lessen the urgent need for the state to remedy the exploitation of migrant workers who are now in the kingdom and to end discriminatory practices that severely circumscribe their rights under Saudi law. Even if the government’s planned downsizing is achieved within ten years, the kingdom will still be required under domestic and international law to protect the rights of those migrant workers who remain.

If Saudi authorities do not take serious steps to address the patterns of abuse of migrant workers, the issue will continue to be a subject of investigation and scrutiny, on the agendas of international human rights organizations, nongovernmental migrant rights groups in countries of origin, and coalitions of women’s rights and human rights organizations in the Muslim world and elsewhere. 

There is public sentiment in the kingdom, and elsewhere in the Gulf region, sympathetic to the plight of migrant workers.  No less than the kingdom’s highest Muslim religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, has already acknowledged that migrants suffer “exploitation and oppression.”2  His comments, published in 2002 in the Saudi daily al-Madinah, included the observation that “Islam does not permit oppressing workers, regardless of religion….As we ask them to perform their duty, we must fulfill our duty and comply with the terms of the contract.”  The Grand Mufti criticized intimidation of migrant workers, and said that it was “illegal and a form of dishonesty” to withhold their salaries or delay payment of wages under threat of deportation.  He counseled that Islam prohibits “blackmailing and threatening [foreign] laborers with deportation if they refuse the employers’ terms which breach the contract.” 

Another example comes from the neighboring island nation of Bahrain, where the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), a nongovernmental organization, is campaigning for greater protection of women domestic workers.  A BCHR official in 2003 described these women as “the most abused of the workforce,” and charged that the government was not doing enough “to break the chain of exploitation that binds them.” The group urged civil society organizations in Bahrain, including women’s rights groups, to take up the issue.3 

[1] Sultan Al-Dossary, “Govt Expects to Cut Expat Labor by 50% in 10 Years,” Arab News, February 5, 2004.

[2] “Saudi cleric preaches workers’ rights,” BBC News World Edition,, September 3, 2002; Agence France-Presse, “Saudi mufti warns employers against breach of contract,” September 2, 2002.

[3] Meera Ravi, “Women’s non-governmental organizations and human rights bodies should be more involved in monitoring the work conditions,” Bahrain Tribune, June 25, 2003.

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