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II. The Foreign Labor Sponsorship Program and Its Abuses

“They said that my contract from the Philippines was not valid and I had to sign another piece of paper in Arabic.”

-- Seamstress who worked in Medina and returned home in 2003.

The labor law in Saudi Arabia, in effect since 1969, requires every foreign worker to be under contract with and guaranteed by a sponsor (kafeel, in Arabic).56  “We do not have immigrant workers, but workers by contract,” is the way Saudi Arabia’s then-minister of labor and social affairs, Dr. Ali al-Namlah, explained the system.57  One of the longstanding problems with this system is that legal sponsors are not necessarily the de facto employers of foreign workers, particularly those in the lowest-paying job categories. Another is the apparent ease with which some Saudi citizens have managed to disassociate themselves legally from sponsorship responsibilities, with adverse consequences for workers under their guarantee. Subsequent chapters of this report include case examples of these abuses. 

It is the responsibility of sponsors to secure employment visas from the Saudi government for the foreign workers they wish to hire. After the visas are obtained, many sponsors turn to manpower recruitment agencies to identify the workers and bring them legally to the kingdom. These agents charge both the sponsor and the prospective employees for their services of making the match. Once workers are recruited in their home countries, and the fees paid to the agents, their passports are stamped with visas at Saudi embassies abroad. These visas allow them to enter the kingdom for the purpose of employment.

Once foreign workers arrive in Saudi Arabia, they are not issued work permits unless they have employment contracts signed by the sponsor and themselves. The only contracts with legal validity are those written in Arabic.58 The contract must include the agreed-upon terms of employment, and “must be in writing, drawn up in Arabic and in duplicate, one copy to be retained by each of the two parties.”59 The labor law states that a contract “concluded for a specified period shall terminate upon the expiry of its term. If both parties continue to enforce the contract thereafter, it shall be considered renewed for an unspecified period.”60 

Saudi courts do not recognize contracts signed by recruiting agents or other parties.61 In cases of bilingual contracts, the Arabic copy is the authoritative one.62 The U.S. embassy in Riyadh, for example, cautions prospective American workers: “Before you sign a contract with a Saudi company, it is extremely important you obtain an independent English translation of the contract. The official and binding version of the contract that you sign is the Arabic text. Some Americans have signed contracts that in fact did not include all of the benefits they believed they were acquiring.”63

Workers’ Contracts and Wages: False Promises

Many migrant workers never see these Arabic-language contracts in their home countries or are forced to sign such documents when they reach Saudi Arabia.  A senior Indian diplomat in Riyadh conceded that manpower recruiting agents in India were “extremely corrupt and very exploitative,” but also placed blame squarely on Saudi sponsors and employers.  He told Human Rights Watch that Indian workers typically sign contracts with local recruiting agents but these contracts are often confiscated when workers arrive in the kingdom. They are then forced to sign a new Arabic contract without knowing its content.64 

Migrant workers from the Philippines, India, and Bangladesh all complained to Human Rights Watch about salary reductions once they reached Saudi Arabia. They were shocked to learn thattheir actual monthly salaries were significantly lower than what was promised to them in their home countries. For example, the employer of Raymond Beltran, a restaurant worker from the Philippines, presented him with a contract written in Arabic when he arrived at Dammam airport in September 2002 and instructed him to sign it. “I could not read the contract, and he did not give me a copy,” Raymond told us.  He later learned that the new contract specified his monthly salary as $267, not the $300 that he was promised in the Philippines..65  In another case, an electrical engineer from the Philippines, who was employed at a hotel in Dhahran from February 2001 until February 2003, told us about the unskilled Indians, Bangladeshis, and Sri Lankans who worked there. He said that they had been promised monthly salaries in their home countries ranging from 700 to 800 riyals – about $187 to $213 – but “received only half of that.” All of these workers had assumed significant debt to finance their visas to Saudi Arabia, so they “just kept their mouths shut and did their work,” the engineer reported.66

An Indian Muslim migrant worker told us about his experience in 2000, on his third employment visa to Saudi Arabia as a driver. At that time, he was thirty-seven years old, and the sole source of support for his wife and three children in a village near Calicut, in Kerala state. He said that he paid 60,000 rupees -- about $1,300 -- to a manpower agency in Mumbai for a visa to work with a private company. The agency told him that the monthly salary was 1,500 riyals, or about $400.  He said that he signed a contract in Arabic, which he could not read except for the numerals of his promised salary. The agency did not give him a copy of the contract, explaining that it would be sent separately to the company in Saudi Arabia. When he arrived in the kingdom, he was informed that his actual salary was only 1,000 riyals -- about $267 -- and never received a copy of the contract from his employer.67 

One of the most striking features of some of the testimony that we obtained from migrant workers was their belief that the exploitation they experienced in Saudi Arabia was an aberration. Propelled by desperate economic circumstances in their home countries, and perhaps misplaced naïve optimism, they returned a second or third time to the kingdom with hopes of better conditions, only to experience salary reductions again.  One illustration is the case of Abdul Jabbar from India, who told us about his ten-year history of false promises. 

He traveled to Saudi Arabia legally for the first time in 1992, when he was in his twenties, for a job as a maintenance worker. A local recruiting agent – to whom he paid 50,000 rupees, financed with the sale of some of his father’s agricultural land -- promised him a monthly salary of 800 riyals. Abdul Jabbar told us that he was paid only 270 riyals a month and labored for two-and-a-half years before returning home. He went to the kingdom again in 1995, this time with a promised job as a driver/salesman with a monthly salary of 1,000 riyals. When he arrived, he learned that his actual salary was only 400 riyals.  Abdul Jabbar fled this employer and worked at odd jobs – without legal status and thus in constant danger of arrest because he did not have an official residency permit. Unwilling to continue under such stressful circumstances, he returned to India two years later in a general amnesty that the government offered for undocumented foreign workers.  In 1999, Abdul Jabbar borrowed money to obtain another legal visa, on the promise of a job with a monthly salary of 1,200 riyals ($320).  But the salary was only 500 riyals, or about $133. He told us that his wages were raised in increments, and by the time he returned to India in 2003 he was earning 1,000 riyals a month.68

Some low-paid workers have found other aspects of their contracts modified. This happened to Maya, a seamstress from the Philippines, when she reported for her job in Medina in April 2002 to begin what she understood was a two-year contract. “They said that my contract from the Philippines was not valid and I had to sign another piece of paper, in Arabic,” she told us.  Maya learned later that the new contract specified a three-year term of employment, not the two years that she had agreed to in the Philippines. The contract terms stated that if Maya worked for less than the three-year term she would be responsible for paying the cost of her roundtrip transportation from the Philippines to Saudi Arabia.69

Most migrant workers incur substantial debt to finance their legal immigration to the kingdom and are anxious to begin sending money home to their families, so they typically accept lower wages and other contract changes with little or no protest.The overwhelming majority of recently returned migrants that Human Rights Watch interviewed expressed fear that any complaint would jeopardize their employment. In other cases, workers fled their employers or asked to be returned home, often sustaining substantial financial losses in the process. The evidence suggests that these practices have been a persistent pattern, affecting unskilled and skilled workers alike.

Job Substitution

Sometimes the jobs promised to migrant workers do not exist, and once in the kingdom they are forced to accept alternative work that does not match their skills or the job description they believed was specified in their initial employment contract. Saudi Arabia’s labor law specifically bans this practice unless the worker agrees in writing to perform other work. Article 79 of the law states in pertinent part: “[E]xcept in cases of necessity and as dictated by the nature of the work, a workman may not be called upon to perform a work which is essentially different from the work agreed upon, unless he so agrees in writing and provided that this is done on a temporary basis.”  Employers of low-paid migrant workers widely disregard this provision of the law. 

For example, thirty-year-old Orlando, a diesel engine mechanic from the Philippines, was forced to work as an agricultural laborer in 2003. He told us that he signed a two-year contract with a manpower agency in Manila to work as a mechanic in Ha’il.  The contract specified a monthly salary of 1,200 riyals, or about $320.   When Orlando arrived at the airport in Ha’il in August 2003, the Indian driver of his Saudi employer met him and explained that his job was with the sponsor’s brother who managed a farm with some two hundred sheep, another two hundred goats, and five camels. Orlando was responsible for operating a tractor to cut feed for the animals and, with four Indian workers, tending the livestock.  He told us that his Indian colleagues were also skilled workers who had accepted jobs as electricians, welders, and refrigeration mechanics. When Orlando complained, he said his employer told him: “If you don’t like it, go back to the Philippines.” 

The men were required to work long hours seven days a week, from 6:30 in the morning until 7 p.m. or 8 p.m at night. Orlando said that he was paid 1,000 riyals a month ($267) and his Indian coworkers 700 riyals ($187).  At the end of his second month of work, Orlando was disgusted and informed his employer that he wanted to return home, even though he feared he would forfeit the placement fee of 23,000 pesos -- $418 -- that he paid to the manpower agency in Manila to obtain his visa.  He said he had heard about a government labor office where he could complain but pointed out that he had no opportunity to go there and file a complaint.70 His employer drove him directly to the airport in Ha’il, where his passport was returned to him, along with a ticket to Manila. The employer did not pay Orlando for his second month of work.71

The most harrowing account of job substitution that we heard came from Kattayadan Subair, an Indian migrant worker who traveled to Saudi Arabia in 1994, when he was twenty-three years old. He said that he paid a local Indian travel agent 55,000 rupees -- about $1,200 -- for an employment visa as a gardener at a private home. The agent told him that the monthly salary was 800 riyals, about $213.  Subair never worked as a gardener. His Saudi employer forced him to work as a shepherd in an isolated location for monthly wages of 400 riyals. Subair found himself a victim of forced labor and was unable to return home until 1997. 

When Subair first met his Saudi sponsor in Jouf, the man communicated with him through an Indian worker from Tamil Nadu who spoke Arabic. He informed Subair that he had no position for a gardener and he would be working as a shepherd.  When Subair said this was unacceptable and asked to be sent home, the sponsor beat him and confiscated his belongings. The next morning, the sponsor drove Subair and his fellow Indian to a remote desert area, where they were responsible for tending a herd of about fifty sheep. There was no permanent lodging at the site, and the sponsor sent food and water every two days.  “The heat was so intense that it burned the hair on my body, and in the winter it was so cold that the water turned to ice,” Subair remembered, shaking his head.

After three months, he decided to escape.  He began walking under the cover of darkness, hoping to reach a village or town.  When a passing truck stopped and the Saudi driver offered him water, Subair told his story and mentioned his sponsor’s name. “The driver must have called him because he found me, drove me back, and beat me black and blue,” he said.  “I never tried to escape again.”

Subair finally prevailed upon the Sudanese worker who delivered food and water to the site to bring him paper and an envelope so he could write a letter to his family. The Sudanese mailed the letter, in which Subair described his situation in detail.  Back in India, his father and uncle complained repeatedly to the agency that placed him with the sponsor, and contacted local politicians who managed to involve the Indian embassy in the case.

The family’s persistent advocacy had an impact.  The sponsor visited Subair and showed him a letter he had received from the Indian embassy. “I’m sending you back tomorrow,” he said. The sponsor paid Subair 5,000 riyals, returned his passport, and drove him to Jouf.  Subair told us that he did not recognize himself when he finally had access to a mirror: he had not bathed in over two years and also had a very long beard. He recuperated for fifteen days with a fellow Indian from Kerala who operated a teashop, and then spent 1,700 riyals of his accumulated “salary” to purchase a one-way ticket to India.

“I worked in that desert for two years and three months. There were fifty sheep when I started and over four hundred by the time I left,” Subair estimated.72  He neglected to mention his financial losses: even at his lowered monthly salary of 400 riyals, his employer underpaid him by 5,800 riyals. Deducting the cost of the return ticket from what he was paid, his net monthly income amounted to 122 riyals, or $33 at current exchange rates. 

Cases discussed in the chapters that follow provide additional examples of salary reductions and job substitution. These practices, combined with exploitation on the job, have prompted migrant workers to flee from their employers, leaving them without legal status in the kingdom and subject to arrest and deportation.

“Free Visa” Illusions

Some migrant workers pay large sums of money to manpower agents in their home countries to secure what they believe are advantageous “free visas” that will allow them the flexibility to find their own jobs in the kingdom with only a nominal sponsor. These ostensibly legal documents are generated when Saudi citizens or companies apply for and are granted visas for foreign workers that they have no intention of employing.  According to Arab News, “In the Eastern Province alone, there are dozens of companies which exist only on paper. On the basis of their being registered and licensed, they apply for visas and then sell them.”73

An ambassador with years of experience in the kingdom told Human Rights Watch in 2003 that “every Saudi of a certain standing can obtain free visas.” When the visas are secured, sponsors sell them to intermediaries who are linked to recruiters in sending countries. The migrants who arrive in the kingdom with “free visas” typically must find their own work with an employer and remit monthly payments to the Saudi sponsor named on their visas.

“There is nothing called a ‘free work visa’ according to [Saudi] law,” the Indian government has warned its expatriates. “Hence the arrangement of allowing the worker to work freely with any other sponsor is illegal. The worker in this category, if caught working with a person other than his sponsor, is repatriated back to his country.”74  A senior Indian diplomat, describing these visas as “a bogus concept,” told Human Rights Watch that workers arriving on such visas typically are required to pay a monthly fee to the Saudi sponsors, who have already generated income from the sale of the visas to manpower recruiting agents, who also pass along the cost to the worker.75 

An economist who worked in Saudi Arabia until 2003, and closely monitored migrant labor issues, made similar observations. He also explained the lucrative nature of the “free visa” system for those Saudi citizens who exploit it:

There is no free visa as such. However, at times, some unscrupulous Saudi businessman manages visas or work permits for more persons than needed in his facility. Let's say, he needs ten persons only. However, he somehow managed twenty work permits. He sells each work permit for 5,000 riyals and thus makes 100,000 riyals [about $26,600]. Once all twenty workers arrive in the kingdom, he would employ ten as required and he would allow the other ten to work outside wherever they can get a job. He would transfer their visa individually to companies or persons that would recruit them. For each transfer, he would make at least an additional 2,000 riyals [about $5,300 for ten workers].  Since it is an easy process to make money quickly, many recruiters love it.76

Not all migrant workers have absorbed the message that there is nothing “free” about these visas, and they suffer various forms of exploitation because the system continues to operate under various permutations.  For example, Babul, a twenty-two-year-old Indian from a farming family in Kerala state, paid 150,000 rupees (about $3,300) to a travel agency for what he was told was a “free visa” to Saudi Arabia. He was assured that the visa would enable him to work in any job that he could find.77   Babul flew to Jeddah in September 2002 and traveled by bus to Abha, to meet Umar, the Indian intermediary who had arranged the visa. Four days later, Babul met his Saudi “sponsor,” who gave him an iqama (residency permit) and told him to look for a job. He soon discovered from prospective employers that his visa specified agricultural work only, which limited his possibilities of employment.

Babul complained to Umar, who told him that the visa could be changed if he agreed to pay 8,000 riyals, or about $2,133.  Babul, who had already borrowed 100,000 rupees -- $2,200 -- to pay the agency in India for his visa and related expenses, could not assume additional debt and desperately searched for employment in Abha.  “I learned later that Umar cheated many people,” he told us.  

Over the next three months, Babul said, he found work in various unskilled jobs – at a hotel, a poultry farm, a supermarket, and a gas station – but was dismissed without pay once the employers insisted on seeing the visa in his passport. Babul then moved to Jeddah, where he lived with Indian friends for five months. He worked in a hotel for one month and was paid 900 riyals ($240), the only income he earned during his stay in the kingdom. The hotel dismissed him when his illegal status became apparent.  Babul told us he decided that his only option was to return home.  He left his passport and iqama at the apartment of his friends, and stood at a location in Jeddah where he was sure the police would apprehend him.  He was soon arrested as an illegal resident and deported after eight days, in May 2003. He did not inform the police or Indian consular officials who visited him in jail about his experiences with Umar or his Saudi sponsor.  “I did not think to tell them, and they did not ask me,” he said.78

In 2003, Ibrahim, an Indian driver, suffered major financial loss in a “free visa” scheme.  He told Human Rights Watch that he paid a recruiting agent in India 100,000 rupees --  about $2,200 -- for a “free visa.”  He was arrested and deported less than two months after his arrival in Saudi Arabia, suffering a major financial loss.

According to Ibrahim, the recruiter in India gave him a telephone number to call when he arrived in Riyadh.  Through this number, he reached an Indian intermediary who reportedly had secured the visa and sent it to India. After ten days, this intermediary brought Ibrahim to a travel agency run by Saudis, where Ibrahim surrendered his passport and paid 700 riyals, about $187, in additional “fees.” Ibrahim received no receipt. He was instructed to return the next day and finally meet his Saudi sponsor. The sponsor asked Ibrahim how he obtained the visa, then told him that the visa was a fake and he did not need any workers.  He brought Ibrahim to a police station, explaining that he wanted him to file a complaint and that he would provide assistance. Instead, Ibrahim was locked in a cell so overcrowded with about 200 men of different nationalities that there was barely room to stand. The next morning, prison staff shaved his head, cuffed him at the wrists and ankles, and brought him to an officer who was sitting with the sponsor. The officer asked Ibrahim how he obtained the visa. The sponsor then left and Ibrahim never saw him again.

Thirty-five days later, he was called to explain his case to the secretary of a senior officer in a meeting that lasted only twenty minutes. Ibrahim was ordered deported and was held in a deportation center until he flew home on July 1, 2003.  He was convinced that the sponsor and his agents would re-sell the visa to another unsuspecting Indian worker.79  Observers knowledgeable about this system in Saudi Arabia emphasized to Human Rights Watch that it is impossible to estimate the number of times the same employment visa has been sold in schemes designed to dupe vulnerable migrant workers.

[56] Article 49(c ).  This article of the law also provides for authorized non-Saudi employers to contract foreign workers.  The labor law was approved by Council of Ministers Decision No. 745 on 24 Sha’ban 1389 H. (November 4, 1969), and promulgated by Royal Decree No. M/21 on 6 Ramadan 1389 H. (November 6, 1969).

[57] Human Rights Watch interview, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2003.

[58] The U.S. State Department points out, “Verbal assurances or side letters are not binding under Saudi law. In the event of any contract dispute, the Saudi authorities refer to the contract.” Consular Information Sheet for Saudi Arabia, Bureau of Consular Affairs, Washington, D.C., February 2, 2004.

[59] Article 77 of the labor law.

[60] Article 72.

[61] “Basic Legal Information for Indian Workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” March 31, 2002.

[62]  Ibid.

[63] “Travel Tips on Saudi Arabia,” (retrieved February 12, 2004).

[64] Human Rights Watch interview, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2003.

[65]  Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 8, 2003.

[66] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 9, 2003.

[67] Human Rights Watch interview, Calicut, Kerala, India, December 3, 2003.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview, Calicut, Kerala, India, December 4, 2003.

[69] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 18, 2003.  Section C(2) of the Standard Employment Contract for Filipino Household Workers in Saudi Arabia states that the employer “shall provide the worker with free passage from Manila to the site of employment and upon termination of the contract from the site of employment back to Manila.”  A copy of one of these contracts, executed in October 2001, is on file at Human Rights Watch.

[70] SeeChapter V for information about the government’s mechanisms for addressing labor-related grievances.

[71] Human Rights Watch interview, Neguilan, La Union, Philippines, December 13, 2003.

[72] Human Rights Watch interview, Arrecode, Kerala, India, December 1, 2003.

[73] Saeed Haider, “Stoppage of Sponsorship Transfer Jolts Job Market,” Arab News, March 2, 2004.

[74] Consulate General of India, “Booklet on Basic Legal Information for Indian Workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,” Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,

[75]  Human Rights Watch interview, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2003.

[76]  Dr. Abdul Momen, “Expatriate Workers in Saudi Arabia: Keep the Dream Alive!” undated ten-page report.  Copy on file at Human Rights Watch.

[77] He contributed 50,000 rupees of the total from his personal savings and borrowed the balance from neighbors in his village.

[78] Human Rights Watch interview, Calicut, Kerala, India, December 5, 2003.

[79] Human Rights Watch interview, Calicut, Kerala, India, December 4, 2003.

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