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 III. Vulnerability and Exploitation

“I knew many Bangladeshis who did not get their salaries for a long time and who were afraid to say anything to their employers.  Many people sell all of their property to go to Saudi Arabia, have big hopes, and come back with no money.”

-- Worker from Bangladesh who returned home from the kingdom in 2002.

Migrant workers in Saudi Arabia can be divided broadly into two categories: those who have legal protection under the provisions of the kingdom’s 1969 labor law, and those who do not.  The labor law specifically excludes from its protection men and women in domestic service in private households, and many agricultural workers.80 These workers number in the millions, and at least one million are women domestic workers from countries in Asia and Africa.

For Saudi and foreign workers who are covered under the labor law, it guarantees minimum standards with respect to daily hours, overtime wages, days off, and vacation pay.  The law specifies a six-day work week, with a maximum of eight working hours daily.81  Employees who work in excess of forty-eight hours a week must be compensated at the overtime rate of regular wages and an additional fifty percent.82  An annual vacation entitlement of fifteen days begins after one year of employment, and is raised to twenty-one days after ten years of uninterrupted service.83  According to the law, vacation pay must be provided fully and in advance.The law also sets specific conditions under which an employer may unilaterally cancel a worker’s contract without compensation.84 

The labor law protects workers from a variety of employer-related abuses, including contract violations, physical abuse, providing misleading information, and unfair treatment. It grants workers the right to leave an employer without advance notice -- and “without prejudice to his right to an award for his period of service and indemnity for any prejudice that he may have sustained” – in the following cases:

  1. If the employer has not fulfilled his obligations toward the workman.
  2.  If the employer calls upon the workman to perform a work which is essentially different from the nature of the work for which he has committed himself under the contract, or if the employer transfers the workman from his original place of work to another place, necessitating a change in his place of residence, which is apt to cause serious prejudice to the workman and has no valid reason dictated by the nature of the work.
  3. If the employer or whoever is acting on his behalf has committed an assault or an immoral act against the workman or against a member of his family.
  4. If there is a serious hazard which threatens the safety or health of the workman, provided that the employer has been aware of the existence of such hazard and has taken no steps to remove it.
  5. If at the time of concluding the contract, the employer or his representative has misled the workman with respect to the terms of employment.

If the employer through his actions and particularly by his unfair treatment or by his breach of the terms of the contract, has caused the workman to appear as the party terminating the contract.85

The testimonies in this chapter, and other chapters of the report, provide evidence of employers’ noncompliance with provisions of the labor law, resulting in the sometimes gross exploitation of migrant workers who are entitled to its protection.  Migrant men and women described to us how they have been forced to work well in excess of eight hours a day, with no overtime pay or day of rest. They also noted how employers reduced their monthly wages by acting unilaterally and illegally when they imposed salary deductions to pay expenses that under Saudi government regulations are their own financial responsibilities.

Employers have also denied official residency permits to their workers, or delayed providing these documents. This practice places migrants at risk of arrest and rules out medical treatment at hospitals because the workers are unable to document their legal status.  Employers also have denied annual vacation leave, or provided it only belatedly or partially, under conditions that were wholly illegal. In cases of legal termination of employment contracts or dismissal, employers have used various methods to withhold the accumulated unpaid wages and benefits due to their employees. We have documented that these methods have included threats, intimidation, and outright deception.  

Migrants who work in agriculture and domestic service are among the most vulnerable to labor exploitation because the only legal rights they enjoy are those specified in their contracts of employment. As noted above, these workers are excluded from the protections of the kingdom’s labor law.

Official Documents: Consequences of Illegal Employer Practices

Passports are not acceptable forms of identification in Saudi Arabia for citizens or foreign residents.86  The government-issued residency permit (iqama) is the identification document that all foreign workers in the kingdom are required to use instead of a passport, and it must be carried at all times.  The importance of the iqama cannot be underestimated. Without the document, foreign workers have no freedom of movement, are subject to arrest at any time, and cannot be admitted to hospitals for medical treatment. 

Residency permits are issued after workers arrive in the kingdom with valid employment entry visas obtained from Saudi embassies in their home countries. If a worker leaves a job, the iqama must be transferred to a new sponsor/employer, or the worker loses his or her legal status. Transfer of sponsorship requires the consent of the sponsor of first instance and the proposed new sponsor.  In some cases, the original sponsor will demand a sum of money from the employee as the price of agreeing to the transfer.87

 In September 1997, Saudi Arabia’s council of ministers ruled that government fees for  residency permits and visas of foreign workers were the financial responsibility of private companies and individual employers.88  In 2001, the kingdom’s labor ministry confirmed these regulations, and indicated that foreign workers could seek refunds for fees illegally charged since the 1997 directive was issued. The ministry’s legal affairs department advised workers “to file their complaints in any of the thirty-seven offices of the Labor Disputes Department in the Kingdom.”89 In 2002, the Saudi daily Arab News reported that none of the workers it contacted had received reimbursements for illegally charged fees, and employers continued to defy the law, including firms “that supply manpower to the prestigious Saudi Arabian Oil Company and many other government departments.” The newspaper maintained that “almost all” of the kingdom’s maintenance and cleaning companies illegally charged workers for the fees. “[I]t is the usual story,” Arab News  noted. “The Saudi authorities issue a clear directive, and almost nobody bothers to implement it.”90 

Human Rights Watch’s research confirmed that enforcement of this regulation remains a major problem. Saudi sponsors and employers continue to illegally charge workers for the cost of residency and work permits.  For example, two days after Najeeb, an Indian barber, arrived legally in Jeddah, his sponsor informed him that he owed 2,000 riyals – about $533 – for the cost of his iqama. This amount was more than Najeeb’s promised monthly salary of 1,500 riyals.91 Some workers – particularly women domestics who were locked into their places of employment and denied freedom of movement – reported to us that they never received an iqama, while others were forced to wait for the document for months. We also found cases in which sponsors charged workers for the cost of employment visas. This meant the migrants paid twice for their visas – the first time to recruiters in their homes countries and the second time to Saudi employers.

Abdul Manaf, a forty-five-year-old Indian barber who supports his wife and three children, worked in the kingdom for two years and returned home in 2003, heavily in debt.  He earned only about thirty dollars a week because his employer illegally subtracted fees from his salary. 

Abdul Manaf told Human Rights Watch that he paid 70,000 rupees – about $1,543, all of it borrowed – to a local agency to secure the visa and other documents he needed to travel legally to the kingdom to work as a barber.  He had no written contract.  When he arrived in Riyadh in September 2001, he learned that a condition of employment was the payment of 2,000 riyals to his Saudi sponsor, who also retained his passport.  Abdul Manaf’s job was not in the capital but in a barber shop in Dammam, on the kingdom’s east coast.  He told Human Rights Watch that his monthly salary was 700 riyals, about $187.  He added that for the first ten months of his employment, the owner of the shop (who was not his sponsor) subtracted 200 riyals from his salary as reimbursement for the cost of his employment visa.92 

According to Abdul Manaf, he worked seven days a week, from eight in the morning until eleven at night, with a daily four-hour lunch break from noon until four in the afternoon. He said that he was promised free accommodations, and that this consisted of a small room at the back of the shop that he shared with another worker.  The employer summarily dismissed Abdul Manaf on September 13, 2003 because another barber had just returned from a pre-approved two-year leave. Abdul Manaf was paid his last month’s salary and an extra 300 riyals, handed a one-way ticket to India, and informed that his passport would be returned to him at the airport. There was no opportunity for him to appeal to his legal sponsor for transfer of his iqama if he could find another job.  The owner insisted that Abdul Manaf take advantage of the free ticket and leave the kingdom immediately.

“If I knew that the job was only for two years, I never would have borrowed the money to go there,” Abdul Manaf remarked. He had earned only 15,150 riyals, from which he had to pay 4,000 riyals in illegal “fees” to his sponsor and the shop owner. This reduced his total earnings to 11,150 riyals, or about thirty dollars a week over the term of his employment.  Abdul Manaf’s severance pay of 300 riyals, or eighty dollars, did little to assuage his belief that he was subjected to dishonest and unfair treatment. At the time of his interview, he still owed all of the 70,000 rupees he had borrowed to obtain his job in Saudi Arabia, and told us that he had no prospects for repaying this large sum any time soon.93

Saudi employers obtain substantial financial benefit when they engage in illegal practices with respect to their foreign employees’ official documents,as the example of a large bakery in Mecca demonstrates. Abdul Ghafour, a thirty-year-old Indian who was employed at the bakery from August 1997 until March 2003, told Human Rights Watch that the owner required all of the workers to pay him for their iqama and visa fees. For the workers, the two-year iqama fee of 1,500 riyals was greater than their average monthly salaries, Abdul Ghafour said. The owner, on the other hand, realized a savings of 75,000 riyals -- approximately $20,000 -- over two years by shifting this cost of business to his fifty foreign employees. According to Abdul Ghafour, the bakery owner charged his workers 2,000 riyals, about $533, for their employment visas, deducting a portion of the amount from their wages every month Abdul Ghafour told us that the bakery workers knew that the owner was engaged in illegal practices, but they never considered complaining to Saudi authorities because “we were afraid we would be sent back.”94 

Fear of Arrest and Deportation

Sponsors and employers who ignore the kingdom’s residency permit requirements place migrant workers at risk of arrest, deportation, and financial loss. Carlos, a forty-four-year-old heavy equipment driver from the Philippines, worked from January 1999 to September 2002 for a maintenance company that he said employed thousands of foreign workers as street sweepers and garbage collectors.95  He told us that the company, located in Taef, did not promptly provide workers with residency permits and that he waited one year before receiving his.  Carlos emphasized how risky it was to be on the streets without an iqama, and reported that some of his colleagues, mostly Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, were arrested and imprisoned for one or two months because they could not produce the documents when stopped by police.  He noted that the company’s workers were particularly conspicuous because they lived in isolated barracks and the nearest town was an hour away.96

Another example is the case of Moshior, a forty-two-year-old villager from Bangladesh, who told us that he was happily employed for nine years as a maintenance worker at a hospital in Tayef. He said that he received his monthly salary of 400 riyals on time and his accommodations were good.  His problems began when the hospital closed in 2002 and the sponsor advised him and the other workers to search for new jobs. Moshior managed to find employment with another sponsor two weeks later, working as a cleaner in the man’s home, with free accommodation and food.  The salary was lower, only 350 riyals a month, but Moshior took the job and started work immediately. He brought with him 6,000 riyals that the hospital gave him as end-of-service benefits and severance pay, and was planning to send the money to his family at the earliest opportunity. 

On his third day at the new job, Moshior visited a market to purchase some clothing. Police stopped him and demanded his iqama. “One of the policemen told me that he knew the hospital was closed and my iqama was invalid,” Moshior said. He was arrested, spent the night in a local police station, and was moved to a prison the next day. Moshior explained his situation and asked authorities to contact his new sponsor, hoping that this would resolve the matter. But the sponsor wanted no involvement in the case – “he totally refused me,” was the way Moshior put it.

Without a legal sponsor to vouch for him, Moshior languished in a deportation jail for two months until two representatives from the Bangladeshi embassy visited, took his photograph, and verified his identity and home address.  The next day, police accompanied Moshior to the airport and gave him a paper with his photograph that allowed him to exit the kingdom.

The sponsor in Tayef never returned the 6,000 riyals that Moshior brought to his house. This money – about $1,600 -- represented accumulated benefits of nine years of work and was a devastating financial loss for Moshior, who supports his wife and four children, ages six to fifteen years old. “I tried to communicate with the sponsor, but he refused me that money,” Moshior said. “Many people return from Saudi Arabia with bad experiences.  Some of them go back again and some do not.”97

No Access to Medical Care

Migrant workers in need of medical treatment have been shut out of Saudi Arabia’s health care system because employers did not provide them with residency permits.  Forty-year-old Mohamed, who is from a rural village in Bangladesh and supports his wife and three children, told us that he became ill as a result of the living conditions that his employer forced him to endure. The employer denied Mohamed medical care and insisted that he continue to work. Because Mohamed did not have a residency permit, he was unable to seek and obtain medical treatment independently of his employer.

Mohamed told us that he arrived in the kingdom in April 2002 to work as a family driver in Riyadh.98  He was housed in a room with no air-conditioning that was infested with insects. He said that it was impossible to sleep, and he suffered bites on both legs that eventually ulcerated. Mohamed said that he pleaded with his employer to bring him to a doctor or hospital for treatment, but the employer refused. “I cried, but he did not help me.  I also tried to communicate with other Bangladeshis, but he never allowed time for me to see anyone else,” he said. Mohamed finally decided that his treatment was intolerable and asked his employer to let him go home to Bangladesh. The employer, who held his passport, turned down the request. 

It was only after Mohamed became too ill to work that the employer agreed to his repatriation, although he refused to pay him any wages. He had no recourse but to go to the airport, where his employer returned his passport and gave him a ticket. In addition to the uncompensated salary for two months and eighteen days of work, which totaled about $400, Mohamed was unable to recover the 10,000 taka ($1,897) that he paid to a manpower agency in Dhaka to secure his job and employment visa. “Some of my neighbors in the village tried to help me get back the money but nothing worked.  The agency told me it was my bad luck,” he said.99

In another recent case, Abdel Karim, a forty-two-year-old Indian who is the father of five children, was brutally beaten at his Saudi employer’s work site in June 2003. Police transported him to a hospital, where he slipped into a coma. After Abdel Karim’s medical condition improved and he left the hospital, his Saudi sponsor assumed no responsibility for him. Abdel Karim could not obtain medical treatment in the kingdom independently because the sponsor did not provide him with a residency permit.

Abdel Karim told us that he arrived in Saudi Arabia on May 15, 2003, with a visa for employment as a maintenance worker at construction sites in al-Kharj. He was told that his monthly salary was 800 riyals ($213). He pledged his small plot of land as collateral on a bank loan of 90,000 rupees ($1,998), and paid this amount to the Indian travel agent who provided his visa. 

Abdel Karim said that he realized he was in an exploitative situation from his first day on the job.  He was assigned to masonry and concrete work on a five-story building. His coworkers were two other Indians who, like him, were from villages in Kerala state; their supervisor was an Indian from Tamil Nadu.  According to Abdel Karim, the men worked twelve-hour shifts, with no days off.  They never met the Saudi sponsor whose name was on their visas. They worked for Khalid, who was identified as the sponsor’s brother.

Three weeks after Abdel Karim arrived, his two disgruntled Indian colleagues – who had been working at the construction site for three months -- told him that they planned to  “escape” that night. “I wanted to go with them, but I had no money because I had not yet been paid,” Abdel Karim said.  The next day, after the men were gone, Abdel Karim reported their absence to Khalid’s office.

A few days later, Abdel Karim went to sleep as usual at 11:00 p.m. on the ground floor of the construction site. He told us that he was awakened in the dark by two persons he vaguely saw approaching him.  He said that they attacked him, beating him brutally on the head, back, and back of his neck with what he sensed were objects from the construction site.  They said nothing and he lost consciousness quickly.  Abdel Karim said that voices coming from the second floor of the building eventually roused him, and he realized that his forehead was bleeding.  He managed to walk to a nearby house and ask for help. “They called the police, who came and took me.  I remember the police lifting me into a vehicle.  I woke up three days later, in a government hospital,” he reported. 

Abdel Karim said that he learned from the hospital staff that the police had him admitted and that his “surrogate” sponsor Khalid came once while he was unconscious.  Abdel Karim was in the hospital for twelve days but never saw Khalid again. On the day of his discharge, the hospital called the police because he did not have a residence card, his passport was with his employer, and his sponsor was nowhere to be found.

The police brought Abdel Karim to their headquarters, where he was released into the custody of a Saudi who identified himself as a friend of the sponsor.  The man brought Abdel Karim to the apartment of a Bengali and instructed him to take Abdel Karim to the apartment of  Hakim, an Indian from Kerala who worked for the sponsor. 

Abdel Karim stayed with Hakim for one month, suffering severe head pain, growing weakness in his left eye, and problems of mobility with his left leg.  He also needed to have his surgical stitches removed, but the government hospital refused to treat him because he did not have an iqama. He told Human Rights Watch that private hospitals turned him away because he had no document to prove his legal status in the kingdom.

Abdel Karim said that he was surprised that the police showed no interest in investigating the attack, other than asking him once if he knew who the perpetrators were.  But he was most distressed because his sponsor clearly wanted no involvement with him whatsoever. “I kept asking Hakim to have the sponsor come and help me, but he never did,” Abdel Karim said. At one point, Hakim brought him to the police station, where an officer asked what he wanted: “I said I needed medical treatment in Saudi Arabia and he said that was not possible.  So I told him I wanted to go home.”

On July 15, 2003, Hakim returned Abdel Karim’s passport, provided a ticket to India, and drove him to the airport in Riyadh. Abdel Karim was not paid for the twenty-one days that he worked.  At the time of his interview with Human Rights Watch, he said he was losing strength in both of his arms and hands, his left leg was weak, and the sight in his left eye was failing rapidly. He was unable to work, and could not pay the 2,000 rupees he owed every month for the loan he obtained to purchase his visa to Saudi Arabia.100 

Long Working Hours without Overtime Pay

The kingdom’s labor law includes specific standards for daily work and rest,101 and has clear provisions for overtime pay.102 In violation of the law, employers have forced migrant men and women to work well in excess of eight hours a day and forty-eight hours a week, without payment of overtime wages.  

For example, none of the foreign workers at a large hotel in Dhahran received overtime pay that their contracts provided for, and many worked more than the stipulated hours, according to Romeo, a twenty-seven-year-old electrical engineer from the Philippines who worked at the hotel from February 2001 to February 2003.  He also told us that the hotel workers were forced to pay the company 1,500 riyals for their two-year residency permits, an illegal practice  under Saudi law. The hotel’s fifteen Filipino workers submitted a written complaint to the government labor office about these practices, but decided against pursuing the case for fear of losing their jobs. “The manager of the hotel met with us and threatened to send us home,” Romeo said. 103

Ibrahim, a forty-year-old migrant worker from India, told us that he worked for two years as a truck driver for a dairy company in Taef, logging long hours without overtime pay. His job was to transport the company’s products from Taef to Tabuk, near the Jordanian border. He said that the drive, about 1,000 kilometers, took twenty-four hours.  After the truck was unloaded, the company required him to return to Taef within twenty-four hours or his salary was reduced by 100 riyals (about $27), ten percent of his fixed monthly earnings. “The milk had to arrive at eight in the morning, and I had to break the speed limits to make the schedule,” he told Human Rights Watch.  He said that he was frequently cited with speeding tickets and was responsible for paying these fines. The delivery timetable allowed virtually no time for sleep; he took short breaks from driving, using an alarm clock to take naps of thirty minutes to an hour during the long hauls but sometimes he fell asleep at the wheel. This was his routine six days per week. The company employed about fifty drivers -- Filipinos and Indonesians, in addition to Indians – with ten of them assigned to the long-distance routes. Ibrahim said that most of the drivers left after one year because the working conditions were too onerous.

In 2002, after two years at the company, Ibrahim requested a second driver on his route. The company refused the request and fired him. He was also presented with a bill for 100,000 riyals that the company said represented losses incurred when Ibrahim’s deliveries arrived late. The bill, Ibrahim said, was to protect the company in the event that he filed an official complaint with Saudi labor authorities.  He pointed out that his contract specified a monthly salary of 1,500 riyals but he was paid only 1,000 riyals. The company returned Ibrahim’s passport and provided him with a return ticket to India.104

Skilled women workers from the Philippines -- who cut and sewed custom-tailored women’s dresses and gowns at a specialty shop in Medina – told Human Rights Watch that they were forced to work eleven and twelve hours a day. Maya, an experienced seamstress, started working at the shop in 1998.  She said that the manpower agency in Manila that placed her provided a bogus two-year domestic worker contract, with a monthly salary of $200, although she said it was understood that she would work as a seamstress at a slightly higher salary.105  Maya told us that she was paid a monthly salary of 850 riyals, or about $227. 

She said that she worked eleven hours a day: from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon, and then from four in the afternoon until eleven at night. “We worked as hard as caribou,” she remarked.  She added that the women workers were paid if they were required to work on Fridays, the designated day off, and received some overtime if they worked longer than twelve hours daily. They were not charged for their modest accommodations on the top floor of the building in which the shop was located, but they were responsible for their own food and medical expenses. 

Maya remained at the job for three and a half years, without a paid vacation, until the employer finally agreed to purchase a ticket for her to visit the Philippines. She returned to Saudi Arabia on April 19, 2002, again on a visa as a domestic helper with a two-year contract.  When she arrived, she said that the managers of the shop forced her to sign a piece of paper specifying that she agreed to assume the full cost of her roundtrip airfare if she did not complete three years of employment. “The managers said that I must sign it, that the contract from the Philippines was not valid,” she explained. Although her monthly salary was raised to 1,250 riyals, or $333, overtime wages were no longer paid:

There was no overtime at all. We had to work every Friday from four in the afternoon until eleven at night, without extra pay. April to August was always the busiest time.  If we did not finish a gown by the time the shop closed, we had to take it to our rooms and finish it there, by hand, plus they deducted money from our salary.106

Maya chafed under the exploitative conditions but pointed out that she had no options. “Where could I go to for help?” she asked Human Rights Watch.  “We were locked in, I did not have an iqama, and the Philippines consulate was in Jeddah.  I did not even have a telephone number for the consulate. All of us wanted to go home but we were afraid.”

Maya finally took unilateral action on August 27, 2003, when Reem, the Egyptian woman who managed the shop with her husband, found and confiscated one of her two cell phones. “I stopped working to protest.  After three days, she demanded to know why I had a cell phone and where the SIM card was.  For two months, I stayed in my room and refused to work.”  Maya spent her time cooking for her coworkers and enduring verbal abuse from Reem, her son, and one of her daughters.  The managers would not release Maya – and obtain the exit visa needed to leave the kingdom -- unless she paid them 3,200 riyals from her salary for her roundtrip airfare, pursuant to the contract that she was forced to sign.  Seeing no other alternatives, and without income during her work stoppage, Maya relented, paid for the ticket, and flew home on October 5, 2003.107

In a separate interview, Maya’s former colleague Maria, a fifty-seven-year-old divorced Filipina with three children, described her treatment as the shop’s master cutter from 1990 to 2000.  Her starting salary of $250 a month was gradually raised and by the time she left, she earned $700 monthly, although she said that her wages were rarely paid in full and on time. “My contract was for eight hours but I worked twelve hours a day,” she also noted. “Sometimes I had to work through the night, until six or seven in the morning,” Maria said.108

Unpaid Salaries

Throughout this report, we document the low salaries that skilled and unskilled migrant workers are paid in Saudi Arabia.  In view of these prevailing wages, it is unconscionable that some employers withhold salaries and force workers to leave the kingdom without full reimbursement of their earned wages. The conditions of departure for some migrant workers – including official deportation -- afford them no opportunity to lodge complaints against their employers and seek remedy in Saudi Arabia for unpaid salaries and other benefits that they are owed.109

Women workers who live in forced confinement and almost total isolation are particularly vulnerable to this abuse. Edna, a thirty-year-old married woman from the Philippines who has two children, returned from Saudi Arabia in December 2003 after completing a two-year contract as a domestic worker with a Saudi family in Dammam. She told us that she was forced to leave the kingdom although her employers owed her $1,308 -- a sum that included $640 in unpaid wages.

“I did nothing except work for them,” Edna said, describing days that started at five in the morning and ended after midnight.  After her household duties were completed, she was often ordered to provide lengthy massages to her female employer and one of the woman’s daughters. Edna said the massages became a nightly routine, “even if I was tired or sick.”  She said that she was fed only once or twice a day, and  sometimes was hungry because she did not have enough to eat. Edna never had a day off and never received a vacation or vacation pay. Her employers saved money because they never provided Edna with a residency permit; when we asked Edna about her iqama, she had no knowledge about this document or her right to it under Saudi law. (Information about Edna’s forced confinement during her two years in the kingdom is included in Chapter 3.)

Edna’s monthly salary was 600 riyals ($160), but she told us that she was not paid for five months of work in 2003: January, March, August, September, and November.110  “Three times my madam asked me to sign her ledger that I was paid for these months, but I refused each time.  Finally, I had no choice and had to sign it,” she told us. According to Edna, her employer also borrowed money from her, in small amounts over months that grew to a total of 2,508 riyals ($668) by the end of two years of employment.  (Edna showed us the piece of paper on which she had neatly recorded each amount that her employer borrowed.)

At the completion of her contract, Edna assumed that she would be paid all the money that was owed to her.  Her employer’s husband drove her to the airport for the flight to Manila, and handed her only 600 riyals. Edna was astonished:  “I told him that I had fulfilled my contract, and asked about the remaining four months of salary and the 2,508 riyals that his wife had borrowed from me.”  He was not responsive, other than to inform Edna that they had deducted 1,300 riyals toward her return ticket, which is illegal.111 Intimidated, and having no options at the airport, Edna explained that all she could do was leave.112

Even in cases where government labor office adjudicators have ruled in favor of a migrant worker’s unpaid salary claim, some employers use deception and threats at the airport to force workers to leave the kingdom without their earned wages. Emran, a twenty-four-year-old from Bangladesh, traveled to Saudi Arabia in 1996 when he was a teenager with a false date of birth on his passport that indicated his age as twenty-two. He worked in Dammam for a company that owned five butcher shops.  In late 2001, the owners closed one of the shops, dismissed Emran, and told him to go back to Bangladesh.  Emran said that at this point the company owed him six months of unpaid salary, some of it in arrears for several years. In January 2002, he filed a complaint at the local labor office, demanding his salary, end-of-service benefits, and “release” from the company so that he could stay in the kingdom and seek work with another employer.113 

Emran told Human Rights Watch that the labor office ordered the company to pay him 4,000 riyals -- about $1,067 -- and provide a return ticket to Bangladesh, but denied his request for permission to remain in the kingdom.  Company representatives arranged a ticket for Emran and told him he would receive his money at the airport.  On February 3, 2002, a company representative traveled with Emran to the airport and handed him over to another company employee. “He gave me my passport, ticket and only 930 riyals ($248),” he told us. “When I asked for the rest of the money, he said that if I spoke another word he would hand me over to the police.”  Terrified, Emran took the threat seriously and departed the kingdom without the wages due to him.114

Some migrant workers who are owed months of unpaid salaries are faced with the difficult decision of remaining in the kingdom and continuing to work without pay, or cutting their losses and leaving.  Employers influence these decisions with the lure of a final exit visa and paid transportation to the workers’ home countries.

Abdul Jabbar, a thirty-seven-year-old Indian worker, faced this situation in 2003. He told Human Rights Watch that he arrived legally in the kingdom in 1999, after securing an employment visa as a driver from a travel agency in Calicut. He paid the agency 80,000 rupees ($1,767) and was assured a monthly salary of 1,200 riyals ($320), although he had no written contract. When Abdul Jabbar reached Ha’il and met his Saudi sponsor -- who owned four gift shops and employed seven other foreign workers from India, Egypt, and the Philippines – he was informed that his monthly salary, as a salesman and delivery driver at one of the shops, was only 500 riyals ($133). “I questioned this salary, but the sponsor said he knew nothing about promises made to me in India and refused to pay me anything more. I asked him to send me back to India but he already had my passport so I was forced to work for him,” Abdul Jabbar said.   

His typical working hours were from six in the morning until two o’clock the next morning, with occasional breaks from noon until four in the afternoon.  Late-night work was part of the daily routine: “The shop closed at 11 p.m., and I spent the remaining three hours at my sponsor’s house, assembling and packing gifts.” After six months, Abdul Jabbar said his salary was increased to 600 riyals; it was raised again at the end of one year to 800 riyals and at the end of two years to 1,000 riyals. But he told us that these increases meant little in practical terms because the employer never paid any of the workers on time and owed the workers thousands of riyals. The workers also were not granted vacations or vacation pay.  Abdul Jabbar said that he considered filing a complaint at the labor office but decided against it when he heard that his sponsor “had influence” there.

In 2002, desperate to go home, Abdul Jabbar arranged for a friend in India to send him a telegram that his wife was seriously ill but “the sponsor refused to let me go back to India,” he said.  He finally sought help from the sponsor’s mother, with whom he had developed a good relationship.  She convinced her son to grant Abdul Jabbar a six-month leave, enabling him to depart the kingdom legally.

He returned to India in October 2003, at the financial sacrifice of 8,300 riyals (about $2,200) in accumulated unpaid salary. Back in his native village, Abdul Jabbar told Human Rights Watch that he was working as a driver, supporting his wife and two daughters, three and eight years old. He said that he still owed 13,000 rupees ($287) on the loan that he obtained in 1999 to pay the fees for the employment visa to Saudi Arabia. The lender also held eight grams of gold that he deposited to secure the loan. “I would never go back, even if the visa was free,” Abdul Jabbar said. “I suffered too much.”115

Denial of Paid Vacation Leave

Denial of paid vacation leave is another employer abuse that affects workers in large companies and small businesses in the kingdom.  As noted above, workers covered under the labor law are entitled to fifteen days of paid vacation per year beginning with their second year of employment.116  Carlos, the driver who worked on a three-year contract for a maintenance company in Taef, reported that the company denied his request for a vacation at the end of his three years of employment. He told us that he wanted to return home to the Philippines and the only way he could depart the kingdom legally was to resign from his job.  “It took them two months to accept my resignation, so I actually worked for three years and six months without a paid leave,” he said.117 

Maria, also from the Philippines, worked as a master cutter at a women’s dress shop in Mecca from 1990 until 2000.  She told us that she was not permitted to return home for paid vacation after she completed her first two years of employment, as specified in her contract.  As she continued at the job, she was allowed unpaid vacation leave, although she said that her employer provided a roundtrip ticket. When Maria returned to the Philippines for a three-month leave in 1998, she said that her employer demanded $600 when she came back to work. The employer told her that the money was to cover what was described as processing fees for re-entry to the kingdom. “I did not complain because I did not want trouble,” Maria said.118

Summary Dismissals

Some employers have engaged the services of migrant workers for short periods of time and then dismissed them summarily when they were no longer needed, in breach of contractual obligations.  Workers covered by the labor law are theoretically protected from such a practice,119 although in the absence of de facto protection some workers respond by searching for jobs in the underground economy, which in many cases leads to their arrest and deportation as persons without legal status in the kingdom.  For migrants who paid large sums of money in their home countries to obtain legal employment in Saudi Arabia, the financial consequences of abrupt dismissals, unrelated to their own work performance, are considerable. Agricultural and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, who have no legal protections under the labor law, are particularly vulnerable to summary dismissals.

For example, Bachu, a twenty-six-year-old farmer from Bangladesh, was let go by his sponsor after only seven months of work, which led eventually to Bachu’s imprisonment and deportation.Bachu told Human Rights Watch that heobtained a legal visa to Saudi Arabia to work on a date palm farm in a village near Dammam, where some of his relatives lived.120  His contract provided a monthly salary of 500 riyals (about $133) with overtime pay of four riyals an hour for work beyond his regular twelve-hour shift, which he told us included a two-hour lunch break. 

Bachu arrived in the kingdom in March 2002 and met his Saudi sponsor, who instructed him to cut and clear the farm’s dead and damaged palms. He told Human Rights Watch that he worked diligently at his assigned task, logging twelve to fourteen hours each day.  Although his contract provided free accommodations, food was a personal expense. The nearest market was five kilometers away, and Bachu told us that his sponsor became angry when he learned that Bachu traveled to the market to purchase food during working hours. When Bachu asked the sponsor for his overtime pay, he said that the sponsor pointed out the time that was lost when Bachu visited the market. The sponsor then threatened him, saying that if Bachu insisted on pressing for overtime, the sponsor would not only refuse such pay but also deduct money from his regular monthly salary for his trips to the market. Bachu said he never requested overtime again, although he continued to work the same long days. 

Bachu told Human Rights Watch that he completed his assigned work after only seven months. He said that his sponsor informed him that he was out of a job:

He told me to go back to Bangladesh.  It was very tragic news for me.  I explained that I took a huge loan before coming to Saudi and if I went back home I would have to commit suicide.  He did not listen to anything I said, and one day he took my iqama by force.  I stayed at home without any work.  I cried and requested that he give me back my iqama and give me a release.121  He did not want to give me anything.  With the help of other Saudi people, I asked him again and again, and he [finally] gave me the iqama only.

Bachu said that he stayed in the village for a few days and then left without informing anyone. He visited his relatives in Dammam, who suggested that he look for another job there. According to Bachu, one day policemen approached him on the street and asked for his iqama.  They asked him why he was in Dammam because his iqama indicated that his workplace was Zahuri.  Bachu told us that he replied that he was visiting his relatives and was planning to return soon to the village. 

His story continued:

They did not listen to me, put me in a police car and took me to al-Hasa jail.  I was in the jail for seven days.  During that time, the police communicated with my sponsor and he came to the police station.  He told the police that he had no agricultural work and that was why he wanted to give me a ticket to go back to Bangladesh but I left the workplace without informing anyone.

The police brought Bachu to a court a week later. There, he said he was informed that unless he purchased his own return ticket to Bangladesh he would be sentenced to a year in prison. He was moved to another jail, where his cousin visited him.  Bachu by this time was “very sick.  I was unable to talk….There was no medicine or treatment inside the jail.  I could not eat, only one bread in the morning just to survive, so I was also very weak.  The situation in the jail was very bad – three hundred to four hundred people sleeping in a big room, a bad smell coming out of the toilet, no place to bathe.”  

To address Bachu’s predicament, his cousin gave 800 riyals to the prison authorities for a  ticket to Bangladesh. Bachu spent seven days in the second jail, and then flew home.   When he arrived in Dhaka he was unable to walk and required the assistance of airport personnel. The agency that placed him in the job helped send him back to his village. 

Bachu’s total earnings for seven months of hard work in Saudi Arabia amounted to a little over $900.  He had sold his land and house, and also assumed a high-interest loan of $875  to pay fees to the manpower recruiting company in Bangladesh that placed him in the job.  The early termination of his contract left him with the considerable financial burden of repaying the loan.122  Workers covered under the labor law – agricultural laborers are not – are entitled to advance notice, a termination award or an indemnity payment from employers if a contract is cancelled.123 

Legal Obligations of the Government of Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has been a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) since 1976, and the government has consistently maintained in official communications with the ILO that the Holy Qur’an – the kingdom’s constitution -- provides adequate protections for migrant workers.124  The government has ratified fifteen ILO conventions,125 but only five of the eight conventions that the ILO deems “fundamental” to the enjoyment of basic labor rights and essential for the protection of other rights.126 These conventions provide for freedom of association,127 the abolition of forced labor in all its forms,128 equality,129 and the elimination of child labor.130 Saudi Arabia is not a party to the minimum age convention and the two conventions that guarantee freedom of association and protection of the right of workers to organize.131

In December 2000, Saudi Arabia signed the U.N. Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, the international treaty that entered into force in September 2003.132 Saudi Arabia also signed in December 2002, but has not ratified, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the Convention against Transnational Crime.133 

The Legal Obligation to Suppress Forced or Compulsory Labor

This report provides ample evidence that migrant workers – men and women – continue to work under conditions that amount to forced labor.  Saudi authorities have legal obligations to address this long-standing problem, particularly on behalf of migrant workers in the lowest-paid jobs who are barred from protection under the labor law, such as domestic servants and agricultural workers.  The increasing use of private labor subcontracting companies to supply low-wage foreign workers to public institutions and private enterprises in the kingdom is another area of concern, and the government should design additional measures to ensure that these companies are not engaging in practices of forced labor.

Saudi Arabia is a party to ILO Convention (No. 29) concerning Forced Labor, adopted in 1930, which defines forced or compulsory labor as “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.”134  The convention provides that the competent authority “shall not impose or permit the imposition of forced or compulsory labor for the benefit of private individuals, companies or associations.135  The convention obligates state parties to “completely suppress” such forced or compulsory labor that benefits the private individuals and other entities.136

The Committee on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) of the ILO reported that it has observed for over a decade that the Saudi government is not in compliance with article 25 of the Forced Labor Convention, which stipulates that the use of forced labor must be punished as a criminal offense.137 The committee noted the government’s position on this matter:

The Government has consistently maintained that forced or compulsory labor would be regarded as a constraint or oppression under the Shari’a and that, if a case was brought to a tribunal, the judge in applying the Shari’a may subject the offender to penalties in the way of fines, jail or other sanctions at the discretion of the judge.  In its reports, the Government maintains that this is sufficient to comply with the Convention as the secular law is thereby in conformity with the Convention.138

The committee did not accept the government’s argument and stressed the need for a specific law:

Article 25 requires that a member State have a specific law which both describes the exaction of forced labor which is forbidden and also prescribes a penalty for its exaction.  The broad and non-specific application of the Shari’a, coupled with a possible judicial sanction at the broad and unlimited discretion of the judge, does not fulfill the requirements and the purpose of the article.  The purpose of Article 25 is to act overtly as a preventative measure and also as a punitive measure which is known and can be implemented.139

It added that it was concerned that there be a specific statute banning forced labor in all circumstances in part because Saudi Arabia’s labor law excluded agricultural and domestic workers, most of them migrants, which “exposes them to exploitation in their working conditions.”140

The ILO recommends that governments enact legislation that would facilitate supervision of authorities responsible for protecting workers from the abuse of forced labor.141  It states that police officers, magistrates, and civil servants who encounter cases of forced labour should receive training. It also advocates the creation of “an independent mechanism through which individuals or non-governmental organizations can lodge complaints against any police, state authorities or magistrates who refuse to investigate complaints relating to forced labour or who cooperate with employers that use forced labour.” 

[80] Article 3(a) of the law states that its provisions “shall not apply” to “domestic servants and persons regarded as such.”Article 3(b) excludes persons “working in pastures or agriculture,” with the exception of those “working in agricultural establishments which process their own produce” or “permanently engaged in the operation or repair of mechanical equipment required for agriculture.”

[81] The exception to this rule is the holy month of Ramadan. According to article 147 of the law: "a workman shall not be employed for more than eight actual working hours in any one day, or forty-eight hours a week, in all months of the year, with the exception of the month of Ramadan when actual working hours shall not exceed six hours a day or thirty-six hours a week, exclusive of the intervals reserved for prayer, rest, and meals. The number of working hours maybe raised to nine hours a day in respect of certain categories of workmen or in certain industries and operations where the workman does not work continuously, such as seasonal establishments, hotel, snack bars, restaurants, etc. The number of daily working hours may be reduced for certain categories of workmen, industries, and operations referred to in this Article, these to be determined by decision of the Minister of Labor." Articles 148-158 of the law include additional provisions for holidays, sick leave, and vacation pay.

[82] Article 151.

[83] Article 153.

[84] Article 83.

[85] Article 84(1) to article 84(6).

[86] The interior minister reiterated in 2003 that the civil status card for citizens and the iqama for non-citizens were the only documents with validity for identification purposes. Raid Qusti, “Saudi Passports Not a Means of Identification,” Arab News, December 22, 2003.

[87] It was reported in March 2004 that Saudi Arabia’s labor minister, Dr. Ali al-Namlah, imposed strict new conditions under which foreign workers’ sponsorship could be transferred, limiting such transfers to technically qualified workers in the private sector. According to one report, the minister “explained that the decision had been made in order to prevent misuse of the sponsorship law which allows sponsors to make money at the expense of unemployed Saudi citizens.” See Saeed Haider, “Stoppage of Sponsorship Transfer Jolts Job Market,” Arab News, March 2, 2004.  As of this writing, there continued to be confusion about the implementation about new rules designed to replace foreign workers with unemployed Saudi citizens.  One labor ministry official who spoke to the press on the condition of anonymity affirmed that businesses with ten or less workers could no longer obtain labor visas.  Some small businessmen objected strenuously. “I can’t afford a Saudi worker who will expect not less that 2,000 [riyals] whereas I pay an Indian or Bangladeshi not more than 700 [riyals],” the owner of an electrical workshop was quoted as saying.  Saeed Haider, “Labor Visas Stopped Again in Dammam,” Arab News, April 30, 2004. 

[88] Council of Ministers Resolution No. 91, 1418 H.

[89] Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs, “Saudi Employers to Pay for Workers’ Visa, Iqama Fees,” Press Release No. 62–01, May 11, 2001, (retrieved  February 2, 2004).

[90] Saeed Haider, “Expatriates continue to hope against hope,” Arab News, April 13, 2002.

[91]  Najeeb also paid a manpower agent in India 45,000 rupees ($995) for his employment visa to Saudi Arabia.  Human Rights Watch interview, Nagarikunnu, Kerala, India, November 28, 2003.

[92] The total “deduction” equaled the 2,000 riyals that the barber shop owner paid to the Saudi sponsor, who also collected 2,000 riyals on the worker’s arrival in the kingdom.  This worker was thus illegally charged 4,000 riyals, or almost six months’ salary, for the privilege of his legal status and job.

[93] Human Rights Watch interview, Nagarikunnu, Kerala, India, November 28, 2003.

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

[95] He was paid 1,200 riyals per month to operate a state-of-the-art computerized International Harvester sanitation truck. Manual street sweepers and garbage collectors, mostly Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, were paid 350 riyals monthly, while Pakistani truck drivers earned 750 riyals.

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

[97] Human Rights Watch interview, Ropusdi, Brahmanbaria, Bangladesh, May 9, 2003.

[98] This job, in domestic service, excluded Mohamed from the protections of Saudi Arabia’s labor law.

[99] Human Rights Watch interview, Ghagradi, Nawabgonj, Bangladesh, April 24, 2003.

[100] Human Rights Watch interview, Cheekode village, Ponnad, Kerala, India, December 3, 2003.

[101] Article 148 of the labor law states: “Working hours shall be scheduled that no workman shall work more than five consecutive hours without an interval of rest, prayer and meals, which shall not be less than half an hour each time, or one and a half hours during the total working hours, and that the workman shall not remain in the place of work more than eleven hours in any one day. In the case of factories where work is performed in successive shifts day and night, the Minister [of Labor] shall by decision regulate the manner for granting workmen time intervals for rest, prayer and meals.”  Permissible exceptions to this general standard are outlined in article 150 of the law.

[102] Article 151 of the labor law states: “The employer shall pay the workman for additional work hours an additional wage equivalent to the workman’s normal wage plus fifty percent (50%).  Where the work is performed on the weekly day of rest or on feast days or official holiday, the employer shall pay the workman additional wages for the regular or additional work hours.”

[103] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 9, 2003. See Chapter V for information about the government’s official process for dealing with labor grievances.

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

[105] The salaries of such contracts prepared in the Philippines are typically described in U.S. dollars.

[106]  Under the former system, the women were paid an additional thirty riyals if they worked later than eleven o’clock at night to finish a dress.

[107] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 18, 2003.

[108] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 21, 2003.

[109] SeeChapter VI for information about the deportation of migrant workers with labor grievances against their employers.

[110] Pursuant to the “fly now, pay later” terms of some manpower agencies in the Philippines, Edna did not pay in advance for her employment visa to Saudi Arabia. Instead, the first two months of her wages were remitted to the agency and she began to receive her salary after her third month of employment.

[111] Saudi employers are responsible for the cost of a worker’s transportation to and from the kingdom.

[112] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 21, 2003.

[113] “Release” comes in the form of a No Objection Certificate from the employer.  It is a short document that certifies the name of the employee, his or her nationality, job title and dates of employment.  One NOC that Human Rights Watch saw had this typical concluding language: “During his/her service, we found his/her performance to be satisfactory and we do not have any objection if s/he wished to return to Saudi Arabia to work with another employer.  This certificate is issued upon completion of his/her job without any responsibility whatsoever on the part of the company.”  If an employer terminates a worker’s contract, the worker does not need a NOC. But if the employer wishes the worker to renew the contract and the worker declines, the employer can deny a NOC and prevent the worker from obtaining new employment in the kingdom for a period of one year. 

[114] Human Rights Watch interview, Ghagradi, Nawabgonj, Bangladesh, April 24, 2003.

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

[116] Article 153.

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

[118] Human Rights Watch interview, Quezon City, Philippines, December 21, 2003.

[119]  See Article 84 of the law, cited at the beginning of this chapter.

[120] He said that he paid 138,000 taka to a manpower company in Dhaka for the cost of the visa, passport, and medical examination.  He financed this expense by selling all of his land, including his house, and borrowing 50,000 taka at high interest. 

[121] Migrant workers in such situations may ask sponsors for a “release,” or consent to look for another job and have their residency permit legally transferred to the new employer.   

[122] Human Rights Watch interview, Balur Char, Shreepur, Munshigonj, Bangladesh, May 16, 2003.

[123] Article 83. The article enumerates exceptions to this rule for various violations on the part of workers, such as physical assault, excessive absences without reason, etc.

[124] In 1994, for example, the Saudi government supplied the following information to the ILO: “The Sharia is the Constitution of the Kingdom whose principles prescribe the establishment of justice and of equality between all persons without discrimination on the grounds of gender, nationality or religion….The Sharia – the Constitution of the Kingdom – is considered to be the supreme law as it is of a divine source and its written principles are expressed in the verses of the Koran and the hadiths (sayings of the Prophet), which proves that the modalities of application of the principle of equality in the private sector are entirely in conformity with the provisions of this Convention [ILO Convention No. 100, Equal Remuneration].” ILCCR, Examination of individual case concerning Convention No. 100, 1994.

[125] See Appendix A for a list of these conventions.

[126] The ILO describes these conventions “fundamental to the rights of human beings at work, irrespective of levels of development of individual member states. These rights are a precondition for all the others in that they provide for the necessary implements to strive freely for the improvement of individuals and collective conditions of work.”

[127] Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (C.87) and the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention (C.98).

[128] Forced Labor Convention (C.29) and the Abolition of Forced Labor Convention (C.105).

[129] Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention (C.111), and Equal Remuneration Convention (C.100).

[130] Minimum Age Convention (C.138), and Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (C.182).

[131] Saudi Arabia is a party to C.29 and C. 107 (forced labor), C. 100 and C.111 (on discrimination), and C. 182 on child labor.

[132] As of March 24, 2004, 147 states were signatories to the treaty, and sixty-five countries were state parties to it. 

[133] This treaty came into force on December 25, 2003. As of March 24, 2004, 117 states signed this treaty, and fifty were parties to it.

[134] Article 2(1).  Exceptions to this definition – such as compulsory military service, ordinary civic obligations, etc. -- are enumerated in articles 2(a) to 2(e).

[135] Article 4(1).  Emphasis added by Human Rights Watch.

[136] Article 4(2).

[137] Article 25 states: “The illegal exaction of forced or compulsory labor shall be punishable as a penal offense, and it shall be an obligation on any Member ratifying this Convention to ensure that the penalties imposed by law are really adequate and are strictly enforced.”

[138] Committee on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, International Labor Organization,   Individual Observation concerning Convention No. 29, Forced Labor, 1930 Saudi Arabia (ratification: 1978), published 2001.

[139] Ibid.

[140] Ibid.

[141] International Labor Organization, “Supervision of the activities of authorities responsible for the application of legislation on forced labour,” in Labor Legislation Guidelines,

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