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V.   Labor Grievances: The Government's Process for Complaints and Remedy

“When we filed the case, we hoped that we would get real justice. But after just one week we heard from the Bangladeshi lawyer that the company owner was the daughter of the Saudi king, and our file was closed.”

 --Bangladeshi worker who returned home from Saudi Arabia in 2002.

Workers in Saudi Arabia do not have the right to strike or organize trade unions, and collective bargaining is prohibited.204  The kingdom’s labor law bans the organizing or encouraging of work stoppages. It states that these actions are punishable offenses, with prison terms of one to three years, or fines or both.205  The law prohibits “gathering on public roads and in public squares, or by occupying the place of work” for the purpose of encouraging strikes.206  It also stipulates that workers and employers may not stop work to protest a government decision, and prescribes harsh punishment for violators, including imprisonment of two to six years, fines, or both.207 

The overwhelming majority of workers in the kingdom’s private sector are non-Saudis. Denying them the right to advocate or organize strikes and other work stoppages to protest poor labor conditions deprives them of a peaceful means of raising their concerns and, as commentators have noted, of bargaining power important in seeking improved working conditions from employers.208

In 2002, Saudi Arabia’s ministry of labor and social affairs promulgated new regulations that authorized the establishment of “workers’ committees” in private businesses with one hundred or more employees.  International Labor Organization (ILO) director-general Juan Somavia called this development “a milestone in the labor history of Saudi Arabia,” and said it was “gratifying for the ILO to be cooperating with a country which is making real efforts to promote social and labor rights."209  The ILO did not publicize the fact that the committees will lack real independence. Employees at each company may form only one committee, with three to nine members. The minister of labor and social affairs must approve committee members; the minister and companies’ management have the right to send representatives to committee meetings; and the minutes of all meetings must be provided to management.210 

In addition to these shortcomings, the system is discriminatory on its face.  Foreign workers may not serve on the committees; membership is restricted to Saudi nationals who are at least twenty-five years old and have worked at their companies for over two years. 211  Non-discrimination is a fundamental principle in the protection of human rights.  Article 2(c) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which Saudi Arabia has ratified, requires each state party to “take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.” The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which oversees implementation of the CERD, has authoritatively commented that actions in violation of the treaty are those that have “an unjustifiable disparate impact upon a group distinguished by race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.”212  Excluding foreign workers from participation in these labor committees is an unjustifiable form of racial discrimination that the government of Saudi Arabia should rectify immediately.  

Two years after these regulations were issued, it remained unclear how many workers’ committees have been created at private companies in the kingdom.  Even more troubling have been the suggestions from some Saudi officials that formation of the committees may be viewed as employer-driven initiatives.  In February 2004, deputy minister of labor and social affairs Ahmad al-Mansour was summarized as saying that his ministry “will not force companies to form workers’ committees,” implying that the initiative should rest with management.213  Dr. Abdullah S. Dahlan, identified as a Saudi  member of the ILO board, said that the government was actually “encouraging” private sector firms to form the committees.214  “We invite banks, industrial and commercial firms, among others, to come and make the hard decision – if it is a hard decision for them – to establish their own workers’ committees,” he added.215 

The Saudi government’s impetus for urging the formation of workers’ committees appears related to its goal of having the kingdom’s first national labor committee to represent workers’ bodies at international organizations, including those of the ILO.216  Given the millions of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, it is an act of blatant discrimination that they are not permitted representation at such important labor events. 

Available Remedies

The government of Saudi Arabia reported to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in 2001 that the kingdom “guarantees the right of every person living in its territory to seek protection and remedies through the available mechanisms.”217  For migrant workers with labor grievances such as unpaid salaries, excessive working hours without overtime pay, illegally charged fees, and unlawful termination of contracts, it is far from clear how meaningful the government’s guarantee is in practice.

In theory, all workers in Saudi Arabia who are covered under the labor law have the right to leave their jobsbefore the expiration of their contracts for the following reasons:

  • “If the employer has not fulfilled his obligation/s towards the worker”;

  • “If the employer calls upon the worker to perform a task which is essentially different from the nature of his work for which he has committed himself under the contract, or if the employer transfers the worker 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 worker and has no valid reason dictated by the nature of work”;

  • “If the employer or whoever is acting on his behalf has committed an assault or an immoral act against the worker or a member of his family”;

  • “If there is a serious hazard which threatens the safety or health of the worker, provided that the employer has been aware of the existence of such hazard and did not undertake any step to remove it”;

  • “If at the time of concluding the contract, the employer or his representative misled the worker with respect to the terms of employment”; and

  • “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 worker to appear as the party terminating the contract.”218

  • Workers are also provided with the right to challenge an employer’s arbitrary termination of their contracts by requesting a stay of the decision at a government labor office. Article 75 of the labor law provides that a worker “discharged for no valid reason may apply for a stay of execution of such discharge.”  This article also states that “the onus of proof that the discharge was for a valid reason shall lie with the employer.” It adds that “discharge shall be regarded as having no valid reason if it is established that it followed the worker’s demand for legitimate rights due to him by the employer and no other valid reason for termination is established.  In such case, the employer shall be ordered to reinstate the worker, pay his wages from the date of his discharge to the date of his reinstatement, and to consider his services as continuous.”

    Many migrant workers in the kingdom are uninformed about these rights or, if they are informed, are afraid to exercise them.  It is often financial reality that leaves aggrieved workers reluctant to seek recourse from Saudi government entities. Heavily in debt, and desperate for their wages, these workers calculate that leaving their employers for legitimate contract violations and pursuing complaints is simply too costly a prospect.

    Official Labor Grievance Bodies

    Saudi Arabia’s 1969 labor law created special bodies to adjudicate disputes between workers and employers: Primary Commissions for the Settlement of Labor Disputes and an appeals body, the Supreme Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes. Migrant workers in the kingdom typically describe these mechanisms as “labor courts.”  Pursuant to the labor law, primary commissions have been established in offices of the ministry of labor and social affairs throughout the kingdom.219  These commissions are “composed of three members experienced in legal matters.  The chairman shall be a holder of a degree in Sharia’ah, and at least one of the other two members shall be a holder of a degree in Shari’ah or in Law.”220

    The primary commissions are empowered under the law to issue final decisions in cases involving not more than 3,000 riyals, or about $800, and to rule on requests from workers to stay decisions to terminate their employment.221 These commissions, as tribunals of first instance, also hear cases of disputes of more than 3,000 riyals, disputes related to employment-related injuries, and cases of illegal termination. Such cases may be appealed to the Supreme Commission.222 

    The law stipulates that the chairman and members of the Supreme Commission “shall be impartial and experienced in legal matters.”223  It also states that “[e]ach of these Commissions shall have exclusive right to examine all disputes relating to labor contracts, and may summon any person for interrogation or assign one of its members to conduct such interrogation. It also may require the presentation of documents or evidence and adopt any other measure it may deem fit.  The Commission shall also have the right of access to any premises occupied by the establishment, for the purpose of conducting the required investigation in accordance with the provisions of this Law.”224

    The Supreme Commission is a five-member body, with “three representing the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, one representing the Minister of Commerce and Industry, and one representing the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources.”225 

    The first step in the grievance process is filing a complaint and supporting evidence in the disputes department of government labor offices, which are located in cities throughout the kingdom.226  These departments conduct preliminary investigations and attempt to arbitrate a “compromise” between the parties, which may involve compensation.227  If the case cannot be resolved at this level, it isreferred for judgment to a primary commission, or one of the parties may insist on bringing the matter before such a commission.228 

    The proceedings of the grievance bodies are conducted in Arabic and the onus is on migrant workers and their consular officials to arrange for translation and interpreting.  For Filipino migrants, interpreters and case officers in the Philippines Overseas Labor Office (POLO) at the Philippines embassy in Riyadh are reportedly available to “assist the worker in the preparation of the complaint but the latter must submit the complaint personally or through his authorized representative.” POLO also advises migrants that its interpreters “are not allowed to appear during the hearing before the Saudi Labor Office.”229

    When a complaint moves to a primary commission, a date is scheduled for a hearing and it is the worker’s responsibility to deliver personally the subpoena of summons to the  employer. Judgments in favor of workers that employers simply ignore must be brought for enforcement to the civil rights (huquq al-madani) sections of local police departments or the provincial governor’s office. A migrant rights activist from Bangladesh told Human Rights Watch in 2003 that enforcement of judgments was “poor.”  He said that workers who had not been paid their salaries, and had labor court judgments in their favor, were confronted with the problem of employers who simply did not respond to the judgments.230 The Indian ambassador in Riyadh told us that of the Indian workers who filed cases in the labor courts, “99 percent were settled in their favor.” But, he emphasized, enforcement was “still a problem,” particularly with cases involving Saudi employers who enjoyed influence with authorities. He also noted that Indian workers who arrived in the kingdom heavily indebted to manpower agents who sold them employment visas were unlikely to lodge official complaints.231 

    The U.S. State Department reported in 2004 that “[m]ore foreign workers than the past are going to labor courts, which regularly rule in favor of the workers.”  But it also said that the grievance process was “long and difficult,” and that it was “difficult to enforce judgments.” It noted that labor courts, “while generally fair, may take months to reach a final appellate ruling, during which time the employer may prevent the foreign laborer from leaving the country.  An employer also may delay a case until a worker’s funds are exhausted, and the worker is forced to return to his home country.”232

    Complaints of Migrant Workers

    A comprehensive assessment of the effectiveness of the kingdom’s labor commissions is beyond the scope of this report.  However, critics of the commissions have complained about protracted proceedings, the non-appearances of Saudi employers, unfair rulings, and the inability or reluctance of Saudi authorities to enforce judgments against employers.  The overwhelming majority of aggrieved migrant workers that Human Rights Watch interviewed for this report either had no knowledge of these bodies or no opportunity to access them. 

    Both skilled and unskilled migrant workers complained about the grievance process. One of them was R. Prakash, an Indian electrical engineer who was employed at a large telecommunications subcontracting company that did business with the Saudi government. He reported in 2003 that for several months his company illegally deducted the cost of residency permits and visas from monthly paychecks of the workers, leaving their salaries reduced by about half. The workers, he stated, found it impossible to pursue their complaint:  “A group of us had approached the local labor court to complain, but the company employed delaying tactics against us for nearly two years, and we concluded that it was only a waste of our money and precious time, and thus we withdrew the case.” The  engineer maintained that the company simply “swindled” its foreign employees. “I really pity everyone who is suffering from such deception,” he commented.233

    Among the women sheltered in the Sri Lankan consulate in Jeddah in 2002 was Musahina, who claimed that for eighteen years her wages had not been paid regularly by the family in Medina that had employed her since she was thirteen years old.  The grievance procedure did not work for Musahina because, she alleged, her employer tricked her into thumb-printing a document that was accepted as proof of payment of paid wages:

    All I’ve received during those 18 years is SR7,000.  Recently, the sponsor paid me SR 2,500 and took my thumb print on a bit of paper that had Arabic writing on it.  Afterward, I was told that the thumb print meant that I had acknowledged receipt of everything that was due me.  The Labor Court, after a few hearings, asked me whether the thumb print was mine.  When I confirmed that it was, the court said that I don’t have an argument.234

    2002: Labor Exploitation Unaddressed

    The grievance process produced unsatisfactory results in 2002 for thirty-three exploited Bangladeshi workers who had not been paid for months and were never provided with residency permits. They were forced to accept alternative jobs at monthly salaries of 400 riyals -- about $107 -- or return home.  According to one of the workers, Shahadat Hossain, twenty-three years old, the men were all recruited to work for the government’s water supply department in Tabuk, cleaning and repairing water pipes. The monthly salary was 1,200 riyals with free accommodations. “It was a very good job,” Shahadat told Human Rights Watch. The exorbitant cost of his visa and other required documents was 290,000 taka – or $4,945 -- a sum that his family raised by borrowing from relatives and arranging an interest-bearing loan from a neighbor. Shahadat believed that he had been hired to work directly for the government, but it appeared that the workers were actually employed by a labor subcontracting company. 

    Shahadat told us that he flew to Saudi Arabia in July 2001 with seven other Bangladeshis who were all promised the same work in Tabuk.  Saudi intermediaries met them at Riyadh airport, took them into the city and put them on a public bus to Tabuk, an eighteen-hour journey. Following instructions of the Saudis, the men went to an office, surrendered their passports, and started work the next day. Shahadat said that he worked between ten and twelve hours daily, repairing underground water pipes. Sometimes, he said, he was summoned for emergency work at midnight or worked on jobs nonstop for eighteen to twenty hours. The men were not paid their first two months of salary and borrowed money from other Bangladeshis to purchase food. 

    Two and a half months after Shahadat arrived, the company decided to reduce its workforce of seventy-five Bangladeshi workers to thirty-five. Shahadat was one of the workers summarily dismissed. The company told the workers that they could be placed in similar jobs in Tabuk but at a lower monthly salary of 1,000 riyals. Thirty-three workers, including Shahadat, decided to accept this offer, and only then were they paid their back wages.  In their new assignment, the men were forced to work at least fourteen to sixteen hours a day; they were never paid and did not receive residency permits. After four months, the company informed them that they were being relocated to a “construction farm,” with monthly salaries of only 400 riyals. The men demanded the four months of wages owed to them, but the company refused, explaining that the fee for transferring workers to a new employer was 2,000 riyals. (Since the workers were transferred twice – first to the jobs in Tabuk and then, after four months, to the promised construction farm jobs -- the total purported “fees” owed were 4,000 riyals per worker, the amount of their unpaid wages. Shahadat told Human Rights Watch that none of the workers were willing to accept this proposal.

    Because they refused the second “transfer,” the men lost the free accommodations provided at the previous job.  “We started to stay sometimes with other Bangladeshis and sometimes beside the road,” Shahadat remarked.  “I slept many nights beside the road and spent many days without food.  It was a very painful life. I could not explain that life.”

    On the suggestion of a Bangladeshi who worked in the kingdom for a longer time, the men filed a case in a labor office in Tabuk, arguing breach of their original contract with the first employer. While the men waited for a ruling, they slept on the street in Tabuk and ate only once a day.  After fifteen days, according to Shahadat, “the court declared that we had to work at the 400-riyal salary or leave the country.” The men were also told that if they wanted to return home, they had to contact the original employer to arrange their departure. 

    “We were all sick and everyone was crying after this declaration.  Some men were talking about committing suicide. But we thought there was nothing to do since the court made its declaration and we had to go back,” Shahadat said. The thirty-three men returned to the office of their first employer, and the company transported them by bus from Tabuk to Riyadh, providing passports and tickets only after they entered the airport.235

    2002: Case Closed

    Another group of exploited Bangaldeshi workers brought their case to a labor office in 2002, only to have it closed because the owner of their company was an influential Saudi citizen. Tofazal Hossain, one of the workers, provided the background and an account of what transpired.  He decided to go to Saudi Arabia when a local manpower agent in Bangladesh told him about a visa that was available for a family driver.236  On October 31, 2001, the day of Tofazal’s departure for the kingdom, the manpower agent gave him the Arabic-language employment contract.  “He translated it for me, and I understood that my job was a family driver and the monthly salary was 800 riyals [about $213]. The duty hours were from eight in the morning until eight at night, and extra duty would count as overtime. Food and housing were free. I was happy with the contract,” Tofazal told us. At the airport in Dhaka that night, there were thirty-three other Bangladeshis who were promised work in Saudi Arabia through the same manpower company. The manpower agent at the airport told the men that they would be taken together to an office in Riyadh and from there sent to their workplaces.

    When the men reached Riyadh, they waited five hours at the airport until representatives of a company arrived to assist them. The representatives took their passports, tickets, and contracts, and brought them to the company office, where they were informed that they their job was to work cleaning roads. “I was very surprised,” Tofazal said.  He continued:

    I told the managing director that I came as a driver, and he replied that the company never asked for drivers, they just needed road cleaners. Then he told us that our monthly salary was only 250 riyals [about $67]. I was like a statue, and when I wanted to say something about the salary the managing director just stopped me and told me to start working and not to say anything.

    All the workers were shocked. “Some of us were crying as most of us took loans with high interest from other people, and it was not possible to pay back the money with such a small salary,” Tofazal told us. He added that the work day began at two in the morning and continued until four o’clock the next afternoon. “We started to do the work, but it was impossible to continue,” he said.  During the three and a half months that Tofazal worked for the company in Riyadh, he attempted to organize the other 300 Bangladeshi workers, and met with the managing director to discuss the low salary and long daily hours. “The director did not pay any attention to me, rather he was very angry,” he reported. The next day, Tofazal was transferred to a location fifty kilometers from Riyadh, and over the next two months the other Bangladeshis were moved there as well.

    At the new location, where about 4,000 Bangladeshis were employed, Tofazal said that everyone was paid lower salaries than specified in their contracts. In addition, all the company supervisors were Sri Lankan and, according to Tofazal, they “could not tolerate” Bangladeshis and “physically attacked” them on numerous occasions. Tofazal and a group of other Bangladeshi workers sought a meeting with one of the company’s directors to discuss the low salaries.  “He would not hear anything from us, rather he behaved with us like we were street dogs.  One of the Sri Lankan supervisors was angry and attacked one of us. He was seriously injured and we took him to a hospital,” he recounted. In retaliation, angry Bangladeshi workers attacked and injured a Sri Lankan supervisor, Tofazal said.

    After this, the company identified thirty Bangladeshi workers, including Tofazal, and told them they were being returned to Bangladesh, without giving the workers any reason or opportunity to comment. “I was ready to go back,” Tofazal said, “but most of the men were not. The company told us we had to leave within a week.”  The thirty men talked about their situation with a Bangladeshi lawyer, who suggested they file a case at the labor office. The men could not follow the case themselves because “all the documents were written in Arabic and all the discussion was in Arabic and we got information from the Bangladeshi lawyer,” Tofazal said. “When we filed the case, we hoped that we would get real justice, but after just one week we heard from the Bangladeshi lawyer that the company owner was the daughter of the Saudi king, and our file was closed,” he said. “No one could help us, and the Bangladeshi lawyer suggested that we go back home.” 

    In September 2002, the men were brought in a group to the airport, company representatives gave them their passports and tickets once they were inside the immigration area, and they were returned on the same flight to Dhaka. At the time of his interview with Human Rights Watch, Tofazal, twenty-eight years old and recently married, was living in his village and was unemployed.  He is the youngest of ten children and had seven years of schooling; his father died when he was six years old, and his widowed mother lives with him and his wife.  He sold his land and small shop in the village to finance the cost of his visa to Saudi Arabia.237 

    [204] For additional information, see International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, “Saudi Arabia: Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (2003).”

    [205] Article 190.

    [206] Article 189(3) and Article 190.

    [207] Article 191 states: “Where an employee, head of an enterprise, employee or workman stops work with the object of exerting pressure on public authorities or of protesting against a decision or measure adopted by such authorities instead of having recourse to legitimate means, each such offender shall be punished with imprisonment for a terms of two to six years or a fine of 4,000 riyals to 10,000 riyals, or both.”

    [208] “Wage-bargaining, or the sharing of the firm’s surplus, in general, does not apply to the private non-oil sector in the GCC economies. Firms have access to an elastic supply of expatriate workers at internationally competitive wages [i.e., low wages] and labor unions are absent.  As a consequence, workers have negligible bargaining power.” Ugo Fasano and Rishi Goyal, “Emerging Strains in GCC Labor Markets,” International Monetary Fund (IMF) Working Paper, WP/04/71, April 2004.

    [209] International Labor Organization, “Boost for workers’ rights in Saudi Arabia,” Press Release, April 18, 2002, ILO/02/17.

    [210] International Committee of Free Trade Unions, “Saudi Arabia: Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights (2003).”

    [211] Ibid.

    [212] “Definition of Discrimination,” General Comment No. 14, paragraph 2, adopted March 17, 1993, A/48/18, p.114; HRI/GEN/1Rev.3, p.108.

    [213] Rodolfo C. Estimo, Jr., “National Labor Committee to Represent Kingdom at ILO,” Arab News, February 29, 2004.

    [214] Ibid.

    [215] Ibid.

    [216] For example, the ILO’s annual International Labor Conference, held in Geneva in June 2004, is designed to accommodate a diversity of voices.  On its web site, the ILO described the annual conference this way: “Each member State is represented by a delegation consisting of two government delegates, an employer delegate, a worker delegate, and their respective advisers. (Employer and Worker delegates are nominated in agreement with the most representative national organizations of employers and workers.) Every delegate has the same rights, and all can express themselves freely and vote as they wish. So it happens that worker and employer delegates sometimes vote against their government's representatives or against each other. This diversity of viewpoints, however, does not prevent decisions being adopted by very large majorities, or in some cases even unanimously. Many of the government representatives are cabinet ministers responsible for labour affairs in their own countries. Heads of State and prime ministers also take the floor at the Conference. International organizations, both governmental and others, attend as observers.” 

    [217] Para. 36, CERD report, August 28, 2001.

    [218] Article 84, paragraphs 1-6.

    [219] Article 173.

    [220] Ibid.

    [221] Within fifteen days of a worker’s termination, he or she must submit a complaint to a government labor office. If the labor office cannot settle the case amicably, it is submitted to a primary commission. If a worker obtains a stay, “the employer will have to pay the worker with a sum equivalent to his pay from the date of his discharge.”  Migrants Advisory Information System (MAIS), “Country Profile, Saudi Arabia,” Commission on Overseas Filipinos Department of Foreign Affairs, Republic of the Philippines,

    [222] Article 176 of the labor law states that "the Supreme Commission shall have exclusive jurisdiction to render final and definitive decisions in all disputes referred to it on appeal and shall likewise be competent to impose upon the violators of the provisions of this Law the penalties prescribed herein."

    [223] Article 175.

    [224] Article 179.

    [225] Article 175.

    [226] There were reportedly thirty-seven labor offices countrywide as of 2001, according to the Saudi labor ministry.

    [227] Human Rights Watch interview with then-Minister of Labor and Social Affairs Dr. Ali al-Namlah, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2003.

    [228] Ibid.

    [229] The Philippine Overseas Labor Office (POLO) describes itself as “the operating arm and overseas representative of the Department of Labor and Employment. It is attached as the Labor Section of the Philippine Embassy or Consulate.”

    [230] Human Rights Watch inteview, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 23, 2003.

    [231] Human Rights Watch interview with Talmiz Ahmad, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, January 25, 2003.

    [232] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, “Saudi Arabia,” Country Reports on Human Rights Practices -- 2003, February 25, 2004.

    [233] Tariq A.Al-Maeena, “Labor and the Law,” Arab News, February 8, 2003.

    [234] K.S. Ramkumar, “Escaping from their clutches,” Arab News, April 4, 2002. 

    [235] Human Rights Watch interview, Moura, Dohar, Bangladesh, May 16, 2003.

    [236] The cost of the visa was 125,000 taka, about $2,184.

    [237] Human Rights Watch interview, Bancharampur, Bangladesh, January 16, 2004.

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