XI. Labor-sending Countries’ Protection Measures and Gaps

I called the agent, and I called the embassy, only the embassy answered me to give me hope or a solution….  I wish the embassy could do more or better. The government of Indonesia should fight. I wish the embassy could be strict with the Saudi people. All the procedures are moving very slowly.

—Sri H., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006

I am a diplomat, not a social worker.

—Embassy official J from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, March 10, 2008

In the face of restrictive immigration policies that leave migrant women stranded, and the absence of effective local redress mechanisms for victims of abuse, the foreign missions of labor-sending countries play a critical role in providing shelter, services, and legal aid to domestic workers. As discussed in the “Scale of Abuses” section of Chapter III, above, foreign missions handle thousands of cases each year.312

Diplomats at the Philippines embassy noted that although domestic workers “account for 10-20 percent of the Filipinos [in Saudi Arabia], in terms of problems, they account for greater than 90 percent.”313 The ambassador at the Sri Lankan embassy told Human Rights Watch that there were 185 women in the shelter at the time of the interview. He also said he received almost 400 complaints and inquiries each week from Sri Lanka from current domestic workers’ families and returned domestic workers.314

The embassies of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal facilitate the repatriation of their nationals by verifying their nationality and preparing temporary travel documents that can be used in lieu of a passport. They also attempt to negotiate financial settlements between employers, domestic workers, and labor recruitment agents in cases of unpaid wages or lack of return tickets. Some missions have created safe houses to provide shelter for domestic workers pending their repatriation or for those who must wait months or years for the conclusion of criminal cases. Finally, these missions may provide access to legal assistance, interpretation, and medical care.

Several of the embassies have also attempted to improve their data collection and monitoring of domestic workers by authenticating contracts, tracking the names and addresses of employers, and blacklisting employers who have committed abuses. For example, one official said “those who commit abuses are blacklisted for five or ten years. For those who commit serious abuses, we blacklist them permanently.”315

Constraints to Working in Saudi Arabia

Diplomats from labor-sending countries may face many constraints, including the requirement for domestic workers to have an exit visa before they leave the country, lack of funds to pay for air tickets, and Saudi resistance to embassy safe houses. Officials from several embassies told Human Rights Watch that the existence of their safe houses was precarious, with the Saudi authorities only reluctantly permitting their operation. One official said, “We have no permit to operate the safe house….  They see the need, but won’t give us official recognition.”316

The onus of extricating domestic workers from situations of forced confinement falls on embassies, who receive calls from domestic workers seeking help, yet they cannot arrange such rescues without the cooperation of the Saudi police. In some cases, embassy staff team up with the police to rescue a worker locked inside the workplace. In cases without police cooperation, embassies tell domestic workers they must find a way to leave the house by themselves. Some domestic workers may never find the opportunity to escape or must turn to risky methods such as jumping out of windows. One domestic worker told us,

I was crying every day, thinking about it…. I spoke to the Sri Lankan embassy in Sinhala and they told me they cannot come in search of me. Instead, they told me that I should run away and come to the embassy. I did not run away because I was scared.317

Those who do escape risk abuse en route to the embassy from individuals purporting to assist them, or arrest and deportation for moving around unaccompanied and without their identity documents. On the other side, embassies face political pressure and must struggle against a commonly held notion among Saudi employers and authorities that embassies encourage migrant domestic workers to run away. The minister of social affairs, Dr. Abd al-Muhsin al-`Akkas, told Human Rights Watch, “Foreign embassies go out of their way to rent safe houses to encourage workers to run away and then the embassies rent them out to new employers for a commission.”318 Another embassy official recalled that “in the past, the regular police would attempt to close the safe house down, now they are used to it.”319

Given the embassies’ role as a refuge for domestic workers fleeing their employment, they must remain accessible even on weekends and during the night, as these are the most likely times when a domestic worker can escape. Sections of the Philippines embassy remain open on Thursday and Friday for assistance to domestic workers who may escape on the weekend. In contrast, the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh did not have a 24-hour security guard available, so when the embassy was closed, a domestic worker arriving in distress could be stranded on the street. This is a particularly risky situation in Saudi Arabia for a woman both unaccompanied by a male guardian, and who has violated immigration laws by “running away” from her sponsor.

Lack of Resources and Uneven Response

The only thing that makes me sad is the time I spend on clerical, administrative work, answering calls, handling visitors, air tickets, etc. I cannot do the group therapeutic sessions, I am a social worker, this is my forte, I would love to do this. But I can’t because of all the administrative duties.

—Social worker, Philippines embassy safe house, Riyadh, December 7, 2006

Embassies often represent the only advocate a domestic worker has to improve her access to redress, and have strengthened their services and capacity in recent years. However, most foreign missions remain understaffed to deal with the huge volume of complaints, and may not have specialized staff such as social workers or lawyers. They struggle, often falling short, to meet minimum requirements to provide temporary shelter, case management, and other services to domestic workers.

The quality of services varies between each diplomatic mission and often depends on the attitudes of the staff. While some are deeply dedicated to securing aid for their nationals, others are irritated or dismissive of domestic workers’ complaints. For example, one ambassador refused to use embassy funds to assist stranded domestic workers with payment of return tickets, saying, “We must have their money because I am strict. If I open the floodgates, we will be swamped.”320 He added, “Would you blame the Saudi employer if he doesn’t pay her for two years because otherwise she will run away and work for another?”321 

Foreign missions are only located in Riyadh and Jeddah, leaving migrant domestic workers in distant provinces particularly isolated. Diplomats frequently cited this problem, saying that, “Some domestic workers are in remote areas and do not have access to the embassy.”322 The response to such cases also requires increased time, staffing, and resources. One consular official said, “[for example,] a sexual harassment case happens in the western region, in the Aser region, 1200 kilometers away. If the lady complains … we have to send people 1200 kilometers to coordinate to arrange her escape and bring her to Jeddah. We have to file a case in Abha.”323

Embassy staff may assist the domestic worker to liaise with the police and the court system in criminal cases and can help provide legal aid to those facing criminal charges. Embassy staff must identify and provide travel documents for domestic workers in deportation proceedings. While the Philippines government has generally secured legal aid for workers with criminal charges against them, the Sri Lankan and Indonesian governments have been inconsistent in their provision of assistance.

Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan teenager sentenced to the death penalty for the alleged killing of a child in her care, did not have access to legal aid during the two years of her trial until the international outcry after her sentencing (see above). A senior official from the Sri Lankan embassy told us, “In the Rizana Nafeek case, it would cost 50,000 riyals [US$13,000] to study the case appeal. Fifty thousand riyals. Is it worth it to spend on criminals?”324 Amanthi K., a Sri Lankan worker who became pregnant after being raped by her employer, was sentenced to prison for extramarital sexual relations and said, “Nobody came to see me in prison after that day in court.  The embassy and the lawyer gave me no way to contact them.”325

Embassies’ advocacy on behalf of their nationals, including investigation and documentation of abuse, has been uneven. While some domestic workers reported a full cataloguing of their experiences, others said they had prominent bruises yet neither the police nor embassy staff documented these bruises through photographs. For example, Ani R. said, “I used to have scars from the beatings….  During my stay in the shelter, the scars have gone away. Nobody took photographs here. The beatings caused scars, redness on my wrists and my back.”326 One embassy official showed a cavalier and negligent attitude towards cases of sexual abuse, saying, “Unless they are pregnant, we don’t ask too much. That is the information that is needed…. If she is not pregnant, then a case of sexual harassment is not useful to us.”327

Understaffing arose as a constraint in interviews with staff from each of the foreign missions interviewed by Human Rights Watch. Lack of female staff to work with women domestic workers, particularly in the safe houses and as social workers, was a significant gap in staffing. One male official said, “According to our culture, a man cannot ask a woman directly about sexual abuse.”328 A diplomat noted the obstacles for female staff, saying, “It is not easy for a woman to work in Saudi without proper guardianship. If we wish to meet officially, it is better if we send male staff, there are no limitations.”329 Human Rights Watch interviewed several domestic workers who had suffered egregious physical and psychological abuse, but who had no professional mental health care despite months or years-long stays in their embassy safe houses.

Many domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch in embassy shelters complained that they had little information about their cases and how long they would have to wait to resolve their travel documents, outstanding wage claims, criminal cases, or return ticket purchases. Without information about the process or regular updates about their case, domestic workers are unable to make fully informed decisions and are often highly depressed or anxious while waiting in the shelters. Dian W., an Indonesian domestic worker, said,

They just give promises and promises that I will go, but it has been a year and nothing has happened….  At least they could inform me on what level is my case….  No one is looking out for me. At least I should have an explanation, whether I get justice or not. I want to go home and work and raise my child.330

Significant diversity exists among the foreign missions’ provision of temporary shelter. For example, the shelter for the Filipino embassy had bunk beds for the residents and a compound where they can move around freely and enjoy fresh air. In contrast, a Human Rights Watch researcher visiting the Indonesian shelter found approximately 200 women sleeping in overcrowded rooms infested with cockroaches and mice. The shelter has capacity for fewer than 100 people. Approximately 200 domestic workers at the Sri Lankan safe house in Riyadh slept on the floor and were largely restricted to the second floor of the shelter. The women shared only two bathrooms and reported they could bathe only once or twice a week.  A Sri Lankan domestic worker, at the Saudi MOSA shelter at the time of the interview, said, “[At the embassy] there is no place to sleep, we cannot walk around. In the embassy, it’s terrible.”331 The Nepalese embassy has no safe house for domestic workers and makes only ad hoc arrangements for them.

Aside from food, shelters may not provide other necessary items, such as feminine hygiene products or childcare items. Dian W., who had a baby after being raped by her employer and who had been in the Indonesian embassy safe house for a year when we met her, said it was hard to get hot water for her child. She began to weep as she said,

If anyone is sick, it is difficult to go to the hospital because they need a letter from the embassy or a letter from the police. My baby has a cough and cold….  I have to manage on my own. There has been no check up for the baby after birth. It is very hard to buy cheap medicine, even to buy diapers is very hard because it is very expensive. If someone is going home, they give me ten riyals. It costs 55 riyals to buy diapers. The embassy does not pay for diapers. I get nothing from the embassy.332

Arbitration of Labor Disputes by Foreign Missions

When the embassy staff called my employer, he said, “If she wants to go to the Philippines, she can go to the deportation center.” They won’t give me an exit visa, my passport, or my salary. The embassy staff always calls my employers, but they don’t answer. They don’t want to come here, because maybe they are afraid.

—Sandra C., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006

Given the limited redress mechanisms for domestic workers to recover unpaid wages in Saudi Arabia, embassies’ labor sections have begun to arbitrate many of these disputes themselves. Embassy staff collect information about a domestic worker’s complaint and attempt to get in touch with her recruitment agency and employer. Typically, they call an employer to the embassy to turn over the domestic worker’s identity documents and belongings, and to recover unpaid wages and money for a ticket home. One official told us, “We call the employer and ask him to improve the bad behavior. We threaten that we will report him. If the dispute is settled, she can go back to work. Usually they don’t want to release her.”333

These labor negotiations may have several different outcomes. A significant barrier to pursuing redress is that many domestic workers, confined inside the workplace and constrained by language barriers, lack basic information such as their employers’ full names, addresses, and contact information. For example, Wati S. described the plight of many domestic workers when she said, “I don’t know my employer’s phone number or address. I just called him Mr. Hassan.”334 Sisi R. has been waiting at the embassy for 11 months to receive the six years of salary owed her by her employers. In order to track the employer down, embassy staff and Saudi police asked her to direct them to the employer’s home. She said, "We have tried this process six times … I get lost on the way, I cannot find the home.”335

While the Saudi immigration department and embassies of labor-sending countries should have employer information from the initial processing of workers’ visas, in many cases officials are unable to track this data down. Human Rights Watch was unable to secure a meeting with the Saudi immigration department and did not receive responses to several written information requests to learn more about this issue. An official from the Ministry of Labor said that in some cases domestic workers did not provide their real names because they were afraid about the consequences of having run away from their employers.336 Several embassy officials explained that their records only show which workers were given authorization to come to Saudi Arabia, but they do not have the dates or confirmation of entry into the country. Saudi Arabia and labor-sending countries need improved coordination and a better database that tracks the name, address, and contact information for each employer and worker. Otherwise, officials are unable to locate employers to settle labor disputes or file criminal charges.

Even when embassies are able to contact an employer, negotiations to resolve unpaid wages or tickets often result in financial settlements that reflect the power disparity of a worker’s word against her employers, and the lack of authority and enforcement power a foreign mission has over a Saudi national. Both embassy officials and domestic workers complained about situations in which employers refused to even come to the embassy to discuss wage disputes. A senior consular official in Jeddah said, “I can count on one hand how many times employers came after one call.”337

Given an employer’s ability to withhold permission for a worker’s exit visa or transfer to another job, they have tremendous bargaining power when settling wage disputes. Sri H. said, “They have tried to get my nine months’ salary and ticket, but my sponsor doesn’t answer.”338 Latha P. said,

Baba kept saying that he paid my salary. The embassy people told the police, “If you claim she has been paid her salary, then she should have been paid in front of us.” They kept on insisting they paid my salary, they said I was lying. Now I have given up and I told the embassy people, “Put me in another house so that I can earn money for a ticket.” Sir tried, but can’t because Baba has given a written statement that I can’t work in another house.339

The current process often leads to domestic workers having to accept whatever amount the employer is willing to offer. Indrani P. recounted her negotiation process, “They gave me six months’ salary all at once, but not the remaining two months. They gave me the salary and scolded me. They said, ‘Shut up and take what we give you.’”340 Some nationals complain that their foreign missions do not advocate effectively on their behalves. An NGO activist told Human Rights Watch, “The staff tell domestic workers to accept the settlements or the whole case will be lost. But it’s not true, if they don’t agree, they can take the case forward.”341

In many cases, the embassy’s attempts to recover wages drag on and domestic workers are desperate to return home. Having been apart from their families for a long period, sometimes traumatized from their work experience, and under financial pressure to resume working, domestic workers often feel they have no choice but to forego their full wages and pay their return ticket themselves. An official from a labor-sending country said, “We get pressure from the family, the Saudi government and the girl herself. She cries that she wants to go home without her back pay. Usually there is a compromise. We’re thankful just to get the money for her ticket home and her safety.”342 Marjorie L. told us, “I was willing to buy my own ticket, but I needed an exit visa and my passport. So the [consulate] called my first employer and they said, you should get your salary. They helped me file a case. I didn’t want any case, it has been two months now, and I am still here. [The consular official] said, ‘No, we need to get the money.’ I want to go back to the Philippines if I can swim, walk, or fly—because I want to see my baby.”343 

In some cases, domestic workers return home without their full salaries and then send requests to the embassy to help them recover their wages. “Most commonly, five or six months after arrival, they wait and expect their employer to send money. We will try to settle that,” an embassy official said.344 Once the domestic worker has left the country, employers are even less likely to respond to embassy efforts to resolve cases of unpaid wages and other disputes.

312 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy officials from labor-sending countries, Riyadh, December 2006.

313 Human Rights Watch interview with Filipino embassy officials, Riyadh, December 2006.

314 Human Rights Watch interview with A.M.J. Sadiq, ambassador, Embassy of Sri Lanka, Riyadh, December 2006.

315 Human Rights Watch interview with an Indonesian embassy official who requested anonymity, Riyadh, November 2006.

316 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official P from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, March 8, 2008.

317 Human Rights Watch interview with Jayanadani A., returned domestic worker, Kandy, Sri Lanka, November 10, 2006.

318 Human Rights Watch interview with Dr. Abd al-Muhsin al-`Akkas, Riyadh, December 2, 2006.

319 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official P from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, December 3, 2006.

320 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official C from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, December 4, 2006.

321 Ibid.

322 Human Rights Watch interviews with embassy and consular officials from labor-sending countries, Riyadh and Jeddah, December 2006 and March 2008.

323 Human Rights Watch interview with consular official E from a labor-sending country, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

324 Human Rights Watch interview with a Sri Lankan embassy official, Riyadh, December 2006.

325 Human Rights Watch interview with Amanthi K., returned domestic worker, Katunayake, Sri Lanka, November 1, 2006.

326 Human Rights Watch interview with Ani R., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.

327 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official J from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, March 10, 2008.

328 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official N from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, March 10, 2008.

329 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official A from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, November 29, 2006.

330 Human Rights Watch interview with Dian W., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 11, 2008.

331 Human Rights Watch group interview with Sri Lankan domestic workers, MOSA center, Riyadh, December 6, 2006.

332 Human Rights Watch interview with Dian W., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 11, 2008.

333 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official A from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, November 29, 2006.

334 Human Rights Watch interview with Wati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

335 Human Rights Watch interview with Sisi R., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 11, 2008.

336 Human Rights Watch interview with Fawzi Al-Dahan, March 10, 2008.

337 Human Rights Watch interview with consular official E from a labor-sending country, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

338 Human Rights Watch interview with Sri H., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.

339 Human Rights Watch interview with Latha P., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

340 Human Rights Watch interview with Indrani P., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

341 Human Rights Watch interview with Daniel S., Filipino migrant worker and activist, March 8, 2008.

342 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official J from a labor-sending country Riyadh, December 13, 2006.

343 Human Rights Watch interview with Marjorie L., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

344 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official A from a labor-sending country, Riyadh, November 29, 2006.