II. Methodology

This report is based on research conducted over two years, including field research and meetings with government officials in Saudi Arabia in March 2008 and December 2006, and in Sri Lanka in November 2007 and October-November 2006. The research in Saudi Arabia took place as part of visits by Human Rights Watch delegations by invitation of the Saudi government and hosted by the Saudi Human Rights Commission.

In addition to our field research, we analyzed existing laws and regulations, reviewed press reports, and examined studies by the Saudi government, international organizations, and civil society. Although we were able at times to obtain data and copies of regulations through requests to the governments of Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, and India, there are also several requests for information that we made repeatedly and to which we never received a response. Consequently, there may be some gaps where we were unable to obtain original legal documents or the most updated government statistics.

In a notable incident, a Human Rights Watch researcher visited the Ministry of Social Affairs (MOSA) center for domestic workers in Riyadh on December 6, 2006. Despite promises of an open visit in which the researcher could examine the facilities and interview sheltered domestic workers freely, we have been reliably informed that the staff temporarily transferred several hundred women from the facilities so that the shelter would appear to only have a few dozen residents. In addition, they transferred all residents who had been at the shelter for longer than a few days, presumably to hide the actual conditions in which women are kept for several weeks or months in extremely overcrowded facilities.3

A central aspect of our methodology included in-depth interviews with domestic workers who were currently working in Saudi Arabia or had recently terminated their employment. We also conducted interviews with recruitment agents, members of civil society, and government officials, some of whom also spoke from the perspective of being employers of domestic workers. We were unable to find employers willing to participate in a formal interview with Human Rights Watch but we engaged in informal conversations with many employers about their experiences in hiring a domestic worker and their attitudes towards common practices regarding domestic workers, such as keeping their passports.

For the purposes of this report, we have not examined the working conditions of household workers such as drivers and gardeners, but have focused on women employed inside the home as nannies, housekeepers, and caretakers for the elderly and sick.

The domestic workers interviewed are not necessarily representative of all domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, but instead highlight the experiences of those who have suffered abuse, the regulatory framework that exposes them to such abuse, and the response of the Saudi authorities to their individual cases. The majority of the domestic workers we interviewed in Saudi Arabia are from among those who sought government assistance for unpaid wages, immigration problems, or other issues. Those interviewed in Sri Lanka involved a broader spectrum of experiences, including any domestic worker who had returned from Saudi Arabia in the previous year. Our interviewees included:

Domestic workers: Human Rights Watch conducted in-depth, individual interviews with 86 female migrant domestic workers between 17 and 52 years old. The majority of women were between 22 and 35 years old.

  • We interviewed 64 domestic workers in Saudi Arabia: 20 Sri Lankans, 20 Filipinas, 22 Indonesians and two Nepalese. Interviews took place in Riyadh and Jeddah in embassy shelters, the Saudi government MOSA shelter for domestic workers in Riyadh, and in private homes. We interviewed 54 domestic workers in December 2006 and 13 domestic workers in March 2008, including three of the same women we interviewed in 2006.
  • We interviewed 22 recently returned domestic workers in Sri Lanka in November 2006. We conducted our research in seven of the eight main districts that send migrant women abroad. Interviews took place in private homes, labor recruitment agencies, pre-departure training centers, and the Colombo airport shelter for returning workers.

We also conducted four group interviews with domestic workers in Saudi Arabia in December 2006 and March 2008, and monitored dozens of abuse cases through contacts with NGOs in labor-sending countries, embassy officials in Saudi Arabia, and press reports.

In some cases, we could not independently verify specific details of some of the abuse recounted to us, but given the recurring patterns and the convergence of accounts around specific experiences recounted by interviewees who would not have been in contact with one another, we have no reason to doubt their credibility.

Recruitment agents: Human Rights Watch conducted eight individual and group interviews with 13 labor recruitment agents. We have continued correspondence with some of these agents via email and phone after the initial interviews.

  • Six Saudi labor agents at a group interview at the Chamber of Commerce, Riyadh, in December 2006.
  • Seven Sri Lankan labor agents (specializing in Saudi Arabia) in Colombo and Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, in November 2006 and November 2007.

Government officials: Human Rights Watch conducted 39 individual and group interviews with government officials.

  • Sixteen individual and group interviews with Saudi government officials in December 2006 and March 2008, including the ministers and other senior officials from the Ministries of Labor, Social Welfare, and Foreign Affairs; officials from the Ministry of Interior, Al Hair Prison, and police officials designated to deal with domestic worker cases; and commissioners from the Saudi Human Rights Commission.
  • Seventeen individual and group interviews with embassy and consular officials for the Indonesian, Filipino, Sri Lankan, Nepalese, and Indian missions in Riyadh and Jeddah in December 2006 and March 2008, including ambassadors, labor attaches, legal counsel, and social welfare officers.
  • Six individual and group interviews with senior officials from the Sri Lanka Ministry of Foreign Employment, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Labor, and the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment in Colombo in November 2006 and November 2007.

Civil society: Human Rights Watch interviewed seven activists in Saudi Arabia in December 2006 and March 2008, including individuals involved with informal networks to assist abused domestic workers.

Our interviews with domestic workers typically lasted approximately 45 minutes to one-and-a-half hours, and involved questions about their reasons for migration, the recruitment process, their working conditions, treatment from their employers, and the response of the Saudi government and their own country in cases of abuse. Depending on the worker’s spoken languages, we conducted interviews with interpretation between English and Arabic, Bahasa Indonesia, Sinhala, Tamil, and Tagalog, or in English itself. 

We only conducted interviews after obtaining informed consent from each interviewee, describing the work of Human Rights Watch, and explaining the purposes and advocacy plans of the research and report. No monetary or other assistance was provided in exchange for the interviews and interviewees had the right to decline the interview or stop it at any time.

To ensure the safety and anonymity of the women with whom we spoke, we have used pseudonyms for the majority of domestic workers interviewed. In some cases, domestic workers explicitly requested or provided permission to use their real names. Many of the officials we interviewed from the foreign missions of labor-sending countries provided detailed information conditional on our withholding their identities to avoid jeopardizing their countries’ diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.

3 Human Rights Watch interviews with officials from labor-sending countries, December 2006 and March 2008; Indrani P., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006; and Luz B., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, March 11, 2008.