III. Asian Women’s Labor Migration to Saudi Arabia

Domestic workers have become a conspicuous consumption item.

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

Women comprise half of all migrants worldwide. Migration from certain Asian countries has become particularly feminized, with 50-80 percent of documented migrants from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka newly hired or working abroad being women, the majority migrating as domestic workers to the Middle East and other parts of Asia.4 A combination of push and pull factors contribute to the growing ranks of Asian migrant workers in the Middle East.

According to the International Monetary Fund, “For many developing countries, remittances constitute the single largest source of foreign exchange, exceeding export revenues, foreign direct investment (FDI), and other private capital inflows.”5 For example, Filipino migrant workers, who include many women working in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf as domestic workers, sent home US$15.2 billion in 2006—13 percent of the country’s GDP.6

Remittances have grown steadily over the past three decades and the World Bank estimated that migrant workers from developing countries sent $240 billion home in 2007.7  Migrants in Saudi Arabia sent home $15.6 billion in 2006, approximately 5 percent of Saudi Arabia’s GDP, making Saudi Arabia the world’s second largest remittance sender after the United States.8

According to Saudi Arabia’s General Statistics department, over 8 million migrants work in the kingdom. 9 They comprise roughly one-third of Saudi Arabia’s population of 24.7 million.10 Indonesia, India, and the Philippines each contribute over one million workers to Saudi Arabia and more than 600,000 come from Sri Lanka. They sustain the Saudi economy by filling critical gaps and needed skills in the health, construction, domestic service, and business sectors.

Estimates of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia vary widely, given a lack of publicly available data and the difficulty in tracking some workers: employers do not always obtain a national identity card (iqama) for domestic workers, one of the mechanisms to monitor the numbers of workers in the country. According to press reports, official Saudi figures indicate that around 20,000 domestic workers arrive in the kingdom every month on employment visas, but the Indonesian embassy said that it alone approves 15,000 such new contracts per month.11 An association of Saudi recruitment agencies estimated they bring in 30-40,000 domestic workers per month.12

The Saudi Ministry of Labor provided Human Rights Watch with official figures of 1.2 million household workers in Saudi Arabia, including domestic workers, drivers, and gardeners. According to these figures, 480,000 are registered as domestic workers.13 However, the deployment statistics of women domestic workers from countries of origin suggest the figures exceed one million domestic workers. Indonesia estimates approximately 600,000 domestic workers in Saudi Arabia,14 Sri Lanka recorded approximately 275,000 documented workers,15 and the Philippines recorded 200,000.16 Estimates in the press attempt to capture the number of undocumented workers as well and typically place the national figure at two million domestic workers. In the wake of recruitment agreements signed in late 2007 and early 2008 with Nepal and Vietnam, domestic workers arriving from these countries may increase. Saudi Arabia also hosts smaller numbers of domestic workers from other countries, including India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.17

Asian Women’s Status and Reasons for Migration

I was living in a very small hut that I made out of cloth, and my husband was jobless and I had five children to look after.  Due to poverty and financial problems I decided to go abroad to earn an income…. I looked for a job [in Sri Lanka], but I did not find any….  During the rainy days we sometimes did not have food to eat.

—Noor F., a repeat Sri Lankan migrant domestic worker to the Middle East, Gampaha, Sri Lanka, November 8, 2006

Women and girls’ unequal status profoundly influences their access to education and employment and drives many to migrate to survive. The Indonesian, Filipino, and Sri Lankan governments have mixed records protecting women’s rights, and gender-based discrimination and violence remain serious problems.18 Facing poverty and limited job opportunities in their home countries, women in Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and other sending countries must often seek employment overseas.

Women’s status varies widely within and across the three countries. All three countries have experienced progress in recent decades and vibrant women’s rights movements have raised awareness, catalyzed provision of support services, and initiated policy reform on discrimination and gender-based violence. Girls’ education rates have dramatically increased, and in all three countries, boys’ and girls’ primary and secondary school enrollment are approximately equal.19

Violence against women and girls occurs in all three countries and takes many forms, including domestic violence, trafficking, and sexual violence. Several factors create barriers to seeking redress through the criminal justice systems in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka. Law enforcement officials are often inadequately trained to handle gender-based violence cases and methods for collecting evidence. Survivors may not report cases due to social stigma, fear of retaliation, and lack of information about their rights.

Gender inequality still manifests itself in higher education, labor force participation, and earning power.20 Women’s average earned income is only 41-61 percent of men’s average earned income in all three countries, as shown in Table 1, below.

The striking differences between men’s and women’s income is attributable to several factors, including the concentration of women in less regulated industries and the fact that women confront social and cultural barriers to entering higher paying, male-dominated industries. Government and private sector lack of commitment to affordable child care, maternity benefits, sexual harassment policies, and protections against gender discrimination in hiring also affect women’s labor force participation and earning power.

Table 1: Estimated Earned Income for Men and Women in 200521


Earned income, female ($)

Earned income, male ($)

Ratio of women’s earnings to men’s earnings (%)









Sri Lanka




While some women sought new experiences and adventure, most migrant women interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they migrated out of desperation, not out of unconstrained choice. Chandrika M., a 45-year-old Sri Lankan woman preparing to migrate for the ninth time, said,

I’m crying inside my heart. I think that it is foolish to migrate when I remember my little girl…. If I can solve my financial problems this time, I will never migrate again…. If we have no money, we have no other choice but to go abroad. The government has to get rid of this poverty.22

Yuniarti, an Indonesian migrant, said, “I hope the next generation does not have to come here to work in Saudi Arabia. I hope they just come for pilgrimage….  The [government] should make employment opportunities in Indonesia.”23 Some women that Human Rights Watch interviewed also migrated to escape domestic violence.

More typically, domestic workers migrate to finance the education of their siblings or children, build or repair homes, earn money for daily necessities, or to repay loans for health care or business losses. For example, Farzana M., a Sri Lankan migrant, said, “I needed money [to regain] our house: we had a debt of Rs. 70,000 [$625] to pay. My husband wanted me to come to Saudi Arabia. He said, ‘If you can earn enough money, we can get the house back.’ I had to come to pay the debt, there was no [other] choice.”24 Adelina Y. started crying when she told Human Rights Watch, “I am a single mother and I want my kids to go to school and to help my family. I came here [to Saudi Arabia] because I want money, but it wasn’t good for me.”25 Hemanthi J.’s husband forced her to migrate. She said, “I didn’t want to come to Saudi, but my husband forced me to come….  He said, ‘Go abroad and earn money so we can get our own house.’”26

In some cases, even highly educated women were unable to earn enough money in their home country and resorted to domestic work abroad to pay their bills. Marilou R., a Filipina domestic worker whose Saudi employer later failed to pay her wages said, “I have a BS [Bachelors degree in Science] in Agriculture, in Crop Science. I was a technician in Mindanao. Yes I enjoyed it so much, I earned 5,000 pesos [$107]. [I migrated because] I have a nephew who had heart failure. Every month we need 10,000 pesos [$214] for his heart medicine.”27

Many women encounter returned migrants who have been successful in earning money overseas, and compare their earning capacity at home to potential income abroad. In one such case, Krishnan S. said, “I think working abroad is better [than working on a tea estate] because in two months I can earn 20,000 rupees [$179], but if I work on an estate, they deduct for this and that, and I will get 2,000 or 3,000 rupees [$18-27].”28

Women make the decision to migrate not once, but many times. Confronted with relentless financial pressures, most migrants and their families found it difficult to save, and after finishing a two-year contract, women faced the same expenses that led them to migrate initially. Human Rights Watch interviewed women who had migrated as many as 14 times as a domestic worker. Krishnan S., mentioned above, said, “I managed to buy a television and radio, managed to send money to my house for daily expenses like looking after my daughter and meals, and I managed to buy some gold jewelry.  Now I have to feed four people and pay the electricity bill, that’s why I’m planning to go abroad again after giving birth.”29

As will be discussed later in more detail, some women and girls migrate involuntarily through deception or coercion in cases that amount to trafficking.

Women’s Status in Saudi Arabia

Women from Indonesia, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka often enjoy a greater degree of freedom and range of rights in their home countries than their female Saudi employers. Migrant women may be unfamiliar with and shocked by restrictions on their dress, freedom of movement, interaction with unrelated men, and freedom of religion. For example, Journey L. said, “You have left your loved ones to earn some money for a living….  Then when you come here, you will be shocked by the culture. You arrive from an open country … and here you are not allowed to talk to men. You know you have to wear an abaya, but you cannot adjust to it immediately, to wear it every time even when in a hurry. And it feels dangerous to walk alone.”30

Systemic discrimination against Saudi women denies them equal access to employment, health care, public participation, equality before the law, and a range of other rights. The UN ranked Saudi Arabia 92nd out of 93 evaluated countries with respect to gender empowerment, an indicator determined by women’s participation in economic and political life.31 Saudi women’s low and unequal status affects migrant women’s rights and treatment as domestic workers. Strict gender segregation exacerbates their isolation and confinement in the workplace.

Saudi government policy and societal practices tightly circumscribe women’s rights by requiring adult women to obtain permission from male guardians to work, travel, study, marry, receive health care, or access many public services. The government, religious institutions, and society treat women as legal minors and exercise inordinate control over their daily lives and activities. The government enforces strict gender segregation, including through the mutawwa’ (religious police). Most offices, restaurants, shopping malls, and private homes maintain separate spaces for men and women.

Saudi women confront barriers to redress through the criminal justice system. Given prevailing norms of sex segregation, Saudi women are often hesitant to walk into a police station as all police officers are male. Saudi Arabia criminalizes contact between unmarried individuals of the opposite sex, putting rape victims at risk of prosecution for “illegal mingling” or forbidden extramarital sexual relations if they cannot meet the strict evidentiary standards to prove rape. In the high-profile Qatif case, a court not only convicted a gang-rape victim of “illegal mingling” and blamed her for going out alone, but doubled her sentence to six months imprisonment and 200 lashes for reaching out to the media.32 King Abdullah pardoned the young woman after an international outcry, but the Saudi system continues to impose formidable obstacles to seeking justice in cases of sexual assault.

A 2008 Human Rights Watch report, “Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia,” discusses these women’s rights violations and the system of male guardianship for adult women in greater detail. 33

Scale of Abuses

I will admit that a lot of violations and inhumane treatment takes place. If I tell you I know the figure I would be lying. The only thing I know is that those cases that come to our attention are punished.

¾ Dr. Ghazi al-Qusaibi, minister of labor, Riyadh, December 3, 2006

Contracts are not clear, agents in KSA [Saudi Arabia] are lousy and dishonest….  Some employers treat domestic workers like slaves, some treat them like members of their families. We have to face it.

¾ Dr. Abd al-Muhsin al-`Akkas, minister of social affairs, Riyadh, December 2, 2006

In interviews with Human Rights Watch and with the press, officials from the Saudi Ministries of Labor and Social Affairs maintain that most employers treat their domestic workers well, even as members of their families. They claim that only a small number of domestic workers confront abuse and that these cases are handled appropriately through the courts. One labor official said, “Torture is not normal….  The majority of cases receive good treatment. There may be one case of murder, one case of beating, but not the majority.”34

Estimating the prevalence of abuse is difficult, and underreporting is likely given the isolation of domestic workers in private homes, the power of employers to directly repatriate domestic workers before they can seek help, and the socially and legally sanctioned nature of some abuses, such as restrictions on movement or excessively long working hours. Human Rights Watch interviewed domestic workers in their home countries who had suffered abuse in Saudi Arabia but never had the opportunity to obtain assistance.35 Such cases are also documented in the countries of origin by state foreign employment departments, nongovernmental organizations, and local media.

While no data exist to estimate the exact number of domestic workers who confront abuse, available information suggests it is a significant problem. The most common types of abuses are those that are socially sanctioned and unregulated. For instance, even domestic workers who report being “happy” in their jobs may face having their passports held by their employers, working excessively long hours with no rest day, and not being paid for overtime. Greater research is required to determine the prevalence of these types of working conditions, but existing information suggests they are widespread.

Given the current legal framework, often only egregious cases involving unpaid wages, physical abuse, sexual harassment and abuse, or immigration problems reach the authorities. Human Rights Watch could not obtain a reliable estimate of how many such cases the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs handles, but it operates a shelter in Riyadh, discussed later in the report, that processes several thousand domestic worker cases each year.

The embassy of Indonesia in Riyadh reported that it handled 3,687 complaints in 2006 and 3,428 complaints in 2007.36 These are aggregated separately from the consulate in Jeddah, which handles an average of 20 complaints per day.37 Similarly, the Sri Lankan embassy in Riyadh handles 200-300 cases per month, and processed and repatriated 606 domestic workers between January 1 and March 11, 2008.38 The shelter for Filipina domestic workers in Riyadh housed 1,129 women in 2007 and the embassy of Nepal, with significantly fewer numbers of domestic workers in the country, handled 94 cases between August 2007 and March 2008.39

4 Philippines Overseas Employment Administration, “OFW Global Presence: A Compendium of Overseas Employment Statistics 2006,” (accessed May 29, 2008); Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, “Estimated Stock of Sri Lankan Overseas Contract Workers by Country 2006,” (accessed May 29, 2008); Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Perempuan/CARAM Indonesia, Indonesian Migrant Domestic Workers:  Their Vulnerabilities and New Initiatives for the Protection of Their Rights (Jakarta:  Komnas Perempuan and Solidaritas Perempuan/CARAM Indonesia, 2003), p. 9. 

5 International Monetary Fund, “Workers’ Remittances and Economic Development,” World Economic Outlook: Globalization and External Imbalances (Washington D.C.: IMF, 2005), pp. 69-84.

6 World Bank, Migration and Remittances Factbook, March 2008,,,contentMDK:21352016~isCURL:Y~menuPK:3145470~pagePK:64165401~piPK:64165026~theSitePK:476883,00.html (accessed April 9, 2008).

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 P.K. Abdul Ghafour , “Government Jobs for Saudi Women,” Arab News, May 29, 2007, (accessed May 30, 2007). 

10 United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision, Highlights,” Working Paper No. ESA/P/WP.202, 2007, (accessed June 10, 2008).

11 Mariam Al Hakeem, “Runaway maids face jail and flogging,” Gulf News, April 5, 2007;Human Rights Watch interview with  official  R, Embassy of Indonesia, Riyadh, November 29, 2006.

12 Human Rights Watch group interview with recruitment agents, National Committee of Saudi Recruitment Agencies, Saudi Chamber of Commerce, Riyadh, December 12, 2006.

13 Human Rights Watch interview with Fawzi Al-Dahan, general manager, Manpower Planning Department, Ministry of Labor, Riyadh, March 10, 2008.

14 The Indonesian embassy in Riyadh recorded 626,895 Indonesian workers in 2007, of whom 96 percent are domestic workers and drivers, but noted that the Saudi labor department recorded more than 980,000 Indonesian workers in total. Human Rights Watch interview with Sukamto Jalavadi, labor attaché, Embassy of Indonesia, Riyadh, March 2008.

15 Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, “Estimated Stock of Sri Lankan Overseas Contract Workers by Country 2006.”

16 Human Rights Watch group interview with Filipino embassy officials, Riyadh, March 2008.

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

18 For country-specific analyses of women’s rights violations and related government reforms, see This site contains government submissions to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) and the Committee’s concluding observations. The CEDAW Committee, comprised of independent experts, monitors the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), G.A. res. 34/180, 34 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No. 46) at 193, U.N. Doc. A/34/46, entered into force September 3, 1981.

19 World Bank, “Gender Stats: database of gender statistics,” updated regularly, (accessed August 20, 2007).

20 Ibid.

21 2005 is the most recent year for which data is available for comparison. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), “Human Development Report 2007/2008, Fighting climate change: Human solidarity in a divided world,” November 27, 2007, (accessed April 9, 2008). According to the UNDP, estimated earned income is derived on the basis of the ratio of the female non-agricultural wage to the male non-agricultural wage, the female and male shares of the economically active population, total female and male population, and GDP per capita (PPP $).

22 Human Rights Watch interview with Chandrika M., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, November 4, 2006.

23 Human Rights Watch interview with Yuniarti, Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, December 8, 2006.

24 Human Rights Watch interview with Farzana M., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

25 Human Rights Watch interview with Adelina Y., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

26 Human Rights Watch interview with Hemanthi J., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.

27 Human Rights Watch interview with Marilou R., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 10, 2006.

28 Human Rights Watch interview with Krishnan S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Maskeliya, Sri Lanka, November 13, 2006.

29 Ibid.

30 Human Rights Watch interview with Journey L., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, March 12, 2008.

31 UNDP, “Human Development Report 2007/2008.” The gender empowerment measure is a composite indicator that captures gender inequality in three areas: the extent of women's political participation, economic participation, and power over economic resources.

32 “Saudi Arabia: Rape Victim Punished for Speaking Out,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 17, 2007,; “Saudi Arabia: Ministry of Justice should Stop Targeting Rape Victim,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 29, 2007,

33 Human Rights Watch, Perpetual Minors: Human Rights Abuses Stemming from Male Guardianship and Sex Segregation in Saudi Arabia, 1-56432-307-2, April 2008,

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

35 This report explicitly features interviews Human Rights Watch took in Sri Lanka, but the general findings also reflect interviews taken in Indonesia in May 2006.

36 Human Rights Watch interview with Sukamto Jalavadi, labor attaché, Embassy of Indonesia, Riyadh, March 2008.

37 Human Rights Watch interview with Winardi Hanafi Lucky, vice consul, Consulate of Indonesia, Jeddah, December 2006.

38 Human Rights Watch interview with N.L.D. Abeyratne, counselor, Embassy of Sri Lanka, Riyadh, March 2008.

39 Human Rights Watch interviews with Rustico S.M. Dela Fuente, labor attaché, Embassy of the Philippines, Riyadh, March 2008, and Prakash Kumar, deputy chief of mission, Embassy of Nepal, March 2008.