V. Forced Labor, Trafficking, Slavery, and Slavery-like Conditions

Human Rights Watch documented a wide range of abuses against migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, including deception during recruitment, violations of freedom of movement, physical and sexual abuse, labor exploitation, and double victimization in the criminal justice system. Subsequent chapters will discuss all of these issues in greater detail. In some cases, domestic workers experienced several of these abuses simultaneously.

Human Rights Watch interviewed 36 women and girl domestic workers whose situations clearly amounted to forced labor, trafficking, slavery, or slavery-like conditions. The following case studies demonstrate how the multiple abuses domestic workers may experience during recruitment and employment can intersect to create these conditions.

No estimates exist regarding the number of such cases in Saudi Arabia, though these egregious abuses likely comprise a minority in comparison to more typical complaints involving delayed payment of wages and overwork. However, many cases of forced labor, trafficking, slavery, or slavery-like conditions are likely never to be identified or reported, due to the worker’s isolation, lack of information about her rights, and the employer’s ability to repatriate her at will.

International law proscribes forced labor, trafficking, and institutions and practices amounting or similar to slavery or servitude. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the ILO Forced Labor Convention, the Trafficking Protocol, the Slavery Convention, the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (Supplemental Slavery Convention), and the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court are the principal sources of international law that define and prohibit these practices.67 In 1962 then-King Faisal abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree.

Forced Labor

Nour Miyati

This was my third time migrating. The first time I was in Medina for four years. The second time I was in Ta’if for two years. My previous employers were good and provided my full salary.

[The third time in Riyadh], the wife of the employer beat me, she did not work. Everyday she beat me. She beat my head, so I would cover it with my hands. She hit my foot with her sharp high heels. Everyday she did this until my foot was injured. When I told the husband about his wife’s behavior, he also beat me. After she beat my hands and they became swollen, [they made me] wash my hands with … one whole cup of bleach. I felt very hurt and had a lot of pain. I never got enough food. After one year, they still had not paid my salary.

I never got a chance to rest, I woke up at 4 a.m., made breakfast for the children, I worked all day without rest. I went to sleep at 3 a.m. So many times I didn’t get a chance to sleep at night, I worked around the clock.

My employer had my passport. He is a policeman [a member of the National Guard]. I never got a chance to leave the house. They locked me in from the outside. When I had stayed there for one year, I got a chance to escape, it was a Thursday and I ran out. My condition was bad, my left eye couldn’t see, I was swollen all over. I got a taxi that took me to a police officer….  My employer came to the station and took me back. I refused, I said, “My employer is a bad person.” My employer said, “You haven’t finished your contract yet, it should be two years.”

When I reached the house, they beat me again. They beat my mouth and one tooth fell out [shows scar on her lip]. After that, they locked all the doors, only the bathroom door was unlocked. I was never allowed to go out, not even to throw out the garbage. They didn’t let me use the telephone. The situation got very bad. The husband and wife beat me every day, they never gave me medicine.

It got worse after I tried to run away….  In the last month I slept in the bathroom….  they put tape on my mouth so I couldn’t say anything because my employers didn’t want the neighbors to know about me.

I didn’t escape, I asked [my employer] to take me to the hospital because of my condition. First I had to promise not to tell about their behavior to me. They forced me to stay silent.

[A doctor identified the abuse and notified authorities. Nour Miyati then underwent intensive medical treatment over several months, including amputation of her fingers due to gangrene.

The criminal proceedings of her case have stretched over three years, while Nour Miyati has waited in the overcrowded Indonesian embassy shelter for its resolution. A Riyadh court initially convicted Nour Miyati of making false allegations, sentencing her to 79 lashes, but later overturned this decision. The court dropped charges against her male employer. It sentenced the female employer to 35 lashes for committing abuse, but on May 19, 2008, a judge also dropped the charges against the female employer. That judge still awarded Nour Miyati 2,500 riyals ($668) in compensation, a small fraction of the amounts typically awarded for the types of injuries sustained.68 The Indonesian embassy plans to appeal the latest judgment.]69

[crying] I just worry I cannot work because of my hands. I don’t know about my future.

¾Nour Miyati (real name used upon request), Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006, and March 11, 2008

According to the ILO Convention on Forced Labor, Number 29, forced or compulsory labor “shall mean 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.”70

The ILO elaborates examples of “menace of penalty” to include: “physical violence against a worker or close associates, physical confinement, financial penalties, denunciation to authorities (police, immigration) and deportation, dismissal from current employment, exclusion from future employment, and the removal of rights and privileges.”71 In the majority of Saudi Arabia forced labor cases we reviewed, employers confined domestic workers to the workplace, including by locking them in from the outside, and withheld their passports, placing them at risk of arrest and punishment if they escaped. As in the case of Nour Miyati, several employers committed or threatened physical violence, and punishments often increased in severity if the domestic worker attempted to escape.

Examples provided by the ILO of the involuntary nature of work include: physical confinement in the work location, psychological compulsion (order to work backed up by a credible threat of a penalty), induced indebtedness (by falsification of accounts, excessive interest charges, etc.), deception about types and terms of work, withholding and non-payment of wages, and retention of identity documents or other valuable personal possessions.72

We documented numerous cases of domestic workers whose experiences met these criteria. Saudi government officials, embassy officials, and domestic workers agree that as a standard practice employers retain domestic workers’ passports. Withholding and nonpayment of wages is the most common complaint presented by domestic workers to authorities. As will be discussed in more detail, many labor agents deceive domestic workers about the terms of their work.

Saudi Arabia’s requirement that domestic workers obtain their employers’ consent in order to receive the necessary clearance (“exit visa”) to leave the country greatly increases the risk of forced labor. Human Rights Watch interviewed several domestic workers who were forced to work for months, and in some cases, years, beyond their contracts, because their employers would not allow them to leave the country. This requirement and its consequences are discussed more fully in Chapter VI, below.

Even if migrant domestic workers have arrived in Saudi Arabia willingly and with full information, they may end up in situations of forced labor. The ILO notes that it is possible for workers to revoke freely given consent: “many victims enter forced labour situations initially of their own accord … only to discover later that they are not free to withdraw their labour. They are subsequently unable to leave their work owing to legal, physical or psychological coercion.”73 For example, many domestic workers in Saudi Arabia migrate voluntarily but end up in forced labor situations because their employers do not approve their exit visas to leave the country, withhold months or years of wages, or lock them in the workplace.


Ani R.

I married a Saudi, he’s a teacher. We married in Indonesia. He came to P.T. Sariwati [labor agency], he told the [labor agent] he was looking for a wife. I met him in the P.T., because [an intermediary] from Cianjur introduced us.

I met him at 5 p.m. and I married him at 12 o’clock at night….  I did it because I wanted to help my parents’ economic situation [starts crying]. He promised me 15 million rupiah [$1,636]74 before marriage, but the dowry was not given. He promised he would give it to me when I went with him to Saudi Arabia, that … he would send this money to my parents … via the person from Cianjur. [still crying]

My father received 6 million rupiah. I don’t know what happened to the other 9 million. When I got married, my husband took me to Saudi Arabia, and for the first month he was nice. Then … he treated me like a housekeeper and he beat me up….  My husband didn’t let me make phone calls or write letters.

When he asked me to marry him, he said he was unmarried. After we had sex, he told me he had two wives and six children. Each wife has three children. I wanted to go home when I heard that…. The labor agent in Indonesia knew that my husband was married and he still let me marry him. That Cianjur lady was working in his sister’s house as a maid [and had deceived me].

When [my husband] faced problems outside, he was angry at home. He would check the bookcase with a tissue to see if there was dust or not. If he saw dust, he grabbed my hair and said, “You are lying,” and he grabbed my hair and took me to the bedroom and beat me several times. He always told me I didn’t work very well and beat me.

The first time I ran away, I was [in a shelter]….  They were all runaways, with the same problems as me, their sponsors beat them. I stayed there for one week and my husband came and a police officer asked me to go with my husband. The police told me to go with him because they only knew that he was my sponsor, they thought that I was his maid….

The police forced me to go back to my husband, my sponsor. They forced me to go with him. I told the police, “I don’t want to go with the sponsor, because he is not good, he always beats me, I want to go to the Indonesian embassy.” The police said, “You are better off with the sponsor because you didn’t even earn enough for your ticket home.” After I came home, my husband gave money to the police. A lot, I don’t know how much.

When I came back with him in his car, he threw away my clothes. I took two dresses and two pairs of underwear and on the way home, he threw out the rest of my clothes. When we reached home, he beat me again. I said, “I’m hurt,” but he never stopped. I was crying, but he didn’t care.

At his mother’s house, she treated me like a maid, because she didn’t know that I was his wife. Even his sister didn’t know.

I just want to go home. [crying] I don’t want to see my husband anymore. I am afraid of my husband. I have been traumatized because he beat me, I always remember how he beat me. If I stay here, I will be stressed and depressed. It is better for me to go home to Indonesia to my parents.

¾Ani R., 17-year-old Indonesian girl led to believe she was marrying a Saudi man but brought in on a domestic worker employment visa, Riyadh, December 5, 2006

Trafficking includes any act of recruitment, transport, transfer, receipt, sale, or purchase of human beings by force, fraud, deceit, or other coercive tactics for the purpose of placing them into conditions of forced labor or practices similar to slavery or servitude.75  Such conditions occur when labor is extracted through physical or non-physical means of coercion, including blackmail, fraud, deceit, threat or use of physical force, or psychological pressure.

Migration and trafficking are interlinked, as traffickers often exploit the processes by which individuals migrate. For example, recruiters may deceive prospective domestic workers about their actual working conditions. In the case of Ani R., a Saudi man, an Indonesian labor agent, and an Indonesian migrant worker deceived her into believing she was migrating for marriage, yet the Saudi man brought her into the country as a domestic worker and treated her accordingly. Trafficking victims may be found in situations of forced domestic labor and other forms of forced labor, forced sex work, and forced marital arrangements.

Saudi Arabia’s anti-trafficking decree (see “Recent Reforms,” above) prohibits all forms of trafficking, and includes specific provisions addressing migrant workers and children. For example, the decree prohibits the sale of work permits, receiving commissions in return for employment, breaching contractual agreements, and immoral treatment.76 The penalties are relatively light, with violators prevented from recruiting foreign workers for five years. Repeat violations can result in a permanent ban on recruiting foreign workers.77

The annual United States Trafficking in Persons report has repeatedly highlighted Saudi Arabia as one of the worst countries in the world regarding its response to human trafficking. The US State Department has noted that recruitment abuses, the kafala system, and employers’ treatment of migrant workers contribute to trafficking for forced labor. The 2008 report stated,

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so. The government continues to lack adequate anti-trafficking laws, and, despite evidence of widespread trafficking abuses, did not report any criminal prosecutions, convictions, or prison sentences for trafficking crimes committed against foreign domestic workers. 78

Given Saudi Arabia’s failure to institute even minimum standards to fight trafficking, it is eligible for punitive sanctions from the United States. However, for three years, the United States has waived these sanctions in the name of its national interest.

Slavery and Slavery-like Conditions

Haima G.

I am 17 years old, from Mindanao. I have finished three years of high school. I was 15 when I left. I wanted to help my family. My cousins fooled me into coming here, my parents thought I’d be with them, but actually they were far away….  They really fooled me, if I had known what Saudi Arabia is like, I wouldn’t have come, not even if they gave me millions [eyes filling with tears]. My father didn’t ask my permission, I had to go. I thought I would babysit children and go to school at the same time. I did not know I would be a full-time maid, cleaning. I didn’t even know my wages.

They took me to an agency [in Saudi Arabia] where they trick people. I stayed in the agency for one week. I had to work in five houses in one week. One day the agent said he would take me to his sibling’s house. He was the only one there. He started holding me, kissing me. He said he would marry me, that he would call my family, and give me money. He asked how old I am. I said, “I am 24.” He said, “I know you are not 24.” He was kissing me. I was crying, “don’t do this to me, I am Muslim.”

When we went back to the agency, my true employer, the one I would be sold to, was there. I didn’t want to go back to the agency because he touched me all over and kissed me and I thought maybe he would rape me. The true employer got me and brought me to the house. He said, “Be good so I don’t send you back [to the agency].”

After a while, the employer started showing some affection for me. He called me into his bedroom. He said, “I want to tell you how I got you from the agency.” He said, “I bought you for 10,000 riyals.” That is when I found out I had been sold…. 

He said, “I will do something to you, but don’t tell anyone.” He injected me with something, but I don’t know what it was. He said, “If you don’t want to go back to the agency, you better stay here.” I felt dizzy and feverish after the injection. He really threatened me, “Don’t tell madam.”

[gets quiet] I felt there was no hope. The employer raped me. The lady employer was noticing something about me, that I was exhausted. The employer raped me many times. Not in my bedroom, because I locked the door, but around the house.

[crying] I thought, I can’t take it anymore, I stayed in my bedroom for two days, I had a phone in my room because they are rich, and they called me. I told everything to madam. Madam also cried. Madam said, “We can’t do anything about it, I know he’s really bad, every time that he is drunk, he does bad things.”

I said, “I want to go to the Philippines.” The whole family, madam, the employer, they didn’t want me to go. They locked the doors and the gates. One night, still in February, there was a party. I thought, now I can escape, and I prayed and prayed. I saw that the gate was unlocked … [and escaped to the embassy.]

I went to the [police] station with an embassy official. After that, they brought the employer to Suleimaniya, he was put in prison. They brought me to the SSWA [a shelter run by the Ministry of Social Affairs]. I was there for one month. After four days in the SSWA, the employer who was in prison came to the SSWA and we had another interview. He asked how much money I wanted [for an out of court settlement]. I said, “I don’t want money, I want him to suffer and go to jail.”

I don’t want to go home feeling empty like the others, without bringing money, even just one riyal. I cry, how long will I have to wait here in the embassy? I have been here nine months.

One day, they told me the case was unsuccessful [and I will be sent to deportation to return home.]

I was treated really badly. It is as if I don’t have a family and I am not a human being.

¾Haima G., Filipina domestic worker, 17 years old, Riyadh, December 7, 2006

Situations of slavery are distinguished by exercising powers of ownership over a human being.79 The Elements of Crimes, which elaborates how the Rome Statute (establishing the International Criminal Court) should be interpreted, provides the most contemporary definition of enslavement: “The perpetrator exercised any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over one or more persons, such as purchasing, selling, lending or bartering such a person or persons, or by imposing on them a similar deprivation of liberty.”80 It adds that

such deprivation of liberty may, in some circumstances, include exacting forced labour or otherwise reducing a person to a servile status as defined in the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery.81

Haima G.’s situation amounts to trafficking and conditions of slavery, as relatives deceived Haima G. about her promised job abroad, her agent sexually harassed her, and her employer threatened to return her to her abusive agent if she complained. Her employer sexually assaulted her, retained her passport, and locked her in the workplace so that she could not escape.

We found that the combination of the high recruitment fees paid by Saudi employers and the power granted them by the kafala system to control whether a worker can change employers or exit the country made some employers feel entitled to exert “ownership” over a domestic worker. According to recruitment agents and embassy officials interviewed by Human Rights Watch, employers typically pay approximately 6,000-9,000 riyals ($1,560-2,340) to hire a domestic worker. The employer’s reference to “buying” Haima G. for 10,000 riyals because he had paid a recruitment fee illustrates the sense of ownership that creates slavery-like conditions.

Some employers justify retaining domestic workers’ passports and restricting their freedom of movement on the basis of having paid large sums of money for their recruitment and not wanting them to run away, thereby losing their “investment.” Throughout this report, there are examples of employers who refer to having paid a lot of money to justify abusive behavior. As in the case of Haima G., employers may convey to their domestic worker the impression that they have been bought, often manipulating migrant women’s isolation and fears about their rights in Saudi Arabia.

We interviewed many domestic workers, embassy officials, and Saudis who felt that some employers’ dehumanizing treatment and attitudes towards domestic workers resembled slavery-like conditions. In several interviews, domestic workers specifically referred to their employer as their “master” or “owner,” or their experience of being “sold.” A senior consular official told us, “Saudis treat them like chattel, slaves, like cattle. A domestic worker is like a slave and slaves have no rights. That is why they are not covered under a labor law.”82

Recruitment agents may also subject domestic workers to slavery-like conditions or conditions of servitude by forcing them to work for new employers when they wish to go home, mistreating them, and taking their salaries. Human Rights Watch interviewed domestic workers who thought they were being bought and sold. Gina R. said, “When I was in the agency, it was locked. I was only given plain rice once a day….  I wanted to go to the Philippines. I told him I want to go. They didn’t tell me anything, they were going to sell me to another employer. I said, ‘I don’t want to work anymore.’ I slept on the floor without any blanket.”83

Once Haima G. approached the Filipino embassy and the Saudi police, they were able to arrest her employer. According to the system of diya (blood money) in qisas (retribution) cases, a victim can accept financial compensation from the perpetrator after receiving a final judicial guilty verdict. Haima G.’s case failed, and after waiting for more than a year for her case to conclude, she returned to the Philippines with nothing.

VI. Recruitment and Immigration-related Abuses, and Forced Confinement

The large numbers of Asian women migrating for work and the strong demand in the Gulf for cheap domestic labor has created a lucrative market for employment agencies specializing in domestic workers. In Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and the Philippines, these agencies are typically involved in recruitment of potential migrants, training, securing job orders, and processing requirements such as passports, visas, and medical certificates. In Saudi Arabia, agencies liaise between employers and recruitment agencies in the labor-sending countries, and handle employment transfers, disputes between employers and domestic workers, and early termination of contracts.

Inadequate regulation and minimal government oversight combine to give employment agencies enormous influence over the fates of migrant domestic workers. While some recruitment agencies and associations are trying to improve recruitment policies and practices, others take advantage of the money-making possibilities involved, at the expense of migrant women’s safety and rights.

Abuses by Recruitment Agents in Labor-sending Countries

I paid 22,000 rupees to the agent to go to Dubai, but he sent me to Saudi Arabia; he played it wrong [tricked me]. 

—Padma S., returned domestic worker, Katunayake, Sri Lanka, November 1, 2006

The practices of agents in labor-sending countries can place migrant women at risk of situations of abuse, forced labor, and trafficking. These include deception about work conditions, charging excessive fees that induce indebtedness, threats against or lack of information about ending two-year contracts early, and failure to assist domestic workers when approached for help.

Recruitment agents, including “subagents” (informal labor brokers at the village level), are responsible for informing women about the terms and conditions of their work abroad and providing employment contracts. These agents are the primary interlocutors between migrant women and the government, recruitment agents abroad, and their future employers.

One of the most commonly recorded complaints is that labor agents promised domestic workers a certain wage, a day off per week, and other specific terms of work, yet when these women began working the conditions were significantly different. Sometimes employers reneged on contractual obligations, other times recruitment agents made false promises. Deception by recruitment agents becomes clear when their promises depart markedly from the standard salaries and working conditions abroad. For example, Chitra G. said, “I had no day off. The agency [in Sri Lanka] told me that if my employer is good, they will give me a day off and a salary of 600 riyals. But when I came here, they said, ‘No, the salary is 400 riyals.’”84 The standard wage for Sri Lankan workers in Saudi Arabia at the time was 400 riyals (US$104). Similarly, the standard wage for Filipina workers was $200 at the time that Marjorie L. told us, “In the Philippines, they promised me a $300 salary, but when I got here, it was only $200.”85

Agents often prefer to send women to Saudi Arabia given the high commissions they receive and its high demand for domestic workers. According to a Sri Lankan official, labor agents typically pay village-level subagents 35,000-45,000 rupees ($329-423)86 commission for recruiting a domestic worker for Saudi Arabia and 5,000-10,000 rupees ($47-94) commission for other countries in the Middle East.87 Human Rights Watch documented cases where recruitment agents deceived or forced domestic workers to accept employment in Saudi Arabia. Several women we spoke to had agreed to migrate to other countries in the Gulf, but found out they were going to Saudi Arabia on the day of their flight. Indrani P. said, “I went to the agent … I wanted Dubai, they said we will put you in a house with no kids…. I didn’t know that I was not going to Dubai, I only found out on the day that I was leaving. When they handed me the ticket I saw that I was going to Riyadh.”88

Saudi Arabia is different from many of the other major labor-receiving countries for Asian domestic workers in that it requires employers to bear the cost for the domestic workers’ recruitment and transit, approximately 5,000-9,000 riyals per worker. The unmet demand for Muslim domestic workers means that some women actually receive payments to take up jobs in Saudi Arabia, as in the case of Fathima S.: “I did not pay any money to the subagent, but he gave me 10,000-15,000 rupees because I am a Muslim….  I did not spend five cents; he paid for my medical, food, and travel.”89 Theoretically, domestic workers should not have to pay anything to secure a job in Saudi Arabia. Many migrants are unaware of this provision and pay various charges levied by unscrupulous agents seeking double profits. For example, Sandra C. said, “A recruiter came to my village. The recruiter said that when I came here I would [forfeit] … a total of six months pay for recruitment fees.”90

Many domestic workers did not have complete information about their rights or their contractual obligations. Labor agents often pressured them into believing they were forbidden from leaving their employment earlier than the two years specified, even if experiencing abuse. In other situations, labor agents threatened them with heavy financial penalties if they left their contracts early, or failed to fulfill commitments to pay for return tickets in cases when employers rejected domestic workers within the first three months of employment.

Recruitment agents often failed to provide domestic workers with contact details of their Saudi counterparts or to respond when contacted for assistance. In such cases, they had no local contacts to assist them in case of problems, with the exception of escaping to their embassy or consulate if they worked in Riyadh or Jeddah (see below). Prema C. said, “I have the Sri Lankan agency address, but they didn’t give me the number or address for the Saudi agency.”91 Local recruitment agents promised to assist workers in case they had problems, but often ignored their calls or failed to intervene. Indrani P. said that her agents said, “If you face any problem, then call us…. When I faced problems, I called them, and they didn’t do anything.” 92

The systems of pre-departure labor recruitment, the levels of regular and irregular migration, and how systems of indebtedness occur are described in more detail in previous Human Rights Watch reports, including “Exported and Exposed: Abuses against Sri Lankan Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates”; “Swept Under the Rug: Abuses against Domestic Workers around the World”; and “Help Wanted: Abuses against Migrant Female Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia.”93

Abuses by Recruitment Agents in Saudi Arabia

Many domestic workers have little contact with their labor recruiter in Saudi Arabia as they are picked up directly by their employer from the airport. However, the labor recruiter is often the person they must contact if they wish to change employers or leave their contract early. While many domestic workers have no complaint with their agent, others said their agent refused to assist or recounted stories of abuse and exploitation.

Fathima S. had an extremely heavy workload at her employer’s house, working 16 hours a day in a large house, cooking, cleaning, and looking after young children and an old woman who could not move. Her employer verbally abused her and hit her. Fathima S. said,

The lady called the agent and complained that I’m not working.  The agent spoke to me and shouted at me on the phone and said, “You are behaving like a breastfed baby and if you continue to do that I will take you back to the agency and beat you thoroughly.”  I told him I am working but this lady is finding fault with me and shouting at me and I asked him to send me to Sri Lanka to my home….  He told me that he will not send me back to Sri Lanka and I have to stay in that house working until I finish working two years, and only then will he send me back to Sri Lanka.  I cried.  I had no other options….  I asked him to change my employer.  He refused and said that he had got the visa and everything for me to work in that house and nowhere else.94

The Ministry of Labor issued Executive Regulations that outline the responsibilities of recruitment agencies. These regulations forbid agencies from accepting any recruitment fees from workers, housing women workers, and renting out their services to others. Recruitment agencies also have an active obligation to screen the partners it works with in other countries to ensure they are competent and reputable.95 The penalty for violations is revocation of the agency’s operating license. Human Rights Watch documented cases where labor agencies violated these provisions yet faced no penalties. For example, Human Rights Watch interviewed domestic workers who said their labor recruiter forced them to work in several different households while residing in the agency.

In some instances the agents compounded the harm by failing to pay the workers whom they were illegally deploying on part-time assignments. Neelima R. had to work in five different houses for two months while her agent pocketed her salary.96 When Yanti S. escaped from an employer who did not allow her to seek health care, she found an agent who sent her to clean multiple households. She said, “This illegal agent was really selling me to other employers, for 10,000 riyals, but he didn’t give me the money. They took my three months’ salary and 10,000 riyals.”97

Several domestic workers approached their labor agent to send them back home but were instead deployed to a new employer. As one diplomat dealing with domestic worker abuse cases said, “The worker pays a transfer fee. The agent gets a lot of money … They want to make the girl ashamed to go home without money.”98

We also documented cases of agents physically and sexually abusing domestic workers or confining them to the agency. Hasna M.’s employer returned her to her agency when she failed her medical examination. She said, “The agent hit me. Everyday he hit us and hit us [the other domestic workers at the agency]. This scar below my eyes is from the agent….  He hit me with his hand and with a stick, on my legs also. I stayed 10 days at the agency, I only ate four of those days.”99 Hasna M. escaped to her embassy, but was terrified that if she reported the abuse her agent would come and beat her again.

Farzana M. and fellow domestic workers had to devise an escape plan out of the locked agency where they were held. She said, “Five of us all jumped [ran away]. It was on the ground floor, we escaped by putting a table in the bathroom, put a chair on a barrel and jumped. Otherwise the agency people would beat us if we refused to go out and work.”100 Gina R., said, “Three Filipinos including me … jumped from the third floor at 3 a.m. We jumped. I fell down and hurt my hip and elbow so they brought me to the hospital….  I had to get a cast on my foot. When we jumped, a Filipino guy passed by and took us to the hospital in a cab.”101

We documented three cases where Saudi recruitment agents sexually harassed and abused domestic workers. For example, Rosa L. told Human Rights Watch,

Sometimes I saw that [the agent] would call my fellow women, and when he called them, they returned crying. When I asked them what happened, I think they were scared to talk. Then I was called. We were totally sexually harassed. He would kiss us, touch my body, he totally sexually harassed us. I felt worse for the other women with me. I was married, but some of the women were single, and had no sexual experience, this was their first time. I really pitied them….  One Indonesian fought back because when she came back, she had bruises, and a black eye.102

Confinement by Employers

 My employer kept my passport and iqama. They locked me in the house from the outside with a key. There is no way that I could leave.

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

My employer didn’t allow me to go back to Indonesia for six years and eight months….  I never got any salary, not even one riyal!...  My employer never got angry with me, she never hit me. But she forbade me from returning to Indonesia.

—Siti Mujiati W., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, December 11, 2006

Employers may use several methods that effectively trap domestic workers in the workplace, including locking domestic workers inside the house, withholding wages, taking the worker’s passport, threatening the worker with violence, and overworking her. Wati S. told us, “I never went out, not even in the company of my employer. I love to walk around and see things, but my employer never allowed me out. They locked me in the house, the employer kept the key. I did not have a key.”103 When employers control a domestic worker’s movement to the extent that she is unable to escape an abusive labor relationship, this characterizes abuse amounting to servitude.

Confiscation of passports

Every domestic worker we spoke with said her employer retained her passport. This is despite the fact that in 2003 the UN Committee on the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) had “noted with satisfaction” that the Saudi government had taken measures “to put an end to the practice of employers retaining the passports of their foreign employees, in particular domestic workers.”104 In some cases, employers failed to obtain an iqama (residency permit) for domestic workers in accordance with immigration requirements, putting them at higher risk for arrest and detention if they escaped without documents. These practices, in combination with employers’ power to prevent domestic workers from transferring jobs or leaving the country, contributed to situations of forced labor and servitude.

A prominent leader of an association of recruitment agencies said, “I keep the passport of my domestic worker, she is like a member of the family.”105 We spoke to many employers who justified restricting domestic workers’ movements, citing fears of domestic workers becoming pregnant or running away. One employer said,

There is a social cost and a financial cost [of the fees paid to hire a domestic worker]. I am an employer of a maid, driver, and a cook. I do not let my maid out. I will take her out with my family. But if she goes out alone, she may go with a foreign man, and get pregnant. No one can accept this.106

These fears are neither an acceptable justification for restricting women’s movements, nor based on a realistic assessment of risk. For example, the Indonesian embassy handled 17 cases of pregnant domestic workers in 2007 out of an estimated 600,000-900,000 women working in the country.107 Human Rights Watch reviewed several cases of domestic workers who became pregnant as a result of rape. International law protects both the right to liberty and freedom of association, both of which are denied when laws, policies, or tolerated practices allow or facilitate employers to forcibly confine domestic workers.

Employers dictated domestic workers’ ability to return home or visit their families. Fatima N. said, “They had my passport … They kept my iqama. My family asked me to return home. I asked my sponsor if I could return home, but they always refused. I was sad, I wanted to see my parents….  That’s why I want to go home, because my father passed away while I was here. I asked if I could go to the funeral, but they didn’t give me permission.108 In another case, Chemmani R. said,

My father told me that my … mother was killed in the tsunami….  [I also] lost my grandmother, my cousin, my younger sister’s son….  My father wanted me to send some money for my son’s medical expenses.  I asked the employer for money, they refused….  I [wanted] to leave because why should I be here if they are not giving money to send to my son and Baba [her male employer] is trying to misbehave with me.  I did not have any chance to leave because everything was locked up.  When Baba and Mama were out they locked the doors to the outside.  I did not run away because I did not have a chance, because there is no house nearby.109

Sutiati S. said,

I have been working here for nine years and four months. In that time, I have not visited my family in Indonesia. The employer promised me that I could visit when he hired a second domestic worker, but I still could not go when she arrived. My mother and father need money, they need me to go home, but my employer didn’t want me to leave. 110

Sandra C. told Human Rights Watch, “My employer told me, ‘If you want to go, go! But, I won’t give you a ticket to go to the Philippines, I will send you to another country.’ It has been three years and I want to go home.”111

Restricted communication

If my children have gotten married, I do not know.

—Sutiati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006

I wanted to call my family, to write letters. They told me, “For two years, you will have no contact with your family.”

—Chitra G., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 6, 2006

Domestic workers reported their employers forbid them from making or receiving phone calls, writing letters, and communicating with their family or other migrants in Saudi Arabia. Isolation increases domestic workers’ vulnerability to abuse. Among domestic workers reporting other types of problems including unpaid wages, physical abuse, or food deprivation, almost all reported tight monitoring and controls on their communication.

Many domestic workers reported that the letters they wrote would not be posted, and the ones sent to them would not be handed over. Prema C. said, “I was not able to use the phone.”112 Long-distance phone calls, made at great expense by the domestic worker’s family, would not be given to them. For example, Adelina Y. said, “My family in the province, we have had no contact. Sometimes my mother called me, but madam didn’t give the phone to me, she said, ‘You have to work.’ Madam said, ‘If your mother calls you, you will run away.’ I said, ‘Madam, she got a calling card, and it costs a lot of money to call me.’ But she didn’t want me to talk to my family.”113

This level of control caused many domestic workers anguish, as they were not able to convey messages about their well-being to their family or to hear important news from home. Shanthi A. reflected the sentiments of many when she said, “My parents in Sri Lanka still don’t know if I am still alive here.”114 Sandra C. said, “My husband died because of kidney problems. There was no communication and I didn’t know.”115 A Filipina domestic worker, Marilou R., said, “I could not talk to my companions, the other maids. I could not have a mobile, call the Philippines, or write letters. I have spent six months without communication. That is why I always cry, I worked without a salary and without communicating with my family.”116

Some employers locked the rooms where phones were kept to prevent domestic workers from reaching out, and forbade domestic workers from having cell phones. Fatima N. said, “They also put the phone in their room when they went out so I couldn’t make a phone call.”117 In some cases, domestic workers attempted to keep mobile phones secretly, and had friends who would buy additional phone credit for them remotely.118 Some domestic workers’ contracts expressly forbade them to bring mobile phones, like Cristina M., who told us, “I was not able to communicate with my family….  I had no mobile, because in my contract, it said don’t bring a mobile, that’s why.”

Physical confinement in the employer’s home

At least 24 of the domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch had employers who locked them in the workplace from the outside. Cristina M. said, “They locked the house from the outside every day. That is why I climbed out of the window. I felt crazy when I was inside. You think, ‘how can I get out of the house?’”119 An abuse in itself, forced confinement prevented domestic workers from escaping from other types of abuses or returning home to respond to family emergencies.

Several domestic workers recounted being locked into their bedrooms or the bathroom, sometimes as a one-time punishment and sometimes as a regular practice to prevent escape. Eni M. told us, “My employer always locked me in my bedroom from 9 p.m. until the morning.”120 Lilis H. said, “If my employer went out she locked me in the bathroom. This took place over eight months.”121 Such punishments often came after domestic workers asked for their salaries or tried to run away. For example, after an unsuccessful escape attempt, Ponnamma S. said, “That day onwards, for five months, they didn’t let me have any phone calls. They locked me in my room and beat me up.”122

Even when employers did not lock domestic workers in the house, the workload was often prohibitive to leaving the workplace. Chandrika M. said, “Saudi Arabia was totally like prison. There was freedom to go out but no time because of the work.”123


Options for escape are extremely limited. In some instances, the only way that domestic workers could escape was by jumping out of windows or by waiting for the rare occasions when their employers forgot to lock the doors and gates. Some workers escaped as soon as any opportunity arose, often when an employer forgot to lock the door. Winarti N. said, “One day the children were fighting, the door was open. Then I ran. I just ran away without any of my belongings.”124 Cristina M. said, “Madam shouted and slapped us. I cannot work without food and with no rest. I brought two pants, two bras, five underwear, and I wore them all to save time. We all went together at 5:30 a.m. when our employers were praying. I jumped out of the window.”125

Even if the door was unlocked, many workers felt they could not leave because they did not have possession of their identity documents or were afraid of being accused of crimes. The Saudi government treats runaways harshly and metes out severe punishments for theft. Prema C. said, “At least three times, they went on vacation and would leave me at home. They wouldn’t lock the door. [But] they kept my passport….  I want to go to Sri Lanka. I can’t go because I have no iqama.”126 Dammayanthi K. said, “I decided to keep working because my passport was with the employer and they had to buy a ticket for me to come back [home]….  I did not know how to get out of the house and go out alone.  Also, if I ran away they could have made up stories that I have stolen things from their house and run away.”127

In some cases, domestic workers escaped to the embassy or consulate, in other cases to the police, and in others, sought assistance from other migrants. For example, Lilis H. told us,

The day that I escaped, my employer…beat me with the cable over my whole body. She told me to go to the bathroom because she wanted to beat me some more. Before I went to the bathroom, I saw the key in the door and I ran away…. I hid behind the stairs until I saw a Pakistani delivery person. I asked him to help me. He said, “You are Muslim, I am Muslim, don’t be afraid. I will take you to the consulate, to the Indonesian people.”128

Some migrant workers in Saudi Arabia have devised innovative ways to support their fellow nationals who may be in distress: Filipino migrants have created a mobile telephone hotline. They publicize this number through informal community networks. When a domestic worker in trouble gets a chance, either through a hidden or borrowed mobile phone, she may send a text message to the hotline and her message goes to a local migrant, an NGO in the Philippines, and the Filipino embassy.129 After getting in touch, they will advise her of her options. An Indonesian migrant worker part of a more informal support group, said, “They don’t know my face, we never meet, only through the phone. The number is passed through word of mouth.”130

Otherwise, there are few places where a domestic worker can turn. As detailed in other parts of the report, some labor agents and the police assisted domestic workers, whereas others forced them to return to abusive employers. While workers in Riyadh and Jeddah could find refuge in their embassy or consulate, those in other cities had nowhere to go. For example, Sri H. worked in a smaller city with no embassy or consulate. She said, “Several times I tried to run away, but I was unsuccessful because of the long distance.”131 The limited transportation options for women in Saudi Arabia and the risks of traveling unaccompanied by one’s guardian tighten the constraints. Domestic workers able to escape may not have the money for a taxi or be able to accept the assistance of a male migrant worker in case she is arrested for morality-related crimes. One woman who was not paid for six years said, “I couldn’t escape. I was in Yanbu… I was afraid to escape because there are no taxis.”132

In some cases, the only way that domestic workers were able to leave their abusive employer was when their health deteriorated to such an extent they required hospitalization. Sevandhi R. told Human Rights Watch that her employer “locked me in my room for four days and left … I was in the room for four days without food and water. I had fainted. I [was taken to] the hospital and they [the employers] bought me a ticket [home].”133

Those who wished to keep working in Saudi Arabia sometimes resorted to dangerous escapes in order to seek employment as undocumented workers. One Filipina domestic worker, Marisa G., described escaping from her employer and going to Jeddah hidden in the back of a commercial goods truck. She said, “There were four of us Filipinas. We had to pay 500 riyals [$130]. We spent 15 hours traveling. I felt dizzy. We didn’t take a break. There was no light, and no window in the truck. It was all closed. I was nervous.”134

Those who do find alternate work often find employers willing to pay higher salaries and to provide more flexible part-time working arrangements. These employers may not have been able to obtain official permission to hire a domestic worker, and are willing to pay the extra cost of hiring one outside the legal channels. Chemmani R. said that after her escape, “I was staying [in the mosque] and I knew Babas and Mamas, a lot of men and women, come there to pick maids…. There was a lady who came and saw me and told me she would pay me 700 riyals [$182], and I would have to look after only her two children….  My passport was with my earlier Baba…. That was the reason that she [the lady] was paying me more.  She was paying extra 300 riyals because I was staying without a passport or visa and she knew that when I had to come back to Sri Lanka I would have to go to the embassy.”135

67 ILO Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (Forced Labour Convention), adopted June 28, 1930, 39 U.N.T.S. 55, entered into force May 1, 1932, ratified by Saudi Arabia June 15, 1978; Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Trafficking Protocol); Slavery, Servitude, Forced Labour and Similar Institutions and Practices Convention of 1926 (Slavery Convention), adopted September 25, 1926, 60 L.N.T.S. 253, entered into force March 9, 1927; UN Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery, adopted September 7, 1956, 226 U.N.T.S. 3, entered into force April 30, 1957, acceded to by Saudi Arabia July 5, 1973; and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Rome Statute), U.N. Doc. A/CONF.183/9, July 17, 1998, entered into force July 1, 2002.

68 This figure uses the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Saudi riyal on May 21, 2008.

69 “Saudi Arabia: Nour Miyati Denied Justice for Torture,” Human Rights Watch news release, May 21, 2008,

70 ILO Forced Labour Convention, art. 2. The European Court of Human Rights also uses this standard to interpret the prohibition on slavery, forced or compulsory labor in the European Convention on Human Rights (Van der Mussele v. Belgium, November 23, 1983 Series A No. 70; Siliadin v. France February 1, 2005 ECHR 2005).

71ILO, A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour: Global Report under the Follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights of Work (Geneva: ILO, 2005), p. 6.. The European Court of Human Rights has also found that in the absence of a specific “penalty” being imposed, an equivalent situation arises where there is a perceived seriousness of a threat of a penalty – such as a fear of arrest or deportation if found without a passport or papers, or if they try to escape. Siliadin, para. 118.

72 ILO, A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour, p. 6.

73 ILO, A Global Alliance Against Forced Labour, p. 6.

74 This figure uses the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Indonesian rupiah on December 5, 2006.

75 UN Trafficking Protocol, art. 3.

76 Decree, Ministry of Labor No. 738/1 dated 16/5/1425h.

77 Ibid.

78 US Department of State, Trafficking in Persons Report 2007 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, June 2008), (accessed June 10, 2008).

79 Slavery Convention, art. 1.

80 Elements of Crimes, ICC-ASP/1/3, art. 7(1)(c).

81 Ibid.

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

83 Human Rights Watch interview with Gina R., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.

84 Human Rights Watch interview with Chitra G., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 6, 2006.

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

86 This figure uses the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Sri Lankan rupee on November 5, 2006.

87 Human Rights Watch interview with Srilatha Aryaratne, Sri Lanka Bureau for Foreign Employment, Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, November 5, 2006.

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

89 Human Rights Watch interview with Fathima S., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.

90 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra C., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

91 Human Rights Watch interview with Prema C., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

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

93 Human Rights Watch, Exported and Exposed: Abuses against Sri Lankan Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates, vol. 19, no. 16(C), November 2007,; Swept Under the Rug: Abuses against Domestic Workers around the World, vol. 18, no. 7(C), July 2006,; Help Wanted: Abuses against Migrant Female Domestic Workers in Indonesia and Malaysia, vol. 16, no. 9(B), July 2004,

94 Human Rights Watch interview with Fathima S., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.

95 Executive Regulations, Ministry of Labor, “Regulations for the non-renewal of an accreditation or its termination.”

96 Human Rights Watch interview with Neelima R., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, March 11, 2008.

97 Human Rights Watch interview with Yanti S., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.

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

99 Human Rights Watch interview with Hasna M., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 6, 2006.

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

101 Human Rights Watch interview with Gina R., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.

102 Human Rights Watch interview with Rosa L., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.

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

104 See concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: Saudi Arabia, CERD/C/62/CO/8, March 21, 2003, para. 6.

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

106 Human Rights Watch interview with a Saudi employer, Riyadh, March 8, 2008.

107 Human Rights Watch interview with an Indonesian embassy official who requested anonymity, March 10, 2008.

108 Human Rights Watch interview with Fatima N., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.

109 Human Rights Watch interview with Chemmani R., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.

110 Human Rights Watch interview with Sutiati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

111 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra C., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

112 Human Rights Watch interview with Prema C., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

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

114 Human Rights Watch interview with Shanthi A., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

115 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra C., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.

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

117 Human Rights Watch interview with Fatima N., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.

118 Human Rights Watch interview with Dolores P., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 8, 2006.

119 Human Rights Watch interview with Cristina M., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 10, 2006.

120 Human Rights Watch interview with Eni M., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 8, 2006.

121 Human Rights Watch interview with Lilis H., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

122 Human Rights Watch interview with Ponnamma S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.

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

124 Human Rights Watch interview with Winarti N., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

125 Human Rights Watch interview with Cristina M., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 10, 2006.

126 Human Rights Watch interview with Prema C., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.

127 Human Rights Watch interview with Dammayanthi K., returned domestic worker, Kandy, Sri Lanka, December 10, 2006.

128 Human Rights Watch interview with Lilis H., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

129 Human Rights Watch interview with Daniel S., Filipino migrant worker and activist, Riyadh, November 29, 2006.

130 Human Rights Watch interview with Edi L., Indonesian migrant worker and member of informal support group, Riyadh, December 2, 2006.

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

132 Human Rights Watch interview with Siti Mujiati W., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.

133 Human Rights Watch interview with Sevandhi R., returned domestic worker, Katunayake, Sri Lanka, November 1, 2006.

134 Human Rights Watch interview with Marisa G., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 8, 2006.

135 Human Rights Watch interview with Chemmani R., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.