Domestic workers in Saudi Arabia labor under conditions that fail to meet standards set both by Saudi Arabias labor code for other types of workers and international labor standards. Domestic workers may experience several types of labor rights violations, including unpaid wages, excessively long working hours, lack of rest periods, rest days, workers compensation, and other benefits.
Not all domestic workers face abuse. Human Rights Watch interviewed some domestic workers who received their wages on time and planned to return to Saudi Arabia, as in the case of Nanmalar S., of Sri Lanka, who said, They paid me on time monthly; I got the money from them whenever I needed it and sent it to my family here. I think I sent 50,000 rupees home . I built a house for my family [with my earnings].171 One employer said, In our tradition, we think it is bad not to give [the domestic worker] her rights. Usually, we give them more than their rights. At Ramadan, we will give her an extra 500 riyals (US$130). If she is crying, we will buy a phone card for her to call her family without charge.172
However without any legal regulation of minimum standards, punishment for abuse, or ways to ease the forced isolation of domestic workers in private homes, far too many domestic workers continue to face highly exploitative working conditions.
Domestic workers wages are particularly low, given that they often work long hours without any rest days. Several domestic workers stated that these wages were not sufficient to meet family expenses. Sri Lankan worker Mahilam G. said, My salary was 400 riyals a month. It was not enough for my childrens education and meals . I thought I would be getting 500 or 600 riyals because they are paying 500 or 600 riyals to the Indonesian maids and I thought I would be getting the same.173
In the past year the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka have refused to authenticate contracts for their domestic workers unless Saudi Arabia met demands for higher wages. Filipinas salary was increased from 700-800 riyals per month to 1400-1500 riyals per month ($182-208 to $364-390), Indonesian domestic workers salaries went from 600 riyals to 800 riyals per month ($156 to $208), and Sri Lankan domestic workers rose from 400 riyals to 650 riyals ($104 to $169) per month.
Employers typically pay domestic workers different wages based on national origin. The labor recruitment industry discriminates against workers by setting pay scales according to nationality, rather than work experience, skills, or the nature of the work. While many domestic workers from the Philippines may come with a tertiary level of education and English skills, those with comparable skills from Sri Lanka or Indonesia still receive lower pay. As a party to the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), Saudi Arabia should not permit discrimination amongst domestic workers based on national origin. In 2004 the UN Committee on CERD reminded all states that they had to take measures to eliminate discrimination against non-citizens in relation to working conditions and work requirements and to prevent and redress the serious problems commonly faced by non-citizen workers, in particular by non-citizen domestic workers, including debt bondage, passport retention, illegal confinement, rape and physical assault (emphasis added).174
As discussed in earlier sections, many domestic workers receive less money than originally promised by labor recruiters or their employers. Human Rights Watch interviewed at least 12 domestic workers who said that their wages were less than the amount agreed upon prior to departure or in employment contracts. Ponnamma S. said, In Sri Lanka they promised me 700-800 riyals [per month]. Here they [agreed to] only 400.175
Unpaid wages lead the list of most frequent complaints by domestic workers in Saudi Arabia made to embassies of labor-sending countries, the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs, and to Human Rights Watch. For example, a senior official from one labor-sending countrys embassy in Riyadh said, The most common complaint is non-payment of wages. When they complain of unpaid wages, it is usually for six months, or more; in some cases, 13-14 months. Sometimes they have received no wages at all.177 Of the 86 domestic workers Human Rights Watch interviewed in Saudi Arabia and upon return to Sri Lanka, 63 had not received their full wages.
In some cases recounted to us, employers withheld wages to compel domestic workers to continue working if they wanted to quit or had finished their contract. Furthermore, some employers make arbitrary and illegal deductions from salaries as a disciplinary tool, to pay for a workers medical expenses, or to recoup recruitment fees.
We interviewed women who had not received their wages over periods ranging from a few months to several years. For example, Sri H. told us, I worked for eight months but they only gave me one months salary. They promised to give me my salary every month, but in fact I fought with my sponsor all the time about my salary.178 Some workers received wages intermittently, while others received no salary at all and worked in conditions of forced labor. Thanuja W. said, I always asked them for my salary, and after two years, they still didnt pay me, they sent me back to the agent.179 Fatima N. worked for almost 10 years without pay: I arrived in 1997, and I have never received any salary . They got angry when I asked about my salary.180
In some cases, employers eventually paid their domestic workers, but failed to do so on a regular, monthly basis. Even then, they sometimes made only partial payments. Although Saudi labor law currently excludes domestic workers, it entitles other workers to salary payments each month.181 Malini S. said, Every month I requested my salary, but they only gave it once every three months. They always said, Later, later.182 Nur A. told Human Rights Watch, They would give me my salary, but only if I begged or cried. After four months, they would give me two months pay.183 Prema C., whose employers paid her every three months, claiming to never have cash on hand, summed up the situation of many other workers when she said, We did not have a good understanding about the salary, I never knew if they would pay it or not.184
Some employers withhold salaries to prevent domestic workers from leaving employment before the contract period ends. Bethari R. told Human Rights Watch, They didnt give me five months salary. They said that is the fee and that it is a guarantee because they are afraid I will not finish the contract.185 Some employers waited until the domestic worker was departing the country in order to cheat her of full payment. For example, Meena P. said, They did not pay me one years salary. When I went to the airport to come here they gave me a check for four months and when I went to the bank they told me the check could not be cashed.186
The same factors that make it difficult for domestic workers to escape from physical or sexual abuse also make it hard for them to escape from situations in which employers force them to work without regular pay: forced confinement in the workplace, restrictive visas that prevent them from seeking other employers, financial pressures and loans in their home countries, and the belief that they are obligated to finish their two-year contract regardless of the working conditions.
Many domestic workers continue to work in the desperate hope that employers will fulfill their promises to provide their wages later or that they will receive their full payment at the end of their two-year contract. Domestic workers who run away from employers who have failed to pay them confront formidable obstacles to reclaim their wages, described in more detail in Chapters IX-XI, below.
Having migrated due to financial necessity and needing their salaries in a timely way to address pressing family emergencies at home, most women felt unpaid wages to be an especially grievous offence. Marilou R. left her family and home in the Philippines when a family member developed a heart condition and needed expensive medicines. My salary here was [equivalent to] 10,000 [pesos] per month, and I spent six months without a salary. It is better to work in the Philippines with 5,000 pesos because at least you get paid.190
Some employers cut the salaries of their domestic workers, charging them for perceived mistakes or damages sustained during the course of housework, or simply as a form of control. For example, Wati S. said,
Cristina M said, My salary is 750 riyals, but madam did not give it to me. I had to buy my own food, all my needs, my own napkins, soap, buy my own medicine if sick. She would cut my salary if the kitchen was not stocked with enough tomatoes or chicken. When the chicken finished, she cut 300 riyals from my salary.192
Some employers shirk their obligation to pay for a domestic workers ticket home after completion of her contract by deducting the price of the ticket from the workers wages. For example, Isdiah M. said her employer bought my tickets using my salary. He used three months salary for the ticket and gave me [only] five months salary.193 Praveena A. told Human Rights Watch, I demanded [my employer] pay for my return ticket. She said no. She did not pay me initially. She [finally] paid me, deducting the cost of two tickets.194
Employers used different tactics to escape detection for failing to pay their employees regularly and in full. Some domestic workers reported that they were required to sign receipts indicating they had received their full salaries even when this was not the case. Jayanadani A. said, Whenever I had pending [salary] of 1,200 riyals [$312], they paid me only 800 riyals. They would take my signature for giving me money.195
Overwork and lack of sufficient rest was another of the most common complaints among domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch and reported by embassy officials and migrants groups in labor-sending countries. Of domestic workers interviewed for this report, the average time spent working was 18.7 hours per day, seven days per week.
Most domestic workers reported long working hours around the clock, without adequate rest breaks or time to sleep. For example, Wati S., a 19-year-old Indonesian domestic worker, said, I worked every day from 6 a.m. to 2 or 3 a.m. I got to rest three hours in the afternoon and at night. I never got a day off.196 Similarly, Hemanthi J. told us, Sometimes I would finish at 12 a.m. or 1 a.m. I couldnt sit down and take a break, I had no time to sleep, no time to go to the toilet even. I had no day off.197 Ponnamma S. said, I had no time to relax at all, when I had any rest, the madam would find some work for me to do. I had no days off.198
With no day off, domestic workers could find themselves working months or years on end without a full days rest. Some domestic workers had been promised days off during recruitment or had them in their employment contract terms, yet did not receive them once they started work. Sri H. told Human Rights Watch, There was no day off. They said I would get one every two months, but they were lying.199 Most Filipina workers contracts provide for a weekly day of rest. One Filipina worker, Sandra C. said, There was no day off. My employer said, If you want a day off, go to the Philippines.200
In addition to long hours and inadequate rest, domestic workers often struggled to meet excessive workload demands, juggling cleaning, caring for children and the elderly, and cooking, sometimes for very large households. Several domestic workers reported being employed in multi-family households with as many as 22 members. Chitra G. said,
Similarly, Sepalika S. said, In Saudi Arabia I had to look after an old lady as well as seven children, in a two-story building. The eldest child was 24, the youngest was four. I had to clean the house, wash and iron clothes, cook, and look after that old sick lady, [which was] like looking after a child . by the time I went to bed it was 12 or 1, and I had to get out of bed at 5:30. They should have two or more maids to do the work in the house, but I was the only one who did all the work . I told them, You are not paying me any salary and I am doing the work of three people and when work is delayed you shout at me.202
In some instances, long working hours and lack of rest intertwined with employers psychological abuse and control over the domestic worker. Lina B. said, I had no time to rest. My madam didnt want to see me sitting. The minute I woke up and went down, madam would lock my room so I couldnt go back inside. Even if I wanted to take a bath, I couldnt because my clothes were in the room. When I finished at 2 a.m., that is when I took a bath.203
Many employers expected domestic workers to be on call around the clock. Ummu A. worked from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. without any days off. She said, But even after I went to sleep the lady knocked on my door in the middle of the night and asked me to prepare a meal for Baba.204 Similarly, Chemmani R. said, If they knocked on my door after midnight I had to get up and I had to cook when they told me.205 Several domestic workers said they had to work extra hours or perform more duties without extra compensation when their employers had guests or during Ramadan. Fathima R. told Human Rights Watch, I had to get up at 4 a.m . But every Friday all the family would come thereshe had 10 children, all married. Fridays were the worst. I usually finished at 9, sometimes 10 p.m., but I finished at 1 a.m. on Fridays.206
Some domestic workers reported a lack of privacy and inadequate living accommodations. Saudi employers are responsible for providing domestic workers with room and board in addition to their regular wages. Human Rights Watch interviewed many domestic workers who had acceptable living conditions, including their own bedroom and occasionally their own bathroom. But other domestic workers reported they had to sleep in communal parts of the house, often in degrading circumstances, such as on the kitchen or bathroom floor. For example, Chemmani R. said, The lady refused to give me a separate room to stay so I used to stay in an empty space on the staircase.207 Prema C. said: There was no separate room. I slept on a space on the floor, with no pillow and no bedsheet.208
Poor accommodation contributed to the other abuses described in this report, including psychological abuse and lack of rest. Domestic workers felt that inadequate sleeping arrangements, particularly in contrast to the wealth of their employers, was humiliating. Asanthika W., a 42-year-old domestic worker said, My second employer only gave me a place to sleep under the staircase like a dog. I am not a dog, I am a human being . I migrated to work, I came here to do my best, but our employers also have to give us proper facilities.209 Sasindi O. said, I slept in the corridor. I saw an old mattress that was big enough for me, but my employers threw it away and didnt give it to me. There was no room for me If I had any rest time, I had to rest in the latrine.210
171 Human Rights Watch interview with Nanmalar S., returned domestic worker, Talawakelle, Sri Lanka, November 12, 2006.
172 Human Rights Watch interview with a Saudi employer, Riyadh, March 10, 2008.
173 Human Rights Watch interview with Mahilam G., returned domestic worker, Maskeliya, Sri Lanka, November 13, 2006.
174 Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, General Recommendation No.30: Discrimination Against Non Citizens, adopted October 1, 2004.
175 Human Rights Watch interview with Ponnamma S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.
176 Al-Mutaqqi Al-Hindi, "The Treasure of Workers in Normative Words and Deeds, Hadith 9125, http://www.al-eman.com/islamlib/viewchp.asp?BID=137&CID=138 (accessed June 10, 2008).
177 Human Rights Watch interview with embassy official J from a labor-sending country, December 13, 2006.
178 Human Rights Watch interview with Sri H., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.
179 Human Rights Watch interview with Thanuja W., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.
180 Human Rights Watch interview with Fatima N., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.
181 Saudi Arabia Labor Law, Royal Decree No. M/51, September 27, 2005, Part VI, art. 90.
182 Human Rights Watch interview with Malini S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.
183 Human Rights Watch interview with Nur A., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.
184 Human Rights Watch interview with Prema C., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.
185 Human Rights Watch interview with Bethari R., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, March 11, 2008.
186 Human Rights Watch interview with Meena P., returned domestic worker, Talawakelle, Sri Lanka, November 12, 2006.
187 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra C., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.
188 Human Rights Watch interview with Latha P., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.
189 Human Rights Watch interview with Shanika R., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.
190 Human Rights Watch interview with Marilou R., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 10, 2006.
191 Human Rights Watch interview with Wati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.
192 Human Rights Watch interview with Cristina M., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 10, 2006.
193 Human Rights Watch interview with Isdiah B., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.
194 Human Rights Watch interview with Praveena A., returned Sri Lankan domestic worker, Katunayake, Sri Lanka, November 1, 2006.
195 Human Rights Watch interview with Jayanadani A., returned Sri Lankan domestic worker, Kandy, Sri Lanka, November 10, 2006.
196 Human Rights Watch interview with Wati S., Indonesian domestic worker, Jeddah, December 11, 2006.
197 Human Rights Watch interview with Hemanthi J., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.
198 Human Rights Watch interview with Ponnamma S., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 14, 2006.
199 Human Rights Watch interview with Sri H., Indonesian domestic worker, Riyadh, December 5, 2006.
200 Human Rights Watch interview with Sandra C., Filipina domestic worker, Jeddah, December 9, 2006.
201 Human Rights Watch interview with Chitra G., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 6, 2006.
202 Human Rights Watch interview with Sepalika S., returned domestic worker, Katunayake, Sri Lanka, November 9, 2006.
203 Human Rights Watch interview with Lina B., Filipina domestic worker, Riyadh, December 7, 2006.
204 Human Rights Watch interview with Ummu A., returned Sri Lankan domestic worker, Attanagalla, Gampaha district, Sri Lanka, November 8, 2006.
205 Human Rights Watch interview with Chemmani R., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.
206 Human Rights Watch interview with Fathima Razana (real name used upon request), returned domestic worker, Attanagalla, Gampaha district, Sri Lanka, November 8, 2006.
207 Human Rights Watch interview with Chemmani R., returned domestic worker, Habaraduwa, Sri Lanka, November 14, 2006.
208 Human Rights Watch interview with Prema C., Sri Lankan domestic worker, Riyadh, December 15, 2006.
209 Human Rights Watch interview with Asanthika W., returned domestic worker, Kurunegala, Sri Lanka, November 4, 2006
210 Human Rights Watch interview with Sasindi O., returned domestic worker, Rambukkana, Sri Lanka, November 6, 2006.