HRW:Saudi Arabia: Domestic Workers Face Harsh Abuses
- (Jakarta, July 8, 2008) - Saudi Arabia should implement labor,
immigration, and criminal justice reforms to protect domestic
workers from serious human rights abuses that in some cases amount
to slavery, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
Employers often face no punishment for committing abuses including
months or years of unpaid wages, forced confinement, and physical
and sexual violence, while some domestic workers face imprisonment
or lashings for spurious charges of theft, adultery, or "witchcraft."
The 133-page report, "'As If I Am Not Human': Abuses against Asian
Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia," concludes two years of research
and is based on 142 interviews with domestic workers, senior
government officials, and labor recruiters in Saudi Arabia and labor-
"In the best cases, migrant women in Saudi Arabia enjoy good working
conditions and kind employers, and in the worst they're treated like
virtual slaves. Most fall somewhere in between," said Nisha Varia,
senior researcher in the Women's Rights Division of Human Rights
Watch. "The Saudi government should extend labor law protections to
domestic workers and reform the visa sponsorship system so that
women desperate to earn money for their families don't have to
gamble with their lives."
Saudi households employ an estimated 1.5 million domestic workers,
primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal.
Smaller numbers come from other countries in Africa and Asia. While
no reliable statistics exist on the exact number of abuse cases, the
Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs and the embassies of labor-sending
countries shelter thousands of domestic workers with complaints
against their employers or recruiters each year.
Excessive workload and unpaid wages, for periods ranging from a few
months to 10 years, are among the most common complaints. The
Kingdom's Labor Law excludes domestic workers, denying them rights
guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly rest day and overtime
pay. Many domestic workers must work 18 hours a day, seven days a
The restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers'
visas to their employers, and means employers can deny workers the
ability to change jobs or leave the country. Human Rights Watch
interviewed dozens of women who said their employers forced them to
work against their will for months or years. Employers often take
away passports, and lock workers in the home, increasing their
isolation and risk of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
After interviews with 86 domestic workers, Human Rights Watch
concluded that 36 faced abuses that amounted to forced labor,
trafficking, or slavery-like conditions.
"The Saudi government has some good proposals for reform but it has
spent years considering them without taking any action," Varia
said. "It's now time to make these changes, which include covering
domestic workers under the 2005 Labor Law and changing the kafala
system so that workers' visas are no longer tied to their
The Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs, in cooperation with the police
operates a shelter in Riyadh to assist domestic workers to claim
their wages and return home. However, in many cases shelter staff
negotiated unfair wage settlements between employers and workers,
often leaving workers empty-handed because they had to forego back
pay in exchange for their employer's permission to leave the
Poor investigations and criminal proceedings that often stretch for
years mean that abusive employers are rarely punished through the
criminal justice system. For example, after three years of
proceedings, a Riyadh court dropped the charges against the employer
of Nour Miyati, despite the employer's confession, ample medical
evidence, and intense public scrutiny. Nour Miyati, an Indonesian
domestic worker, had her fingers and toes amputated as a result of
being starved and beaten daily by her employers.
Human Rights Watch said that rather than seeing their abusers
brought to justice, domestic workers are more likely to face counter-
accusations of witchcraft, theft, or adultery. And in such cases,
domestic workers often face severe delays in getting access to
interpreters, legal aid, or consular assistance, or are denied
The punishments are severe. In a sample of cases studied by Human
Rights Watch, punishments for "witchcraft" and "moral" crimes such
as adultery and being in the presence of unrelated men included up
to 10 years of imprisonment and between 60 and 490 lashes. Domestic
workers who are pregnant as a result of rape also risk prosecution
if they cannot meet strict evidentiary standards to prove the rape.
"Many of the women I talked to did not file complaints for fear of
countercharges," Varia said. "In other cases, they dropped the
charges against their abusers, even if they had a strong case,
because otherwise they would be stuck in an overcrowded shelter for
years, away from their families and unable to work, and with very
little chance of ultimately getting justice."
In the absence of effective local redress mechanisms, the foreign
missions of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal often
play a critical role in providing shelter, legal aid, and assistance
to those who have wage claims or court cases. The demands placed on
these embassies far outweigh their resources, and many domestic
workers complain of long waiting periods with little information
about their cases and, in the cases of Indonesia and Sri Lanka,
overcrowded and unhygienic shelters.
Human Rights Watch called upon Saudi Arabia to investigate and
punish abusive employers and to protect domestic workers from
spurious countercharges. It also called upon Saudi Arabia to
cooperate more effectively with labor-sending countries to monitor
domestic workers' employment conditions, facilitate rescues, ensure
recovery of unpaid wages, create shelters for survivors of abuse
with comprehensive support services, and arrange for timely
repatriation. Both Saudi Arabia and governments in labor-sending
countries should also establish mechanisms for rigorous and regular
monitoring of labor agencies and recruitment practices.
More than 8 million migrants work in Saudi Arabia, comprising
roughly one-third of its population. They fill critical gaps in the
health, construction, and domestic service sectors, and also support
their home economies, sending back US$15.6 billion in 2006,
approximately 5 percent of Saudi Arabia's gross domestic product.