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Expatriates in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia: a tale of modern day slavery


08 December 2011

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia attracts a vast number of migrant workers who comes in search of higher income and a better lifestyle but unfortunately, a majority of them gets trapped under the evils of domestic abuse, torture, unfair trials, and forced confessions of alleged crimes and trafficking.  The Saudi Arabian government turns a blind eye to these allegations and violations. Low-skilled men and women workers come from India, Pakistan, Sri-Lanka, Nepal, Indonesia, Philippines, Nepal, Sudan, Ethiopia and other South Asia and African countries.  Restrictions on movement, withholding of passports, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and non-payment of wages are some of the many harsh conditions these workers face when they land in the Kingdom under the hands of their sponsors.

Nepali migrant workers in Saudi Arabia / NET2NEPAL.com
Nepali migrant workers in Saudi Arabia / NET2NEPAL.com

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is ruled by King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud who is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites in Mecca and Medina. The Government is run with its interpretation of Islam (Shari’a Law) and the 1992 Basic Law. Saudi Arabia currently has a population well over 30 million with 6 million non-nationals as of the July 2010 estimates. Expatriates or foreign-workers in Saudi Arabia mainly arrive from South and South East Asia. Most of these workers are put under constant abuse and servitude, non-payment of wages and in majority of the times the withholding of passports to put a restriction on movements.

Human Rights Watch reports that there are about 2 million women from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and other countries who work as domestic workers or house maids. They are faced with a slew of problems that ranges from late payment of salaries, extended working hours, beatings, and sexual abuse. Countries in South and South East Asia are forced to send large number of workers overseas because of their growing population. Therefore the governments cannot claim wrong-doings or abuses received by their nationals overseas as they do not want to offend the Arab States from purchasing their workers. Christian Science Monitor claims that Indonesia tried a few years ago to raise the minimum age and salaries of maids sent to work abroad, but a coalition of employment agencies in the Gulf threatened to look elsewhere in Asia for maids and drivers. Jakarta soon backed down on the salary front and continued to send maids to the Middle East.

The Migration Information Source provides authoritative data from numerous global organizations and governments and computes a global analysis of international migration and refugee trends. According to them, expatriate laborers cover about two-thirds of the total work force and 95 percent of labor in the private sector. Only 15 percent of the foreign workers are engaged in skilled labor industries (such as oil, healthcare, etc.). Due to the language barriers, and inadequate education levels, low-skilled workers are prone to be abused and stripped off basic human rights. Most Westerners live in a walled compound with luxurious commodities while most of the workers from poorer countries find themselves in oppressing conditions.

The Plight of Expatriates

A majority of foreign domestic workers are kept under extreme hardships and conditions. They are often made to work for up to 18 hours a day with no or less pay. Saudi Labor Law does not provide protection to domestic workers or any other expatriates from abuse. Foreigners who find themselves in court facing criminal charges have no knowledge or understanding of the proceedings of the court due to the language barrier. They are often not represented by attorneys. According to Amnesty International, the Saudi authorities do not provide statistics on the death penalty but Amnesty recorded at least 1,695 executions between 1985 and May 2008. Of these, 830 were foreign nationals and 809 Saudis (with the nationality of 56 unknown).

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In some cases, crucifixion follows execution. Foreigners who are condemned to death by the court do not know when their execution date or even about the sentencing. The condemned do not have any say in the trial proceedings and find out about their fate until the last moment when they are taken to the execution site.

According to the 2008 Human Rights State Department Report, The Saudi Arabian labor code does not allow workers to form and join independent unions of their choice; however, the government allowed a few citizen-only labor committees to operate with heavy limitations on the right of association. There is no national minimum wage for workers. The legal system is established in a manner that favors the Saudi national over their foreign employees. Cases are on the rise where female domestic workers flee from their abusive employers/sponsors or even commit suicide as an escape route.

In the Human Rights Watch 2004 report, “Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia” it highlights how foreign workers are denied consular visits and are forced to sign to false confessions. The report includes cases of beheadings in which the embassies and families of the condemned were not informed until after they were carried out. The Report gives grave detail about the abuses faced by foreign women workers and how they are put under forced confinement and face sexual abuse and even rape. Saudi Arabian law does not grant equal rights to women and female domestic workers.

Vienna Convention on Consular Relations is an international treaty that establishes the right of consular officials to prompt notification about the arrest of their nationals. This is a treaty that Saudi Arabia is in clear violation. There are no labor laws in Saudi Arabia that protects foreign workers from abuse. Hence, violations and gross offences are carried out as a norm without any accountability. Even the Saudi Gazette recently posted an article stating that the case of housemaids running away from their abusive employers have reached an alarming rate and that this is a problem that needs to addressed. At present, there are about 20,000 runaways.

A report by the FIDH (International Federation of Human Rights) and the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights on the Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia details several violations committed by the Saudi Arabian Government on foreign workers. They include, Violations of the Right to Just and Favorable Conditions of Work without Discrimination (ARTICLE 5.e.i), Violation of the Right to Freedom of Movement without Discrimination (ARTICLE 5.d.i), Violation of the Right to Form and Join Unions without Discrimination (ARTICLE 5.e.ii), Violation of the Right to Security of Person without Discrimination (ARTICLE 5.b), Violation of the Right to Equal Treatment before the Tribunals without Discrimination (ARTICLE 5.a).

Saudi employers control their foreign employees without any checks or balances on their behavior. It’s absolute. Foreign workers are left at the mercy of their sponsors when it comes to exiting the country or to change their work or travel. Most of the workers end up working in jobs that they did not sign up before entering the country. In the 2008, Human Rights Watch Report: As If I Am Not Human, it documents several cases of physical and psychological abuse by employers, and in some cases by State agents. Examples of abuse included beatings, deliberate burnings with hot irons, threats, insults, and forms of humiliation such as shaving a domestic worker’s head. Food deprivation was a common abuse. We interviewed women who reported rape, attempted rape, and sexual harassment, typically by male employers or their sons, and in some instances, by other foreign workers whom they had approached for assistance. Embassies reported that few women approach Saudi authorities with these complaints due to the risk of being prosecuted themselves for adultery, fornication, or other moral “misconduct.”  “Overwork” was one of the most common complaints received by embassies and the Saudi Ministry of Social Affairs. Most domestic workers reported working 15-20 hours a day, typically with one hour of rest or no rest at all. None of the interviewees who shared their stories with the Human Rights Watch had a day off or paid time-off. Workload and hours typically increased during Ramadan. Domestic workers reported having to work even when ill or injured and had little access to health care.  Furthermore, many domestic workers were employed in large houses but reported inadequate living accommodations, including having to sleep in areas such as storage closets, and in one case, a bathroom. Please continue to page 2 >


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