Many domestic workers may find responsible employers who treat them well, pay them regularly, and ensure appropriate working conditions. These workers’ experiences often form the basis of the widespread perceptions in their home countries of lucrative and exciting jobs abroad. Unfortunately, finding a situation that meets minimum standards of decent work is often a matter of luck and not a guarantee. And those who are not so lucky may become trapped in highly exploitative situations with few exit options.
Some employers exploit their control over migrant domestic workers’ legal status and their own freedom from obligations under Saudi labor laws. Interviews with domestic workers, diplomats from labor-sending countries, and Saudi officials underlined non-payment and underpayment of wages as the most common complaint. In addition, many women reported the wages they received were lower than the amount promised in contracts signed in their home countries.
We documented several cases of physical and psychological abuse by employers, and in some cases by 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 had a day off or paid leave. 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.
Saudi immigration policy requires that employers sign an “exit visa” for migrant workers wishing to return home. Many employers refuse to sign these exit visas, forcing domestic workers to continue working against their will for months or years. In other cases, former employers’ refusal to sign prolonged migrants’ departure for months if they had escaped and were waiting in a shelter. When employers force workers to continue their employment against their will, subject them to exploitative work conditions, abuse them physically or sexually, withhold their wages, and confine them to the workplace, these women are in situations of forced labor and often servitude.
Several factors contribute to migrant domestic workers’ isolation, financial stress, and limited access to assistance. Domestic workers may see no way out of abusive situations. Because work permits are tied to the individual employer, leaving or losing one’s job typically means immediate repatriation. Many employers confiscate their domestic workers’ passports and work permits, meaning women and girls fleeing abusive situations can face arrest and immigration detention. Employers held the passports of every domestic worker we interviewed, and in many cases refused to produce them even after interventions by Saudi authorities or embassy officials. Some employers also restrict domestic workers from making or receiving phone calls, talking to neighbors, or leaving the place of employment independently. The majority of domestic workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that if their employers were not at home, they were locked in the workplace from the outside; several reported being locked in bedrooms or bathrooms for days at a time.