The Saudi government and the foreign missions of labor-sending countries receive thousands of complaints from domestic workers each year. Our research indicates that many domestic workers’ problems may remain unreported given isolation in private homes, employers’ ability to repatriate workers at will, and poorly functioning redress mechanisms that provide little incentive to seek official help.
For those complaints reaching Saudi authorities or foreign embassies, the response to labor exploitation and criminal abuses against domestic workers remains ad hoc and may compound the abuse. While Saudi authorities are able to assist some domestic workers to claim their wages and return home, in other instances they return domestic workers to abusive situations, prosecute workers on the basis of counter-complaints made by employers, or negotiate unfair settlements between employers and workers. Given the difference in bargaining power, in negotiated settlements domestic workers often return home without their full salaries or redress for other abuses.
The Ministry of Social Affairs runs a center in Riyadh for domestic workers who require exit visas, return tickets, identity documents, and who have ongoing wage disputes with their employers. This center represents a significant step forward in providing domestic workers with a mechanism to resolve immigration and labor problems. However, several aspects of its operations raise concern. Domestic workers must often settle for unfair financial settlements and wait for months in the overcrowded shelter with little information about their cases.
Migrant domestic workers face several problems should they come into conflict with Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice system: uneven or severely delayed access to interpretation, legal aid, and access to their consulates; spurious countercharges of theft or witchcraft from their employers in efforts to mask mistreatment; and discriminatory and harsh morality laws that criminalize mingling with unrelated men and engaging in consensual sexual relationships. Domestic workers who have been victims of rape or sexual harassment but who cannot prove it in accordance with strict Sharia evidential standards may also be subject to prosecution for immoral conduct or adultery. Punishment for this range of crimes includes imprisonment, whippings, and in some cases, the death penalty.
Embassy officials complain that there is no set procedure or system in Saudi Arabia for handling cases of abuse against domestic workers. One embassy official, requesting anonymity, said, “There is no standard, we can’t tell you this is the procedure for women out of Riyadh, because each is a unique case, there is a different solution each time because there is no procedure.”2
In the absence of effective local redress mechanisms for victims of abuse, the foreign missions of labor-sending countries play a critical role in advocating for their nationals’ rights and providing services such as shelter, legal aid, and assistance in claiming unpaid wages from employers. The capacity and support offered by the missions of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Nepal, and other lab0r-sending countries vary widely. Most struggle to handle the high volume of complaints given insufficient financial resources and staff. Although these missions are able to provide key support in many instances, domestic workers approaching them for help complain of long waiting periods with little information about their cases. The shelters operated by the Indonesian and Sri Lankan embassies are grossly overcrowded with unhygienic conditions, and the embassy of Nepal has no shelter despite dealing with a significant number of complaints.
In response to the types of abuses documented in this report, some labor-sending countries have experimented with or called for bans on women’s migration to Saudi Arabia. However, experience shows that such bans often result only in women migrating through less secure, illegal channels that may put them at greater risk. In turn, Saudi Arabia and other countries of employment have tried to reduce their dependence on migrant labor or introduced restrictive immigration policies in an attempt to control the flow.
Greater multilateral and regional cooperation is essential for developing and enforcing sound, rights-based migration policy. Given uneven bargaining power, bilateral labor agreements between labor-sending and labor-receiving countries tend to be weak. Emerging initiatives that bring governments together to discuss migration such as the Colombo Process, the Abu Dhabi Dialogue, and the Global Forum on Migration and Development have the potential to serve as important vehicles for addressing migrant domestic workers’ rights. These meetings should develop stronger links with United Nations processes, and incorporate and build upon existing human rights treaties and guidelines on migrants.
Key Recommendations to the Government of Saudi Arabia
The key to ending abuse against migrants is not by ending migration, but in providing adequate protections so that domestic workers migrate on the basis of an informed choice, and with guarantees for their rights. Many of the abuses against domestic workers are preventable, and when they do occur, there are clear steps governments can take to hold perpetrators accountable.
Human Rights Watch recommends that the government of Saudi Arabia:
Reform the visa sponsorship system so that workers’ visas are no longer tied to individual sponsors, and they are able to transfer employment or leave the country at will;
Adopt the proposed annex to the 2005 Labor Code extending labor protections to domestic workers, ensure these equal those provided other workers, and create a timeline and tools for implementation;
Cooperate with labor-sending countries to monitor domestic workers’ working conditions, facilitate rescues, ensure recovery of unpaid wages, and to arrange for timely repatriation;
Improve the facilities and protocols for the centers for domestic workers operated by the Ministry of Social Affairs;
Cooperate with labor-sending countries to notify them about detained nationals and to create shelters for survivors of abuse, including medical care, counseling, and legal aid; and
Establish mechanisms for regular and independent monitoring of labor agencies and recruitment practices, including through unannounced inspections.
Key Recommendations to the Governments of Migrants’ Countries of Origin (including Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal)
Improve services, including quality of shelters, availability of counseling, and numbers of trained staff, for migrant domestic workers at embassies and consular offices in Saudi Arabia.
Strengthen the regulation and monitoring of recruitment agents, including through unannounced inspections and effective complaints mechanisms.
Expand public awareness-raising programs for prospective migrant domestic workers and enhance pre-departure training programs.