Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia


With few opportunities at home, millions of poor, desperate men and women from South East Asia and the horn of Africa migrate annually to Saudi Arabia. Vulnerable at home and vulnerable abroad where many are enslaved and badly abused, some killed. Slavery is woven into the fabric of the psyche of the kingdom; according to Saudi scholar Ali al-Ahmed, a “culture of slavery pervades the country”[The Guardian], and although banned in 1964 (when it is thought there were 30,000 slaves in the country) the barbaric practice of owning a fellow human being still exists in the form of the internationally condemned kafala sponsorship system. By tying the residency status of migrant workers to their employers, the system grants the latter total control, amounting to ownership.

Under the scheme employers confiscate passports, money and mobile phones of new arrivals; workers who want to change jobs or leave the country must seek their employer’s, consent who universally refuse to give it. A “sub-contracting” scheme is also in operation, with employers selling workers on. The Dickensian system, which facilitates the abuse suffered by migrant workers, particularly domestic staff, needs to be banned as a matter of urgency; labour laws protecting migrant workers introduced and enforced, and full access to consulate support made available.

Oil Rich and Abusive

Migrant workers make up a third (8 million) of the population and over half the workforce in Saudi Arabia; they are mainly unskilled labourers and domestic workers (jobs the Saudis don’t want to do), “are inadequately protected by labour laws and are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their employers” [Amnesty International], including: excessive working hours, up to 15 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week; wages withheld for months or years on end; forced confinement; food deprivation; and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Women domestic workers “are also at particular risk of sexual violence and other abuses.” A study by the Philippines based Committee on Workers Overseas Welfare says, “70% of [Filipino] workers employed as caregivers or without a specific work qualification suffers continuous physical and psychological harassment,” in the oil rich gulf state [report by Asia News]. Lorraine, a 27-year old Filipino arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2010. ‘When my boss came to pick me up’ – she says – ‘he tried to touch me at once to see if I was available. In the first weeks I constantly suffered his advances, which became more insistent every time I refused.’ In nine months of employment Lorraine was raped five times.” She was beaten and insulted by the man’s wife and fed on bread and leftovers.

Large numbers of migrant workers relate similar stories, horrific experiences causing many to fall into ill health and large numbers to commit suicide; “scores of Asian and African domestic workers have been reported to have committed suicide in Saudi Arabia over the past years because of mistreatment and other factors” [Emirates 24/7]. One such was an Ethiopian woman (who remains anonymous), working as a maid in the northern province of Tabarja: she hanged herself in her employer’s home.

Racism is rife throughout the kingdom, from the royal top to the rural bottom; it forms part of “a nefarious cocktail of rigid sectarianism, classism, clannism, and state-sponsored xenophobia” [Al Jazeera] that underpins extreme exploitation. All migrant workers are tarnished as “black” – (a national insult relating to marginalised groups), with Ethiopians sitting at the bottom of a hierarchy of prejudice that places migrants from the Philippines, Malaysia and Sri Lanka ahead of their African cousins. Ethiopians suffer the double injustice of being mistreated by their employers and agents, and neglected by their own notoriously duplicitous government – The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) – that offers their nationals little or no consulate support.

There is no solace allowed even in their religion. Many African workers are Christians, but “absolutely no churches are officially allowed. As recently as this April, Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti [the most senior and most influential Sunni Muslim religious and legal authority in the country] declared that all churches in the Arabian Peninsula must be destroyed” [All Africa]. Ethiopian migrants are commonly Orthodox Christians (many devoutly religious); they suffer extreme discrimination and repression by the intolerant authoritarian Saudi regime. In February this year the Islamic religious police or Mutaween, an extreme body responsible for the enforcement of Shia law in Arab States raided an Ethiopian Christian prayer meeting and made mass arrests; six months earlier 35 Ethiopians were arrested and deported for engaging in Christian worship.

Judicial Indifference Capital Punishment

In addition to suffering extreme discrimination and violent mistreatment, migrant workers (mainly domestic) who manage to escape abusive employers, are often victims of spurious criminal accusations. “Employers may accuse domestic workers, especially those from Indonesia, of witchcraft. Victims of rape and sexual assault are at risk of being accused of adultery and fornication” [The Guardian]. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the “Saudi justice system is characterised by arbitrary arrests, unfair trials and harsh punishments…[the] criminal justice system violates the most basic international human rights standards and detainees routinely face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights.”

Migrants, who often don’t speak the language, are denied access to translators and lawyers and frequently are not allowed to contact their embassies. In 2011 an Indonesian 54-year old worker Ruyati Binti Satubi Saruna, was tried, sentenced and decapitated without being able to consult her government More than “45 [Indonesian] foreign maids are facing execution on death row” as well as women from “Sri Lankan, Filipina, Indian and Ethiopian maids.” Saudi families are known to ask for up to US $2 million in blood money in exchange for the release of incarcerated (falsely accused) women awaiting execution.

In 2012 The Guardian reported, “Saudi Arabia executed at least 69 people [says HRW]. The previous year it executed at least 79, including five women, [Amnesty International]. The death toll included one woman beheaded for witchcraft and sorcery.” The Saudi authorities are not forthcoming with the total numbers imprisoned and living under the shadow of the death penalty; however, “Amnesty International said it knew of more than 120 people – mostly foreign nationals – on death row.”

Violent Expulsions

Over a million Bangladeshis, Indians, Filipinos, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Yemenis have been repatriated since the “correction campaign,” (arrest and expulsion) was enforced on 4th November against migrants without the required legal documentation. The expulsions are largely supported by Saudi society; many feel the number of migrants has grown out of control since the oil boom of the late 1970s and that the huge numbers of migrants in the kingdom has impacted negatively on community life. With 12% total unemployment, 25% – 30% for under 30 year olds, it is hoped the process of “clearing” will allow Saudi’s to find more work.

During the crackdown migrants of different nationalities report being mistreated by security personnel and civilian vigilante groups; workers from the Philippines (numbering around 660,000) report being abused and “treated like animals”. Ethiopians (of whom 100,000 have been repatriated), with and without visas have been specifically targeted; men and women have been dragged through the streets; beaten, raped and according to Esat TV, dozens have been killed, including women. Witnesses report seeing two Ethiopian women killed in Mekreyement, Shababiya by Saudi military vehicles, and another beaten to death with an iron by soldiers [Esat TV].

Confined to repatriation centres that are little more than prison camps, migrants relayed accounts of extreme mistreatment, poor sanitation, lack of food and health care. “Keeping thousands of people in makeshift centers without adequate food, shelter, or medical attention could lead to humanitarian disaster”[HRW]. According to reports reaching Esat, thousands are hastily being taken from the camps to the Yemen border and left without any provisions. Many returnees to Ethiopia tell of violent treatment, and (AllAfrica reports), carry with them scars and fresh wounds from beatings by [Saudi] employers, police and/or civilian mobs – who armed with sticks, swords, machetes, and firearms [HRW], have been allowed, indeed encouraged by the authorities to attack, murder and rape innocent Ethiopians. Men and women whom the Saudi media accuses of crimes, alcohol use and prostitution, a prejudicial attitude churned out by the TV and press that is shared by many Saudis: “they’d rather sit here and do nothing than go home because maybe they will get some kind of work…in Ethiopia there is nothing for them”, a local said [The Guardian].

Leading up to the routing of migrants the media and “Saudi authorities have spent months branding foreign workers as criminals…and stirring up anti-migrant sentiment to justify the labor crackdown.” Antagonism between Ethiopians and Saudis has been fanned by “local press reports blaming Ethiopian female domestic workers for brutal attacks against Saudi employers. In July, Saudi officials claimed that over 200 Ethiopian women had been detained in two months for ‘psychological problems,’ leading the labor ministry to temporarily ban the recruitment of Ethiopian workers to the country.” “Psychological problems” caused undoubtedly by abusive employers. The Saudi government “needs to rein in Saudi citizens who are attacking foreign workers” [HRW], and Investigations should be instigated to prosecute those responsible for the violence.

The hundreds of thousands being repatriated made the journey from Asia, Yemen and the horn of Africa because they had no options at home. As “reverse migration”, not only from Saudi Arabia, but also from Bhutan and Oman, takes effect, what awaits these men and women upon their return?

Over 190,000 Yemeni migrant workers, mostly employed in construction, have been sent home, causing “severe deterioration in living conditions in Yemen”[Press TV]. From the glass and steel mountains of Jeddah and Riyadh they were sending up to USD 200 a month to their families, money desperately needed for daily living. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says “we are looking at approximately USD 5 million lost in remittances [to Yemen] for the months of October and November alone.” Most Yemenis “are returning to areas with high levels of food insecurity and malnutrition. The massive loss of income will inevitably exacerbate this situation.” In June Filipino migrants sent over USD 2 billion home, which was “an all-time record. It was better than all foreign investments (direct and indirect) combined” [Arab News]. In 2011 migrant workers residing in Saudi Arabia sent USD 35.7 billion (double what it was just two decades ago) to their families. The huge amount flowing out of the country makes Saudi Arabia the second highest source of overseas payments in the world – the first being America. The single biggest recipient, with 30% of the total is India, (made up of millions of individual amounts averaging USD 30), followed by Egypt, Pakistan and the Philippines with almost USD 9 billion each.

The IOM has been providing assistance to Yemeni returnees, “including health care, water, food, and immediate necessities such as clothing and footwear,” and offers much needed support to Ethiopian returnees: “overnight accommodation, food, water, shoes and money for transport to their places of origin.” Essential short term aid, which will be gratefully received; however, the immediate and ongoing hardships they and their families face, the struggle of living without work, opportunities or hope have gone nowhere. It is these underlying issues that make the disadvantaged vulnerable, and causes people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and South East Asia to leave their homes and seek work elsewhere.

Unless the root causes, poverty, poor education and lack of opportunities, together with extreme social and economic inequality, are dealt with, the danger is that many of those being repatriated will endeavor to migrate elsewhere, perhaps illegally with the aid of criminal gangs, placing themselves at risk of further exploitation, abuse and even death.

The ‘migrant crackdown’ in Saudi Arabia has unearthed a plethora of poisonous practices, racism, hate and abusive methods in the country; the violence meted out by security personnel and civilian gangs on the city streets has revealed publicly the level of extreme mistreatment suffered by thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of domestic workers hidden from view, trapped and enslaved. It is a society operating in defiance of all manner of human rights that has been clearly seen and exposed; as the thousands of Ethiopians protesting outside Saudi Arabian embassies across the world have chanted; “shame on you, shame on you, shame on you.”

Graham Peebles is director of the Create Trust. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org

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Graham Peebles is a freelance writer. He can be reached at: graham@thecreatetrust.org  

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