(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia should institute reforms to protect domestic workers, including private drivers, Human Rights Watch said today. New research by Human Rights Watch highlights that domestic workers remain the least protected and most vulnerable.
Saudi authorities announced reforms in October 2020 to the sponsorship system that binds the legal status of millions of migrant workers to independent sponsors, thereby facilitating abuse and exploitation, including forced labor. Reforms are expected to take place regarding cases in which a worker can change employers or leave the country in March 2021, although details have yet to be announced. But the reforms do not apply to the 3.7 million domestic workers who are excluded from the labor law. Bloomberg reported that a Saudi official has stated that they are seeking to review domestic labor regulations.
“Saudi Arabia has one of the most abusive examples of the sponsorship system, and while the announced reforms may be a step in the right direction, they do not in any way dismantle the entire sponsorship system,” said Adam Coogle, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division at Human Rights Watch. It is that millions of domestic workers are deprived of the proposed reforms, which leaves them at the mercy of employers while working in secret in private homes.
Under the sponsorship system in Saudi Arabia, migrant workers need an employer to ensure their entry and exit from the country, in addition to his permission to change jobs and leave the country. Saudi Arabia is the only Gulf state that still requires all migrant workers to obtain an exit permit to leave the country. In the event that these workers leave their current job, they can be reported on charges of “absconding”, arrested, and deported.
Based on statements by Saudi authorities and media reports, the reforms will ease restrictions to allow expatriate workers to change jobs after completing their contracts or after a year of notice being given, and authorizing them to request an exit permit from the government without the employer’s permission. However, these are small changes to two of the most offensive elements of the sponsorship system. Since the full details have yet to be announced, it is difficult to assess whether they will be considered reforms.
In November, Human Rights Watch interviewed seven migrant domestic workers from India and Pakistan who worked as drivers for private sector employers in Saudi Arabia, including in Riyadh, Jeddah, and Dammam. According to the daily Al-Eqtisadiah, drivers in Saudi Arabia make up 55 percent of domestic workers. The seven workers said their employers were late, deducted, or completely unpaid for up to six months in a row, which affected their ability to pay off loans they took to pay recruitment fees. They added that their employers forced them to work long hours and verbally abused them.
They said that employers forced them to work up to 18 hours a day, without any day off, in violation of the Saudi domestic workers’ regulation that requires a worker to be given nine hours of continuous rest per day and one day off a week. The regulation, unlike the Labor Law, does not specify an eight-hour workday or require payment of overtime compensation.
An Indian driver who has worked for a Saudi family since January 2019 said that his employers expect him to work continuously from 7 a.m. until late hours after midnight, and he fears work fatigue will cause him a traffic accident. He said, “When they no longer need me to facilitate their own affairs, they send me to the home of the owner of the house to run her business. They act as if they own me, so they have to take advantage of me every moment. Most days, I don’t have time to eat a proper lunch.” Another Indian driver in Riyadh said that since September 2019, he has been working up to 16 hours a day without a day off.
All drivers said their salaries were late, not paid, or unexpectedly deducted. A Pakistani driver in Riyadh recounted that he arrived in Saudi Arabia in January, and that, in July, he had a traffic accident, in which the police concluded he was not guilty. But the employer has kept his monthly salary of 1,200 Saudi riyals ($ 319) since then to punish him. He said, “Since the employer is angry because of the accident, my family in my country is starving, and the same applies to me as I do not have money to eat a suitable meal.”
An Indian driver said his employer only pays him 50% of the amount stated on his contract. In 2017, Saudi authorities required employers to register domestic workers to obtain salary cards for domestic workers, which act as credit cards to withdraw their salaries and to ensure that they are documented electronically. However, none of the drivers interviewed were registered to obtain these cards.
As a result of exploitative recruitment practices, migrant workers are often already in debt upon arrival in the kingdom, and payment delays or salary deductions impede their loan repayment. Drivers paid between $ 626 and $ 1,355 for work visas and travel cards to Saudi Arabia, leaving them in debt.
Under the Saudi labor system, it is illegal to charge recruitment fees from migrant workers, but these fees are not explicitly prohibited for migrant domestic workers. Some men took out private loans with interest to pay off their visa fees to recruiters, while others used their savings.
In 2017, Saudi authorities said that domestic workers can change employers under some circumstances, including if they have not received their salary for three months or if the employer has failed to renew their permits. However, Migrant-Rights.org reports that this is rarely enforced due to flaws in the complaints system and justice mechanisms.
Five out of seven workers said they had complained to government labor agencies about salary violations, burnout, and psychological abuse, but they did not receive any assistance. The driver who was involved in the accident said, “There is no point in going to the workplace. The men there are more rude and less cooperative than the employer.”
In 2013, the Ministry of Labor, which is now the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, established a helpline that workers can call to register their complaints in multiple languages. Two people who worked on the helpline between 2013 and 2018 told Human Rights Watch that the majority of calls they received were from domestic workers, even though employees working for private companies also used the service.
They added that the most common reasons for calling domestic workers are to seek help in collecting their late, low, or unpaid wages. The most prominent complaints among domestic workers were related to verbal, physical and sexual abuse. Human Rights Watch previously documented a range of violations against migrant domestic workers, including non-payment of their salaries, forced confinement, denial of food, and exposure to excessive work and psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Some of these cases amounted to forced labor or trafficking.
One former helpline worker said, “Some domestic workers have not been paid for five or sometimes six years, and they did not know what they could do. Some workers were risking their lives by secretly using their employers’ phones to contact us because they had no other contact with the outside world. It took a long time for workers not to be afraid to reveal the truth, as they live in a state of constant fear. After I came to know their complaints, they often hesitated and asked me to delete all their statements because of their fear of submitting a formal complaint. “
When helpline workers enter migrant worker complaints into their system, as needed, they are sent to the local police or the Ministry of Labor. The former helpline worker said, “Then, when the worker calls back to complain that his problem has not been solved, we can only give him the tracking number for his request. Our powers were not beyond that.”
“Saudi Arabia should completely dismantle the sponsorship system for all migrant workers so that no worker will have to rely on a single employer to enter, reside in, or leave the country. The authorities should also expand labor law protections and apply them equally to millions of workers,” Coogle said. The expatriates who cook, clean, and drive cars for families in Saudi Arabia. “