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Nightmare in Saudi Arabia: The Plight of Foreign Migrant Workers

An Egyptian threatening suicide. A Sri Lankan beheaded. Working in a service job as a foreigner in Saudi Arabia can be extremely hazardous. Bayan Perazzo, who lives in the kingdom, on the brutal conditions.

Desperate after six months of hard work with no pay and an employer who refused to grant him permission to travel home, the 26-year-old Egyptian stood atop a building, threatening to jump to his death.

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A laborer restores ruins in September 2012 in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. (Fahad Shadeed/Reuters, via Landov)

While police officers in the provincial Saudi Arabian city of Taif managed to convince the young man to climb down to safety Friday, he was later detained, and many foreign workers in the kingdom face a similarly desperate plight. More than 8 million migrant workers are employed in service jobs in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, giving it the highest population of foreign workers among the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, according to Human Rights Watch. The organization notes that in 2011, Asian embassies alone recorded thousands of complaints from workers forced to work 140-hour weeks with no days off, in many cases without being paid a salary.

The late King Faisal abolished slavery in the kingdom in 1962, though frequent mistreatment of laborers has left many living in slavelike conditions. Human-rights organizations have criticized Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship system—which requires all expatriates to have an in-country sponsor, usually the employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status—as an enabler of worker exploitation. It is not uncommon for employers to take possession of workers’ passports, and many employers have been known to refuse workers’ requests to return to their home countries for visits and deny requests to change jobs.

Being overworked and having pay withheld has not been the only concern. Unprecedented numbers of rapes and other abuses have been reported among domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. A study by the Committee on Filipinos Overseas found that 70 percent of Filipino domestic workers reported physical and psychological abuse. In October 2012, Al-Watan reported that an Indonesian maid died 18 months after being hospitalized following a severe beating at the hands of her Saudi sponsor’s son. Although the young Saudi man was allegedly responsible for the worker’s death, he faced no legal repercussions. And frequent reports of rape from Nepalese workers in Saudi Arabia were a contributing factor in Nepal banning women younger than 30 from working in the Gulf states last year.

With many workers living in dire circumstances, similarly dire consequences have resulted. A number of workers who have been mistreated or not given proper medical assistance have resorted to suicide. The most recent reported case was that of an Ethiopian maid, who hanged herself in her employers’ home in late December 2012. The maid’s employers said they believed she suffered from a mental disorder, though she had never been examined or treated for such a condition.

Unfortunate cases of frustrated workers murdering members of their sponsor families also have become more frequent. One Indonesian domestic worker killed her sponsor after her requests to return home were repeatedly denied. The worker was beheaded. As a result, in 2011 the Indonesian government banned its citizens from traveling to Saudi Arabia to work.

Despite continual calls by human-rights organizations for serious reform, the kingdom has made no meaningful changes, leaving millions of workers vulnerable today.

If a foreign worker in the kingdom lands in a compromising legal situation, retaining suitable legal representation is extremely difficult. In some cases, workers have been coerced into signing confessions to crimes they haven’t committed. In others, where disputes have arisen between the employer and the employee, employees have been compelled to sign legally binding documents protecting the Saudi employer from being held accountable. All legally binding documents in Saudi Arabia must be written in Arabic, and workers often are intentionally deceived about the content of the document they are signing. Regrettably, such cases have meant dismal outcomes for the employees. Some have been forced return home without pay, while others have been sentenced to death without a fair trial or representation. The latter was the case earlier this week for a young Sri Lankan domestic worker who was beheaded. Fearing such grave consequences, many domestic workers refuse to report abuse.

Christoph Wilcke, the senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, predicted in 2010 that without the abolition of the sponsorship program and serious legal reforms to protect domestic workers, horrific cases of brutality would continue in Saudi Arabia. Despite continual calls by human-rights organizations for serious reform, the kingdom has made no meaningful changes, leaving millions of workers extremely vulnerable today.