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Report/Press release

"Bad Dreams:" Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia




Human Rights Watch


"It was like a bad dream" is the way one migrant worker from the Philippines summed up his experiences in Saudi Arabia. Another worker, from Bangladesh, told us: "I slept many nights beside the road and spent many days without food. It was a painful life. I could not explain that life." A woman in a village in India, whose son was beheaded following a secret trial, could only say this: "We have no more tears, our tears have all dried up." She deferred to her husband to provide the account of their son's imprisonment and execution in Jeddah.

It is undeniable that many foreigners employed in the kingdom, in jobs from the most menial to the highest skilled, have returned home with no complaints. But for the women and men who were subjected to abysmal and exploitative working conditions, sexual violence, and human rights abuses in the criminal justice system, Saudi Arabia represented a personal nightmare.

In 1962, then-King Faisal abolished slavery in Saudi Arabia by royal decree. Over forty years later, migrant workers in the purportedly modern society that the kingdom has become continue to suffer extreme forms of labor exploitation that sometimes rise to slavery-like conditions. Their lives are further complicated by deeply rooted gender, religious, and racial discrimination. This provides the foundation for prejudicial public policy and government regulations, shameful practices of private employers, and unfair legal proceedings that yield judicial sentences of the death penalty.

The overwhelming majority of the men and women who face these realities in Saudi Arabia are low-paid workers from Asia, Africa, and countries in the Middle East.

This report gives voice to some of their stories.

It is based on information gathered from migrant workers and their families in mud brick houses off dirt roads in tropical agricultural areas of southwest India, in apartments in densely packed neighborhoods of metropolitan Manila, and in simple dwellings in rural villages of Bangladesh. The victims include skilled and unskilled workers; Muslims, Hindus, and Christians; young adults traveling outside their home countries for the first time; and married men, and single and divorced women, with children to support.

In Saudi Arabia, these workers delivered dairy products, cleaned government hospitals, repaired water pipes, collected garbage, and poured concrete. Some of them baked bread and worked in restaurants; others were butchers, barbers, carpenters, and plumbers. Women migrants cleaned, cooked, cared for children, worked in beauty salons, and sewed custom-made dresses and gowns. Unemployed or underemployed in their countries of origin, and often impoverished, these men and women sought only the opportunity to earn wages and thus improve the economic situation for themselves and their families.

This report is the first comprehensive examination of the variety of human rights abuses that foreign workers experience in Saudi Arabia. The voices of these migrants provide a window into a country whose hereditary, unelected rulers continue to choose secrecy over transparency at the expense of justice. The stories in this report illustrate why so many migrant workers, including Muslims, return to their home countries deeply aggrieved by the lack of equality and due process of law in the kingdom. In an important sense, this report is an indictment of unscrupulous private employers and sponsors as well as Saudi authorities, including interior ministry interrogators and shari'a court judges, who operate without respect for the rule of law and the inherent dignity of all men and women, irrespective of gender, race, and religion.

Some of the most frightening and troubling findings of the report concern mistreatment of women migrant workers, both in the workplace and in Saudi prisons. The report also provides an intimate view of the workings of Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system, through the eyes of migrant workers with first-hand experience of its significant flaws. And it is the families and friends of migrants who were beheaded, pursuant to judicial rulings, who describe how Saudi authorities kept them and consular officials in the dark until well after the executions were carried out. The mortal remains of these victims were not returned to their families, who until now have no information about what happened to the bodies.

Labor Exploitation

Each chapter of this report includes testimonies from migrant workers who entered the kingdom legally, in full compliance with Saudi government regulations. Many of them paid hefty sums of money to manpower recruitment agencies in their home countries to secure legal employment visas, often assuming substantial debt or selling property to finance the cost. Once in the kingdom, they found themselves at the mercy of legal sponsors and de facto employers who had the power to impose oppressive working conditions on them, with effective government oversight clearly lacking. Unaware of their rights, or afraid to complain for fear of losing their jobs, the majority of these workers simply endured gross labor exploitation.

To cite only a few examples, we interviewed migrant workers from Bangladesh who were forced to work ten to twelve hours a day, and sometimes throughout the night without overtime pay, repairing underground water pipes for the municipality of Tabuk. They were not paid salaries for the first two months and had to borrow money from compatriots to purchase food. An Indian migrant said that he was was paid $133 a month for working an average of sixteen hours daily in Ha'il. A migrant from the Philippines said that he worked sixteen to eighteen hours a day at a restaurant in Hofuf, leaving him so exhausted that, he told us, he "felt mentally retarded." The employer of a migrant from Bangladesh, who worked as a butcher in Dammam, forced him to leave the kingdom with six months of his salary unpaid.
Women Migrant Workers

Some women workers that we interviewed were still traumatized from rape and sexual abuse at the hands of Saudi male employers, and could not narrate their accounts without anger or tears. Accustomed to unrestricted freedom of movement in their home countries, these and other women described to us locked doors and gates in Riyadh, Jeddah, Medina, and Dammam that kept them virtual prisoners in workshops, private homes, and the dormitory-style housing that labor subcontracting companies provided to them. Living in forced confinement and extreme isolation made it difficult or impossible for these women to call for help, escape situations of exploitation and abuse, and seek legal redress.

We learned that hundreds of low-paid Asian women who cleaned hospitals in Jeddah worked twelve-hour days, without food or a break, and were confined to locked dormitories during their time off. Skilled seamstresses from the Philippines told us that they were not permitted to leave the women's dress shop in Medina where they worked twelve-hour days, and were forbidden to speak more than a few words to customers and the Saudi owners.

Many women employed as domestic workers in cities throughout the kingdom reported that they worked twelve hours or more daily. Most of them also lived in around-the-clock confinement, at the decision of their private employers, cut off from the outside world. One woman from the Philippines, whose employers in Dammamdid not provide her with sufficient food, described how she enlisted help from the family's Indian driver, to whom she was forbidden to speak. She told us that she wrote lists of what she needed and threw them out the window to the driver. He made the purchases, and "delivered" them to her by tossing the packages onto the roof of the house, where she retrieved them. Another Filipina, who also worked for a family in Dammam, said that she constantly watched the locked front gate of the house, waiting for an opportunity to escape after her male employer raped her in June 2003.
Human Rights Abuses in the Criminal Justice System

Some migrant workers experienced shocking treatment in Saudi Arabia's criminal justice system. For those migrants who were executed following unfair trials that lacked any form of transparency, it was their still-grieving families who provided us with pertinent information.

In many cases, the condemned men did not know that they had been sentenced to death, and their embassies were only informed after the fact. "No advance information is given to us before beheading of Indians," an Indian diplomat said in a television interview in 2003. "We generally get the information after the execution from local newspapers."

In cases of execution documented in this report, the bodies were not returned to the families, and relatives told Human Rights Watch that they received no official information about the location in Saudi Arabia of the mortal remains.

An undetermined number of foreigners have been sentenced to death in the kingdom and are now awaiting execution. Details of their trials, and the evidence presented to convict them, are treated as closely held state secrets.

Saudi Arabia continues to flaunt its treaty obligations under international and domestic law. Consular officials have not been notified promptly of the arrests of their nationals. Criminal suspects are not informed of their rights under the law. Interrogators from the ministry of interior torture suspects with impunity, behind the curtain of prolonged incommunicado detention, in the quest for confessions whose veracity is tenuous at best. Migrant workers told Human Rights Watch of how they were forced to sign confession statements that they could not read, under the threat of additional torture. A twenty-three-year-old Indian tailor described two days of beatings in police custody. On the third day, his interrogators gave him two pages handwritten in Arabic and instructed him to sign his name three times on each page. "I was so afraid that I did not dare ask what the papers were, or what was written on them," he said.

Migrants' accounts of their trials before shari'a courts provide evidence of a legal system that is out of sync with internationally accepted norms of due process. No one we interviewed had access to legal assistance before their trials, and no legal representation when they appeared in the courtroom. One Indian migrant worker told us about a judge who repeatedly called him a liar when he answered questions during his trial. A worker from the Philippines, who was imprisoned for five years before he was brought before a court for the first time, described how a judge sentenced him to 350 lashes because his interrogators had extracted a false confession. The judge justified this corporal punishment because the coerced confession, obtained under threats and torture, was untrue. Interviews with women migrants in the women's prison in Riyadh indicated that most of them had not been informed of their rights, had no understanding of the legal basis for their arrest or the status of their cases, and had no access to lawyers or other forms of legal assistance.
The Need for Government Action

The stories narrated in this report underscore the pressing need for the government of Saudi Arabia to recognize that its laws and regulations facilitate the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable migrant workers, and reform its laws and practices accordingly.

Some major recommendations are highlighted below, and a full range of recommendations, to Saudi government officials and actors in the international community, is presented in Chapter IX.

One of the most tragic aspects of the situation is that many migrants silently accept the exploitation and deprivation of their rights because they view themselves as powerless and without effective remedy. These workers arrive in Saudi Arabia ignorant or only vaguely informed about the rights they have under existing Saudi law and the actions they can take when inequities and mistreatment occur.

This is a problem that their own governments could address, in part, by way of substantive and effective education before these workers depart for the kingdom. But the government of Saudi Arabia has the primary responsibility to promote and protect the rights of the country's large migrant worker population in a much more aggressive and public manner, consistent with its obligations under international law. Authorities should provide a clear enumeration of the specific rights that migrant workers are entitled to enjoy under the kingdom's laws and regulations. They should spell out the specific legal duties of sponsors and employers, provide a comprehensive list of practices that are illegal, and offer detailed instructions about how and where migrant workers can report abuses. This information should be practical, not theoretical. It should draw on specific abuses that migrants are most likely to face, such as those described in this report, and provide authoritative comments and advice. The information should be translated into the languages of the countries of origin of migrant workers, and provided to every worker on his or her arrival in the kingdom as a routine matter of immigration practice. The government should also identify additional means to communicate this information to migrant communities throughout the kingdom as a further demonstration of its commitment to greater protection of their rights.

Saudi authorities must also recognize that many migrant workers are simply too afraid to report abusive treatment for fear of alienating sponsors or de facto employers, inviting retaliatory punishment, and losing their jobs. Government officials must take steps to communicate directly with migrant workers in the kingdom – using all available means, including broadcast as well as print media – to provide assurances that no one will be rendered jobless and summarily deported for complaining about illegal practices and abusive working conditions.

The Saudi government says that it plans to reduce the number of foreign workers by 50 percent over the next decade.1 This objective does not lessen the urgent need for the state to remedy the exploitation of migrant workers who are now in the kingdom and to end discriminatory practices that severely circumscribe their rights under Saudi law. Even if the government's planned downsizing is achieved within ten years, the kingdom will still be required under domestic and international law to protect the rights of those migrant workers who remain.

If Saudi authorities do not take serious steps to address the patterns of abuse of migrant workers, the issue will continue to be a subject of investigation and scrutiny, on the agendas of international human rights organizations, nongovernmental migrant rights groups in countries of origin, and coalitions of women's rights and human rights organizations in the Muslim world and elsewhere.

There is public sentiment in the kingdom, and elsewhere in the Gulf region, sympathetic to the plight of migrant workers. No less than the kingdom's highest Muslim religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al Sheikh, has already acknowledged that migrants suffer "exploitation and oppression."2 His comments, published in 2002 in the Saudi daily al-Madinah, included the observation that "Islam does not permit oppressing workers, regardless of religion ... .As we ask them to perform their duty, we must fulfill our duty and comply with the terms of the contract." The Grand Mufti criticized intimidation of migrant workers, and said that it was "illegal and a form of dishonesty" to withhold their salaries or delay payment of wages under threat of deportation. He counseled that Islam prohibits "blackmailing and threatening [foreign] laborers with deportation if they refuse the employers' terms which breach the contract."

Another example comes from the neighboring island nation of Bahrain, where the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), a nongovernmental organization, is campaigning for greater protection of women domestic workers. A BCHR official in 2003 described these women as "the most abused of the workforce," and charged that the government was not doing enough "to break the chain of exploitation that binds them." The group urged civil society organizations in Bahrain, including women's rights groups, to take up the issue.3

The testimonies in this report were obtained from interviews with migrant workers in Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines who had returned from Saudi Arabia, some of them as recently as December 2003. Human Rights Watch was forced to research this subject from outside Saudi Arabia because, as of this writing, the kingdom remains closed to investigators from international human rights organizations.

We selected Bangladesh, India, and the Philippines for field research for several reasons.

First, the migrant workers from these three countries are among the largest expatriate communities in Saudi Arabia. In 2003, the Saudi government estimated that there were one million to 1.5 million Indians in the kingdom and the same number of Bangladeshis. The Philippines government reported in the same year that over 900,000 of its citizens lived and worked in the kingdom.

Second, these countries provided the diversity that we sought among interviewees: the workers whose accounts appear in this report include Muslims from Bangladesh, Hindus and Muslims from India, and Christians and Muslims from the Philippines.

We found migrants from Bangladesh the least educated; they typically were unskilled younger men from rural villages whose salaries in Saudi Arabia were the lowest we recorded. We interviewed Indian migrants in cities, towns, and rural agricultural villages of Kerala, the small southwestern state of about 33 million people located on India's Malabar coast between the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The Keralite migrants generally had more schooling than their Bangladeshi counterparts and worked in a broader range of skilled and unskilled jobs. Migrants from the Philippines had the highest education levels, including women with some college education who earned $200 a month as domestic workers in the kingdom. Most of the Filipino male migrants whom we interviewed were skilled workers, ranging from mechanics to engineers, who commanded the highest comparative salaries. Despite this diverse mix of migrant workers, we documented surprisingly similar problems that cut across gender, ethnic, religious, and socioeconomic lines, including a pattern of human rights abuse in the kingdom's criminal justice system.

The subjects covered in this report make clear that comprehensive documentation of the conditions facing migrant workers in Saudi Arabia would be best served by conducting the research in the kingdom. In addition to the value of being able to speak directly with officials, sponsors, and employers, such research would allow us to meet with some of the thousands of migrant men and women in the kingdom's prisons and deportation centers whose stories need to be heard and told.

An undetermined number of migrant workers have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution. Independent human rights investigators should be permitted to talk to them about their interrogations and trials. There are also over thirty government labor offices throughout the kingdom where some workers file complaints against abusive employers, as well as "safe houses" where abused migrants are sheltered.

In this report, we have changed the names of the migrant workers whom we interviewed, based on concern for their safety, should they decide to return to Saudi Arabia, and for the security of their relatives who were working in the kingdom at the time we conducted our interviews. The full names of these men and women are on file at Human Rights Watch. The only exception to this rule is cases of migrant workers who were executed or who have been sentenced to death. In such cases, their real names are provided.


As of this writing, discussions were ongoing between Human Rights Watch and the Saudi government about access to the kingdom for the purpose of human rights research. We had access as an organization only once, in January 2003. During this visit, which was limited to two weeks, our representatives met in Riyadh with numerous senior government officials as well as Saudi lawyers, journalists, academics, other professionals, and members of the 120-member consultative council (majlis al-shura). But the terms of reference for this visit did not include field research.

Without such access, Saudi Arabia remains on our list of closed countries for the purpose of human rights research. The alternative methodology used to prepare this report should indicate to the Saudi government that – despite the additional time and expense – Human Rights Watch is prepared to document human rights abuses, even if access to the kingdom is denied. Our strong preference, however, is to work in a more open and direct manner, with the active cooperation of the government. We hope that senior Saudi officials will see the merits of this approach and open the kingdom's doors to researchers from Human Rights Watch and other international human rights groups.
Key Recommendations

The most recent information from Saudi Arabia's ministry of labor indicates that expatriates in the kingdom total 8.8 million men and women, a significant number, given that the indigenous population is an estimated 18 million (see Chapter I). This report provides extensive documentation of the varieties of labor exploitation and human rights abuses that foreign workers face in the kingdom. The significant size of Saudi Arabia's expatriate population, and the serious nature of the problems that they often encounter, necessitate bold and innovative remedial actions from the government.

The detailed recommendations of Human Rights Watch – to the government of Saudi Arabia, its various ministries, and other concerned international and regional parties – are presented in Chapter IX of the report.

Among our key recommendations to the government of Saudi Arabia are the following:

(1) Initiate an independent, thorough, and public national inquiry into the situation of migrant workers in the kingdom.

Saudi authorities have never comprehensively and publicly assessed the realities that many migrant workers in the kingdom face. As a result, there is limited official and public awareness of the nature and scope of the problem. Accordingly, Human Rights Watch urges that His Royal Highness Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, First Deputy Prime Minister and Commander of the National Guard, should appoint an independent and impartial Royal Commission to investigate and report on the serious problems and abuses that migrant women and men in the kingdom face on a daily basis.

As part of the commission's mandate, it should hold public hearings in all major cities throughout the kingdom. Migrant workers, and their families and advocates, should be invited to give testimony at these hearings, as should regional and international nongovernmental organizations with expertise on migrant workers issues and rights.

The commission should be required by law to complete its inquiry within a defined period of time, and make its findings and recommendations public.

(2) Take immediate action to inform all migrant workers in the kingdom of their rights under Saudi and international law.

This report makes clear that large numbers of migrant workers are unaware of the rights that they have under existing law. Because such workers typically face language barriers and live in the kingdom for only a few years at a time, more concerted government efforts are necessary to inform them of their rights. Accordingly, we call on the government to promulgate by royal decree an enforceable "bill of rights" for migrant workers. It should be publicized widely in the kingdom, using print and broadcast media and other means of public outreach. The decree should be issued simultaneously in Arabic and all the languages of the countries of origin of the major migrant worker communities in the kingdom.

This "bill of rights" should delineate, in a comprehensive and comprehensible manner, all the rights that are granted to migrant workers under the kingdom's laws and regulations. It should serve as a practical educational tool for workers and employers alike, and clarify legal and other ambiguities that lead to abusive treatment.

(3) Impose significant penalties on Saudi employers and sponsors who exploit migrant workers and place them at risk.

Pursuant to Saudi Arabia's international legal obligations, the use of forced or compulsory labor should be a specifically defined criminal offense under domestic law.

In addition, substantial penalties should be imposed on employers who withhold the passports and residency permits of migrant workers, and those who charge illegal fees for official immigration documents.

(4) Make domestic labor-law protections inclusive.

One shortcoming that Saudi authorities should address urgently is the absence of legal protections for women and men employed in domestic service and agricultural work in the kingdom. Such individuals are excluded even from the flawed and limited labor protections currently in force under Saudi law. The protections of the kingdom's labor law should extend to all migrant workers, irrespective of their gender and job descriptions, however menial such jobs may be considered.

(5) End the forced confinement of women migrant workers.

The executive branch of government and consultative council (majlis al-shoura) should take immediate legislative steps to ensure that no migrant woman worker is held against her will at places of private or public employment and residence. Regulations to this effect should be promulgated as an urgent matter, and widely publicized to the Saudi public, using all print, broadcast, and other media.

These regulations should impose substantial penalties on employers who continue the practice, and provide fair and equal compensation to the victims, commensurate with the length and severity of their confinement.

(6) End the imprisonment of women and children for "illegal" pregnancies.

End as an urgent matter the arrest and imprisonment of migrant and Saudi women and children who become pregnant voluntarily or because they were victims of sexual violence. Women and children currently in prison should be immediately released, and provided with social and other supportive services as required.

(7) Address as an urgent matter the serious flaws in the kingdom's criminal justice system.

The arrest and detention practices of the ministry of interior should be brought into immediate conformity withprovisions of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.

Anyone arrested as a criminal suspect in the kingdom should be informed of his or her rights under the kingdom's laws, including those set forth and guaranteed in the new criminal procedure code. This information should be provided orally and in writing, in languages that all suspects can understand.

Effective judicial oversight of interior ministry personnel is urgently needed. Authorities should take immediate steps to ensure judicial supervision of the investigation of all criminal suspects, for the purpose of ending such practices as abusive interrogations, torture, and coerced confessions.

Authorities should also make public detailed information about all persons, Saudi citizens and foreigners alike, who have been sentenced to death in the kingdom and are awaiting execution. The implementation of all death sentences should be suspended until it can be determined independently that the defendants were not tortured and their confessions were not coerced.

Document number


Responsible institution

Human Rights Watch

File Attachments



migrant workers, Saudi Arabia, Exploitation

Economic sectors

Occupations in services - Domestic work, Trades, transport and equipment operators and related occupations - general, Home child care providers, Home support workers, housekeepers and related occupations, Occupations in art, culture, recreation and sport - general, Food and beverage servers, Food counter attendants, kitchen helpers and related support occupations, Dry cleaning, laundry and related occupations, Transport truck drivers, and Construction trades helpers and labourers

Content types

Policy analysis, Documented cases of abuse, Support initiatives, and Statistics on work and life conditions

Target groups

Policymakers, Public awareness, Researchers, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

Africa - North , Africa - Subsaharian, Asia, China, South Africa, Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Thailand, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, Malaysia, Regional relevance, Regional relevance, Regional relevance, Cambodia, Kenya, and Africa

Spheres of activity

Gender and sexuality studies, Management of human resources, Sociology, and Social work