UN concerned about allegations of mistreatment of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia despite recent reforms
This is also available in: العربية (Arabic) متوفر ايضا باللغة
Translated and edited by: Committee for Justice
Geneva: August 8, 2021
UN experts have expressed concern about allegations of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, which are said to continue to occur despite recent labor reforms.
Violations against expatriate workers in the Kingdom:
The experts explained in a UN communication sent to the Saudi government on June 7, 2021, that before the arrival of migrant workers to Saudi Arabia, most of them signed contracts with acceptable wages. However, the provisions of those contracts are often not implemented, with the kingdom not setting a minimum wage. This leads to the risk of low wages and exploitation of migrant workers.
The experts added that contracts in the Kingdom must be legally issued in Arabic, although many migrant workers do not speak Arabic, and there is no translation of their contracts into a language they use, which limits their understanding of the provisions contained therein and thus their rights, which increases the risks of deception and exploitation.
Furthermore, the experts stated in their memo that women have been reported to be among the most marginalized migrants in Saudi Arabia. They are often paid 1,000 riyals per month or less, and in some cases are not paid at all. As a result, often female migrant workers have no or very little money left to send remittances home. In contrast, male migrant workers generally earn around 1,500 riyals. In addition to the discriminatory wage gap, many migrant women, especially domestic workers, often experience sexual harassment and abuse. However, such incidents are rarely reported out of fear.
The experts also pointed out that an additional, disproportionate burden on migrant workers is the fact that the Saudi government imposes a variety of taxes that must be paid by migrant workers and their family members despite their low income, as taxes are imposed on services, housing and accompanying personnel, and fees have been increased. As a result, around 1.6 million migrant workers are reported to have left the kingdom because of those fees.
The kafala system does not end violations:
The UN memorandum touched on the kafala (sponsorship) system. Experts noted that this system supports and perpetuates the vulnerability of migrant workers to a wide range of abuse and exploitation, because it strips them of any agency, and many migrant workers live in constant fear of losing their jobs and residence permits. Despite the changes the Kingdom’s government has decided with regards to the sponsorship system, it still imposes more difficult measures on workers.
The UN experts also emphasized that since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020, many migrant workers have been exposed to poor living conditions, and their condition has worsened.
The experts expressed deep concern about the working and living conditions of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, and the insufficient dismantling of the kafala system as a whole, and this continues to lead to multiple human rights violations as it places migrants at the mercy of employers.
Demands from the Saudi government:
The experts asked the Saudi government to highlight steps it has taken, or is considering taking, to protect all migrant workers from human rights abuses including forced labor and trafficking by employers and/or recruitment agencies.
It also requested an outline of the measures Saudi Arabia has taken or is considering to take to identify, assist and protect migrant workers who are victims of labor exploitation, including forced labour, and ensure that migrant workers have effective access to justice.
The experts also called on the Saudi government to indicate legal measures and practices that address discrimination against women and immigrant women, for example with regard to their currently low salaries, and also indicate whether any employers were punished for non-payment of wages, and if so, please specify penalties imposed on them.
The experts also called on Saudi Arabia to provide information on the measures it has taken, or is considering to take, to abolish the kafala system as a whole and in what time frame, and to provide information on measures being taken to ensure compliance with the state’s obligation to exercise due diligence to prevent trafficking in migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers and to ensure early identification of persons and effective access to protection.
The Saudi government responded in an official letter from the Saudi Permanent Diplomatic Mission in Geneva, stating: “The issue presented above needs further examination, and therefore more time is needed to provide the required information.”
The Saudi mission demanded an extension of the deadline for a response by 30 days, to provide an objective response, which is an argument that the Saudi mission has long adhered to in order to avoid responding to many of the United Nations mechanisms.