Defending slavery in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi Gazette published a disturbing article the other day in which a number of Saudis talked about relations with their foreign servants – and defended what amounts to slavery.

The article highlights one of the many iniquities in Saudi Arabia's "sponsorship" system for employing migrant workers: the practice of confiscating worker's identity documents so that they can't "escape".

The word "escape" actually appears 20 times in the article in connection with workers leaving their jobs – an interesting reflection on the way many Saudis view their employees and the lack of trust that often exists between them.

The paper quotes Suhaila Zain al-Abideen – described as "a human rights activist" – who opposes the idea of letting expatriate workers keep their identity papers" 

"Whenever the expat worker has his papers with him, he may not hesitate to escape whenever he has the chance," she said.

Al-Abideen also warned that housekeepers might commit a crime inside the household they are working in or steal some items before running away.

She said expatriate workers may move freely inside the country or travel to their home countries if they have their identity papers with them. "Many of the house helps come to our country with the sole purpose of stealing and running away," she said.

The article, which is sub-headed "What will happen when you allow your employee to keep his identity papers", cites two examples of Saudi-employed drivers who left their job and took the car with them. (Both cars were later retrieved, according to the report.)

Saudi expulsions crisis: full coverage

Another rights activist, Aql al-Bahli suggests that confiscating identity documents does not necessarily prevent workers from running away. He points out that many have fled leaving their papers with the employer – which is presumably a measure of how desperate they were to leave.

It doesn't seem to have occurred to the Saudi Gazette to ask any migrant workers what they think of this, but in the comments thread below the article several of them have their say. One writes:

"am one of the expats. i won t run if my former employer treat me well, did not abused me at work. imagine a 3 storey house with 2 young boys ages 5 and 3 to look after one of them is autistic i do all the household chores everyday alone i used to wake up 5am and sleep around to 2am the next day. lack of sleep i eat good meal twice a month i mean meal with rice. everyday my stomach only have coffee in the morning and water the whole day thats the reason why i left my employer."

Another says:

"I myself is tripped by the sponsor who never kept his word even he is not paying our basic salary and he owes me huge amount ..."


"i am a doctor ... my passport is with the sponsor, and my sponsor is MOH [Ministry of Health], if i have to go i will go. y hold my passport, its giving this country a bad name ..."

Another takes issue with a sentence in the article saying that "passports and iqamas [residence permits] are the personal property of the expatriates unless they agree freely to leave them with their sponsors", and responds:

"I cant remember my employer told me about this. All i know is that, everytime i report to work after vacation i need to surrender my passport so in return i can get my iqama.

Here is a selection of other comments from readers:

  • "If there is any proof needed to show that a type of slavery exists in Saudi Arabia, one only has to read this article. I could not believe what I was reading. Employees 'escaping' , 'runaway status', 'could not travel outside the country without consent of the employer'? Are you people serious? This is language to describe slave and master relationships! I am saving this shocking article."

  • "Forcing the workers to stay with you by holding their passport is treating them as prisoners. The suicide rate of most domestic workers could have been averted if they were free to go. The law is a modern day of slavery. Saudi Arabia, citizens have to change such system. It is a shame to force a person to work as prisoner."

  • "This is perfect example of modern slavery. We Saudis should treat them nicely and, trust me, they are more loyal than our own young generation and trust worthy. SAR 1200 or 1500 ($320-$400) their monthly wages - that's a shame. Will any Saudi work on this wage? Of course not."

  • "If employees are treated well, they will not run away. If you pay them a good wage, and treat them with respect, you will keep them. Employers who treat staff badly, abuse them (Physically or mentally) withhold pay and benefits, or pay paltry wages should not expect their staff to be loyal. The escaping workers are the victims here, not the Saudi sponsors."

Last month Saudi Arabia was elected to the UN Human Rights Council.
Posted by Brian Whitaker
Monday 2 December 2013