Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia: A Lesson for Viet Nam

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    Post by: Kylie Luu, UN-ACT Regional Management Office. You can contact her at man.ky.luu@undp.org.

    In September 2014, Viet Nam and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia signed an Agreement of Manpower Cooperation, a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) designed to help both parties regulate the sending and receiving of Vietnamese migrant workers including domestic helpers in Saudi Arabia, and to secure their rights and interests during the labour migration process. In the agreement, the Saudi government has committed to implementing a 24-hour-a-day mechanism for domestic workers’ assistance, providing quick resolutions for disputes, and facilitating exit visas for repatriation upon contract completion or during emergencies.

    Whilst the number of Vietnamese domestic workers in Saud Arabia is currently small compared to other sending countries – 5,000 Vietnamese domestic workers compared to 600,000 Indonesians, 375,000 Sri Lankans, and 200,000 Filipinos – the new MOU process is expected to see 400 new arrivals per month. Further, the experiences of those already in Saud Arabia are consistent with numerous accounts of poor working and living conditions, and evidence of abuse of migrant domestic workers from other sending countries. According to the Vietnamese Department of Overseas Labour, in 2014, 60 cases of complaints were made by Vietnamese migrant workers. In the first four months of 2015, 50 complaints were made, and 80 percent of these cases were related to the maltreatment of domestic workers.

    Abuse of migrant domestic workers in Saud Arabia is rooted in the gendered nature of the occupation coupled with inequality and discrimination based on sex, the ‘live-in’ arrangements, the lack of legal protection under Saudi labour law, the kafala visa-sponsorship system that has been employed in Saudi Arabia since the 1950s, and at times irregular recruitment practices including, in recent years, via social media.

    Under the kafala system, migrant workers are required to have an in-country sponsor or kafeel, usually their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. A migrant worker’s immigrant status is thus legally bound to their kafeel for the duration of their contract. The migrant worker cannot enter the country, transfer employment or leave the country for any reason without first obtaining explicit written permission from their kafeel. If the migrant worker leaves the workplace or changes employment without the kafeel’s written permission, they may be charged with ‘absconding,’ which is a criminal offence. In addition, the kafeel also often exerts control over the migrant worker by confiscating their passport and travel documents. Such factors have contributed to situations of sexual abuse and forced labour, including dangerous work, long hours without overtime payments, and no weekly rest days, annual or home leave.

    Some migrant workers who have left abusive employment situations rely on various social media platforms to find supplementary employment options. Others are near the end of their contract and want to continue working in Saudi Arabia, but they do not want to go through the entire recruitment process all over again. Again others need to find additional work for extra money to pay back their recruitment debt. Recruitment via social media is a quick, inexpensive, and flexible process. However, such mechanisms are largely unlicensed to process legal paperwork for their clients, thereby increasing migrant workers’ vulnerability to abuse and exploitation. Without a proper work visa and other legitimate documentation, migrant workers risk being detained and deported. Abusive employers take advantage of the situation, knowing that their victims will not leave or report their abuse for fear of the repercussions.

    The kafala system is widely criticized for the vulnerabilities to abuse and exploitation it creates. Irregular recruitment practices including via social media sites outside the MOU process may further increase the risk of maltreatment of migrant workers especially domestic helpers by their future sponsors. While the MOU process is a positive development providing some protective tools to those in need of help, the structural deficiencies of the kafala system remain, and the bureaucratic, time-consuming and costly nature of labour migration through the MOU pushes people to enlist irregular recruitment practices.

    With more Vietnamese migrant workers moving to Saudi Arabia, efforts must be made to ensure that they  are well-educated about Saudi laws, ethics, and customs; but also on their labour and human rights, as well as means and tools for these to be protected in Saudi Arabia, including organizations to turn to in case of problems. Further, Viet Nam and other sending countries of migrant workers are well positioned to join forces and advocate for structural changes to the kafala system and broader labour conditions affecting their citizens in Saudi Arabia, to prevent abuse and exploitation from occurring in the first place.

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