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Human Trafficking Center

Unimplemented laws and social norms lead to migrant abuses in Saudi Arabia


Mar 2015



by Kara Napolitano, HTC Associate

Saudi Arabia has a population of 28.8 million people — one-third of whom are migrants.  Migrant workers (mostly from South Asia) depend on employment in Saudi Arabia for their families’ livelihood. The country is governed based on Sharia, or Islamic, law, which has not been codified and leaves significant room for interpretation by the government.  It is often restrictive and promotes inequalities between men and women and between Muslims and non-Muslims.

Despite migrants’ enormous presence in the economy, existing domestic laws and traditional customs fail to protect the approximately 9 million migrant workers.  This failure results in large, unreported numbers of human trafficking victims.

A legacy of slavery

The legacy of chattel slavery (not abolished until 1962) continues to influence the perception and treatment of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Religious intolerance is deep seeded within both Sharia law and society as a whole. Rights of women are severely restricted and these restrictions set the stage for physical and sexual abuses due to confinement and limitations on movement throughout the country.

Saudi Arabian law is carried out through a semi-legislative process, issued by decree or simply put into place by de facto implementation at the bureaucratic level. This lack of transparency results in confusion and insecurity about workers’ rights. Laborers are often too scared to report abuses or unsure if they are protected under Saudi law.  Furthermore, law is only written in Arabic and not translated or made available to the public for some time after being passed.

The “sponsorship” system

In the kafala system, it is the responsibility of sponsors to secure employment visas from the Saudi government for the foreign workers they hire. Recruitment agents work as middlemen, charging both the sponsor and the prospective employees for their services, leading to migrant indebtedness upon arrival. Foreign workers are not issued work permits unless they have employment contracts and the only contracts with legal validity are those written in Arabic.

Saudi Government Takes Action

In 2009 the Saudi Arabian government took steps towards reducing the problem by enacting the Anti-Trafficking in Persons Law. However, until recently, protections the law provided were not available in languages other than Arabic and therefore were not useful to exploited migrants.

In addition, intimidation and abuse often prevent trafficking victims from seeking help. The sponsor not only has control of the migrant’s exit visa, but their passport as well. Abuses range from withholding payment, physical and sexual assault, confinement, or unacceptably long working hours, to more extreme cases of arbitrary arrest and torture, or sentencing to prison following unfair trials.

What Can Be Done?

Although tales of abuse from returning migrants are rampant, and jails and shelters are full of migrants in labor disputes, it is important to note there are productive and peaceful migrant experiences in Saudi Arabia. Some workers extend their contracts for many years or choose to stay in the country with a different employer after their contracts are terminated. The money earned as laborers or domestic servants in Saudi Arabia can change the lives of their families and is vital to their native economies.

But more needs to be done by the Saudi government to enforce labor laws and prevent abuses. The most pressing action Saudi Arabia can take is to amend their residency laws to allow migrant workers to enter the country, change jobs, or leave the country without sponsorship. Aside from monitoring migrants who come in and out of the country, the kafala system has no positive results and should be eliminated. Additionally, before leaving their home country, migrants should be given written information in their native language on labor laws, what constitutes trafficking, and what to do if their rights are violated.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the position of the HTC.


Image via Creative Commons  


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