The United States Department of State & Human Rights Watch – 2016-01-06 20:53:17
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law does not provide for the right of workers to form and join independent unions. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining or the right to conduct legal strikes. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.
There are no labor unions in the country, and workers faced potential dismissal, imprisonment, or, in the case of migrant workers, deportation for union activities. The Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes under the Ministry of Labor investigates labor-related complaints by private individuals against officials responsible for enforcement of the laws.
The government allowed citizen-only labor committees in workplaces with more than 100 employees, but it placed undue limitations on freedom of association and was heavily involved in the formation and activities of these committees. For example, the Ministry of Labor approves the committee members and authorizes ministry and employer representatives to attend committee meetings.
Committee members must submit the minutes of the meetings to management and then transmit them to the minister; the ministry can dissolve committees if they violate regulations or are deemed to threaten public security. Regulations limit committees to making recommendations to company management regarding only improvements to working conditions, health and safety, productivity, and training programs. In its 2013 annual report, the NSHR registered 269 labor-related complaints.
The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor; however, the government did not effectively enforce legal protections for migrant workers. Forced labor occurred, especially among migrant workers, notably domestic servants, and children. Conditions indicative of forced labor experienced by foreign workers included withholding of passports, nonpayment of wages, restrictions on movement, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. Violations of labor laws resulted in fines and restrictions on the ability to recruit foreign workers.
Many noncitizen workers, particularly domestic employees, were not able to exercise their right to end their contractual work. Restrictive sponsorship laws increased workers’ vulnerability to forced labor conditions and made many foreign workers reluctant to report abuse.
Throughout the year, the government strictly implemented measures to limit the number of illegal noncitizen workers in the kingdom, although to a far lesser extent than in 2013. Between November 2013 and March, an estimated 1.5 million workers either self-deported or were forcibly deported. The government also penalized Hajj tourist agencies that engaged in human trafficking and Saudi companies that abused the country’s visa laws to bring individuals into the country for reasons other than to employ them directly.
The government campaign between April and November 2013 to correct the legal status of noncitizen laborers by transferring their sponsorship or deporting them resulted in many noncitizen workers leaving the country by the end of 2013. Many individuals either left their legal sponsors’ employment or stayed on after expiration of their work visas and residence permits. A smaller number came as religious pilgrims and overstayed their visas. As a consequence of their illegal status, many persons in the country illegally were susceptible to forced labor, substandard wages, and deportation by authorities.
In November 2013 after authorities announced the end of an amnesty period for foreign workers illegally in the kingdom to correct their status or depart the country, security forces resumed arrests of undocumented noncitizen workers. In August the Ministry of Interior reported it detained an average of 22,000 “illegal migrants” per month between February and August.
The report also stated authorities deported 614,262 such migrants during the year. In February, HRW reported government authorities deported 12,000 workers between January and February. An unknown number of deported laborers returned to their countries of origin destitute, and some complained of abuse and poor treatment by authorities or fellow detainees during the deportation process.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law states no person younger than 15 years old may legally work unless that person is the sole source of support for the family. Children between 13 and 15 may work if the job is not harmful to health or growth and does not interfere with schooling. The law states hazardous operations or harmful industries may not employ legal minors; children under 18 may not be employed for shifts exceeding six hours a day. There is no minimum age for workers employed in family-owned businesses or other areas considered extensions of the household, such as farming, herding, and domestic service.
The HRC and the NSHR are responsible for monitoring enforcement of the child labor laws. There was little information on government efforts to enforce relevant laws or actions to prevent or eliminate child labor during the year. The most common enforcement of the law was response to complaints of children begging on the streets.
Child labor occurred, most commonly in the form of children, usually from other countries including Yemen and Ethiopia, forced into child-begging rings, street vending, and work in family businesses. Although in previous years there were reports of foreign domestic workers younger than 18 (some of whom reportedly traveled to the country with forged documents), such abuses could not be confirmed during the year.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment or Occupation
Labor laws and regulations did not prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, gender identity, disability, language, or sexual orientation. Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred with respect to all these categories. Women faced many discriminatory regulations, limiting the work they were allowed to do. There is no regulation requiring equal pay for equal work (see section 6).
Discrimination with respect to religious beliefs occurred. Members of the Shia community complained they were discriminated against based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions.
Discrimination against Asian and African migrant workers occurred (see section 6). Government policies designed to increase the number of citizens in the workforce intentionally raised the costs of hiring migrant workers, and made it more difficult for them to find work.
Informal discrimination in employment and occupation occurred on the basis of sex, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation/gender identity.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The monthly minimum wage for public-sector employees was 3,000 riyals ($800). There was no private-sector minimum wage for foreign workers; however, the government’s Nitaqaat (Saudization) program set a general minimum private- sector wage for citizens at 3,000 riyals ($800) per month. In April a Ministry of Labor report stated there were more than 1.9 million small firms in the country that did not pay the proposed minimum wage.
The Commission for the Settlement of Labor Disputes actively prosecuted cases against employers of citizens, with most outcomes favoring the employee. Prosecution of employers of noncitizens occurred with less frequency, and most verdicts reportedly favored the employer. Labor regulations ostensibly apply to all workers in the public and private sector other than domestic servants (covered by a separate law).
The regulations provide for a 48-hour standard workweek at regular pay, a weekly 24-hour rest period (normally on Fridays, although the employer may grant it on another day), and time-and-a-half pay for overtime, with a maximum of 12 additional hours per week. The regulations do not distinguish between different types of employment. The law’s provisions were not enforced.
In August 2013 the Council of Ministers approved regulations to govern the work relationship between employers and domestic workers, including the creation of a dispute mechanism to settle financial claims. Under these regulations the employer and the employee must have a written agreement outlining the worker’s duties and rights that would then be subjected to legal action should either party fail to uphold the contract.
If an employer commits a violation, the punishment could include a one-year recruitment ban, a 2,000 riyal ($530) fine, or both, with increasing penalties for repeat offenses. Domestic workers violating their contract could be assessed a similar fine and be prohibited from working in the kingdom.
In 2012, the Ministry of Labor announced the creation of 1,000 additional labor inspector positions to investigate labor law violations and, as of this year, approximately all of the new inspectors had been hired. Of the new inspectors, 40 percent were women.
The law penalizes individuals between 500 riyals ($133) and 1,000 riyals ($267) for bringing foreigners into the country to work in any service, including domestic service, without following the required procedures and obtaining a permit. Local press reports indicated Ministry of Labor inspectors found more than 62,000 violations of labor law through September.
The labor law provides for regular safety inspections and enables Ministry of Labor-appointed inspectors to examine materials used or handled in industrial and other operations and to submit samples of suspected hazardous materials or substances to government laboratories. The Ministry of Health’s Occupational Health Service Directorate works with the Ministry of Labor on health and safety matters.
Regulations require employers to protect some workers from job-related hazards and disease, although some violations occurred. These regulations did not cover farmers, herdsmen, domestic servants, or workers in family-operated businesses. Foreign nationals privately reported frequent failures to enforce health and safety standards.
The law requires that a citizen or business sponsor most foreign workers to obtain legal work and residency status, although the requirement exempted Syrian nationals who overstayed their visas. During the six-month “grace period” from April to November 2013, noncitizen workers could change their workplace and sponsorship without their previous sponsor’s permission.
Previously, the government also lifted restrictions to allow noncitizen workers to switch from their current employers to employers or companies that employed a sufficient quota of Saudi nationals. Despite these revised restrictions, some workers remained uninformed of the changed regulations and had to stay with their current sponsor until fulfillment of the contract or seek the assistance of their embassy to return home.
There were also instances in which sponsors bringing noncitizen workers into the country failed to provide them with a residency permit, which undermined their ability to access government services or navigate the court system in the event of grievances. Sponsors with commercial or labor disputes with foreign employees also could ask authorities to prohibit the employees from departing the country until the dispute was resolved.
The Migrant Workers’ Welfare Department of the Ministry of Labor is responsible for addressing cases of abuse and exploitation of migrant workers. Noncitizen workers were able to submit complaints and seek help in 37 offices throughout the country, although the government was generally unresponsive.
The Ministry of Labor reportedly maintained a database of abusive employers and occasionally banned individuals and companies who mistreated noncitizen workers from sponsoring such workers for up to five years; however, the ministry did not provide any examples of employers banned during the year.
Bilateral labor agreements set conditions on foreign workers’ minimum wage, housing, benefits including leave and medical care, and other topics. These provisions were not necessarily drafted with reference to international standards, and they varied depending on the sending country’s relative bargaining leverage. The labor law and the 2009 law against trafficking provide penalties for abuse of such workers.
In February the government and the Indonesian government signed an agreement that provided Indonesian women working as domestic servants in the kingdom could keep their passports in their possession, communicate regularly with their families, be paid on a monthly basis, and be entitled to time off each year.
The agreement ended a ban imposed by the Indonesian government that had existed since 2011 on additional Indonesians travelling to the country to work as domestic servants after authorities executed an Indonesian maid. The government of the Philippines ended a similar ban in 2013, but it had not yet started sending additional workers to the kingdom.
In 2011 the Ministry of Labor mandated the establishment of fewer and larger foreign labor recruitment firms, ostensibly better to protect migrant workers, including domestic workers. As of year’s end, the ministry registered 13 unified recruitment firms, each of which was expected to have an office in each of the country’s 13 provinces.
The government engaged in a news campaign highlighting the plight of abused workers, trained law enforcement and other officials to combat trafficking in persons, and worked with the embassies of labor-sending countries to disseminate information about labor rights to foreign workers. As in previous years, during Ramadan the Human Rights Commission broadcast a public awareness program on television emphasizing the Islamic injunction to treat employees well.
An estimated eight million noncitizen workers, including approximately 1.5 million female domestic workers, made up the majority of the country’s labor force. Legal workers generally negotiated and agreed to conditions prior to arrival in the country, in accordance with the contract requirements contained in the labor law; nevertheless, many found themselves subjected to different conditions, such as delays in payment of wages, changes in employer, or changed working hours and conditions.
Migrant workers, especially domestic workers, were vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and conditions contravening labor laws, including nonpayment of wages, working for periods in excess of the 48-hour workweek, working for periods longer than the prescribed eight-hour workday, and restrictions on movement due to passport confiscation. There were also reports of physical and verbal abuse.
The labor regulations announced in August 2013 seek to reduce instances of such abuse. The law’s requirements include transferring wages by direct deposit in the bank account of the employee to ensure documentation of the payment of wages. Moreover, the Ministry of Labor must have on file a fixed postal address for each sponsor of a noncitizen employee.
Many noncitizen workers, particularly domestic employees, were not able to exercise their right to remove themselves from dangerous situations. Some employers physically prevented workers from leaving or threatened them with nonpayment of wages if they left. Sponsoring employers, who controlled foreign workers’ ability to remain employed and in the country, usually held foreign workers’ passports, a practice prohibited by law.
In some contract disputes, a sponsor held the employee in country until resolution of the dispute to force the employee to accept a disadvantageous settlement or risk deportation without any settlement.
Foreign workers could contact the labor offices of their embassies for assistance. During the year hundreds of domestic workers sought shelter at their embassies, some fleeing sexual abuse or other violence by their employers. Some embassies maintained safe houses for citizens fleeing situations that amounted to bondage. The workers usually sought legal help from embassies and government agencies to obtain end of service benefits and exit visas.
In addition to their embassies, domestic servants may contact the NSHR, the HRC, the governmental Interministerial General Secretariat to Combat Human Trafficking, and the Migrant Workers’ Welfare Department of the Ministry of Labor, which provided services to safeguard migrant workers’ rights and to protect them from abuse. Workers may also apply to the offices of regional governors and may lodge an appeal with the Board of Grievances against decisions from those authorities.
World Report 2015: Saudi Arabia
Events of 2014
Human Rights Watch
Saudi Arabia continued in 2014 to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued. Authorities failed to enact systematic measures to protect the rights of 9 million foreign workers.
As in past years, authorities subjected hundreds of people to unfair trials and arbitrary detention. New anti-terrorism regulations that took effect in 2014 can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism of the authorities as terrorism.
Freedom of Expression, Association, and Belief
The Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia’s terrorism tribunal, sentenced prominent Eastern Province activist Fadhil al-Manasif to 15 years in prison, a 15-year ban on travel abroad, and a large fine on April 17 after it convicted him on charges that included “breaking allegiance with the ruler,” “contact with foreign news organizations to exaggerate the news,” and “circulating his phone number to [foreign] news agencies to allow them to call him.” The charges arose from al-Manasif’s assistance to international media covering the 2011 protests in Eastern Province.
A Specialized Criminal Court judge ordered the detention of prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair on April 15. In July, the court convicted him on vague charges arising solely from his peaceful activism, sentencing him to 15 years in prison, a 15-year travel ban, and a fine of 200,000 Saudi Riyals (US$53,000).
On August 11, the day after Abu al-Khair refused to cooperate in his transfer to another prison, Jeddah prison authorities beat him and dragged him from the prison with chains, injuring his ankles, then dispatched him to another prison almost 1,000 kilometers away from his family home.
Authorities continued to persecute activists associated with the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). In June, a court sentenced Fowzan al-Harbi to seven years in prison but suspended six years of the sentence on condition that he does not return to his activism.
Issa al-Hamid, the brother of imprisoned activist Abdullah al-Hamid, was on trial in September on charges that included “inciting [people] to violate public order and spreading discord” and “insulting the judiciary.” Others were under investigation.
An appeals tribunal inside the Specialized Criminal Court in July upheld a sentence of five years in prison and a 10-year travel ban for human rights advocate Mikhlif al-Shammari, based on his writings and exposure of human rights abuses.
Saudi officials continue to refuse to register political or human rights groups, leaving members subject to prosecution for “setting up an unregistered organization.” Saudi officials did not pass a long-awaited associations law in 2014, leaving Saudi citizens with no legal avenue to set up non-charity nongovernmental organizations.
Saudi Arabia does not tolerate public worship by adherents of religions other than Islam and systematically discriminates against Muslim religious minorities, notably Twelver Shia and Ismailis.
In May, a Jeddah court convicted activist Raif Badawi and sentenced him to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for “insulting Islam” by founding a critical liberal website, and for his comments during television interviews. An appeals court upheld the sentence in September.
Detainees, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention. Saudi judges routinely sentence defendants to floggings of hundreds of lashes.
Judges can order arrest and detention, including of children, at their discretion. Children can be tried for capital crimes and sentenced as adults if physical signs of puberty exist.
Saudi Arabia applies sharia (Islamic law) as the law of the land. Judges decide many matters relating to criminal offenses pursuant to sharia in accordance with established rules of jurisprudence and precedent.
While there is no formal penal code, the government has passed some laws and regulations that subject certain broadly-defined offenses to criminal penalties. In the absence of a written penal code or narrowly-worded regulations, however, judges and prosecutors can criminalize a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all charges such as “breaking allegiance with the ruler” or “trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom.”
Authorities do not always inform suspects of the crime with which they are charged, or allow them access to supporting evidence, even after trial sessions have begun in some cases. Authorities generally do not allow lawyers to assist suspects during interrogation and often impede them from examining witnesses and presenting evidence at trial.
Authorities continued to arrest and hold suspects for months and sometimes years without judicial review or prosecution. On May 15, an Interior Ministry database showed that criminal justice officials were holding 293 individuals whose pretrial detention exceeded six months without having referred their cases to the judiciary. At least 31 people had been detained “under investigation” for more than six months.
Saudi Arabia permitted representatives of certain foreign diplomatic missions to monitor trials of Saudi dissidents and activists in 2014 for the first time.
Saudi authorities promulgated a new anti-terrorism law on January 31 that contains serious flaws. Its vague and overly broad provisions allow authorities to criminalize free expression and it gives the authorities excessive police powers that are not subject to judicial oversight.
On March 7, the Interior Ministry issued further regulations designating a list of groups the government considers terrorist organizations, as well as other provisions that proscribe acts such as “calling for atheist thought,” throw[ing] away loyalty to the country’s rulers,” “contact or correspondence with any groups, currents [of thought], or individuals hostile to the kingdom,” and participating in or calling for protests or demonstrations.
In June, the Ministry of Justice announced that prosecutors had filed 191 cases of alleged sorcery — a crime punishable by death — between November 2013 and May 2014, including some against foreign domestic workers.
According to media reports, Saudi Arabia executed at least 68 persons between January and mid-November 2014, mostly for murder, drug offenses, and armed robbery, including 31 between August 4 and September 4. Thirty-one of those executed were convicted for non-violent crimes, including one man sentenced for sorcery.
On October 15, Specialized Criminal Court sentenced prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr to death on a host of vague charges, based largely on his peaceful criticism of Saudi officials.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Saudi Arabia’s discriminatory male guardianship system remains intact despite government pledges to abolish it. Under this system, ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining a passport, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian, usually a husband, father, brother, or son.
Authorities also fail to prevent some employers from requiring male guardians to approve the hiring of adult female relatives or some hospitals from requiring male guardian approval for certain medical procedures for women.
In February, a member of the Senior Council of Scholars, the highest state body for the interpretation of Islamic law, issued a fatwa stating that women are not allowed to visit a male doctor without their male guardians. They are not allowed to expose parts of the body with the exception of a medical emergency. All women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
Likewise, under un-codified rules on personal status, women are not allowed to marry without the permission of their guardian; unlike men, they do not have a unilateral right to divorce and often face discrimination in relation to child custody. In September, the Supreme Judicial Council issued a decision to allow women granted custody of their children to handle all affairs related to their children including obtaining official documents. To travel outside the country with theirchildren, however, women still require the permission of the children’s father.
In a welcome move in April, the Shura Council, Saudi Arabia’s highest consultative body, directed the Education Ministry to study the possibility of introducing physical education for girls in Saudi public schools, which, if enacted, would end the longstanding ban on sports for girls.
Migrant Workers’ Rights
Over 9 million migrant workers fill manual, clerical, and service jobs, constituting more than half the workforce. Many suffer abuses and exploitation, sometimes amounting to conditions of forced labor.
The kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or exit the country under normal circumstances. Some employers illegally confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will.
Saudi officials, wary that the domestic unemployment rate of 12 percent may grow as the domestic population increases, have issued a set of labor reforms since 2011 that create a tiered quota system for the employment of Saudi citizens in the private labor sector that differs according to the nature of the business. As part of these reforms, Saudi labor authorities in 2014 began allowing foreigners working in firms that do not employ the required percentage of Saudis to change jobs without employer approval.
Police and labor authorities in 2014 continued a vigorous campaign to arrest and deport foreign workers found in violation of existing labor laws, targeting workers who did not have valid residency or work permits, or those found working for an employer other than his or her legal sponsor.
According to the International Organization on Migration (IOM), Saudi Arabia deported 163,018 Ethiopians between November 2013 and March 2014, and 458,911 Yemenis between June 2013 and June 2014. There were reports that prior to deportation some deportees were placed inovercrowded detention conditions, denied adequate food and water, and physically abused by guards. Between December and March 2014, Saudi Arabia deported 38,164 Somalis to Mogadishu, including hundreds of women and children, without allowing any to make refugee claims.
Domestic workers, most of them women, frequently endure a range of abuses including overwork, forced confinement, non-payment of wages, food deprivation, and psychological, physical, and sexual abuse without the authorities holding their employers to account. Workers who attempted to report employer abuses sometimes faced prosecution based on counterclaims of theft or “sorcery.”
Key International Actors
During a visit to Saudi Arabia in March, US President Barack Obama did not discuss human rights issues with Saudi officials. State Department spokespeople stated that the US was “troubled” over the conviction of Waleed Abu al-Khair and “concerned” over Raif Badawi’s harsh sentence. Otherwise, the United States did not criticize Saudi human rights violations beyond Congressionally-mandated annual reports.
In 2014, Saudi Arabia was classified as a Country of Particular Concern under the US International Religious Freedom Act for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
On December 27, 2013, a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) joint security agreement came into force. The agreement’s 20 provisions include a vaguely worded article that would suppress “interference in the domestic affairs” of other GCC countries, which could be used to criminalize criticism of Gulf countries or rulers. Another provision provides for sharing citizens’ and residents’ personal data at the discretion of Interior Ministry officials, apparently without judicial oversight.