Saudi Arabia: Migrant workers have no unions to protect their civil and human rights, leaving them at risk of abuse


According to news reports, 26-year-old Lovely Acosta Baruelo, a Filipina maid who had been working for a wealthy Saudi family in Riyadh for several months, was tied to a tree to punish her after she allegedly left expensive furniture out in the sun. It’s reported that the incident took place on 09 May 2019.

Since then, Acosta Baruelo, a mother of two, has returned home to the Philippines with the help of her country’s Department of Foreign Affairs. Her co-workers went to the media to appeal for help saying their employer might likewise hurt them if they do anything to anger them at work. Migrant workers are not allowed to form unions that defend their civil and human rights, nor are there independent human rights NGOs which might offer them help, because most Saudi human rights defenders are in prison and their associations have been closed.

One million domestic workers are employed in Saudi Arabia and many of them are facing harsh living and employment conditions under discriminatory laws, including the Kafala system (also known as the sponsorship system.) It allows employers to control workers’ travel, their ability to change employers or return home without an approval of their legal sponsorship (Kafeel). Otherwise, the worker might face arrest or deportation.

Furthermore, women’s rights are severely curtailed in Saudi Arabia, which maintains a Guardianship System of control by men over women, and several dozen women rights defenders have been imprisoned in the past year for their advocacy against this misogynist system. Migrant women workers are thus doubly at risk of abuse due to their gender and nationality.

The Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) calls on the authorities in Saudi Arabia to end all kinds of discrimination against migrant workers, protect them against violence including domestic violence, pay them fairly based on the nature and length of employment, give them a month paid holiday every year (like other workers), respect their freedom of movement and allow them to form unions that represent them in any dispute with their employer.