Saudi Arabian families are abusing female migrant workers to the point of slavery and Riyadh needs to respond with sweeping labour and justice reforms, a major rights group said Tuesday.
US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report released in Indonesia, the home country of thousands of female migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, that in the worst cases the women were "treated like virtual slaves."
"In the best cases, migrant women in Saudi Arabia enjoy good working conditions and kind employers, and in the worst they're treated like virtual slaves. Most fall somewhere in between," said Nisha Varia, the group's senior women's rights researcher.
The 133-page report entitled "'As If I Am Not Human': Abuses against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia," was compiled after two years of research and 142 interviews with domestic workers, officials, and labour recruiters in Saudi Arabia and the workers' countries of origin, the group said.
It concluded that few of the abusers were ever brought to justice and migrant women who dared to complain risked counter-charges of adultery, witchcraft or moral degradation.
Witchcraft and "moral" crimes such as being in the presence of unrelated men were punishable by up to 10 years' imprisonment and 60 to 490 lashes so many abused women decided not to seek justice.
Out of 86 domestic workers interviewed, HRW concluded that 36 faced abuse that amounted to forced labor, trafficking or slavery-like conditions.
Some of the cases were horrific.
"For one year and five months... no salary at all. I asked for money and they would beat me, or cut me with a knife, or burn me," Sri Lankan domestic worker Ponnamma S. was quoted as telling the rights group.
Haima G., a Filipina domestic worker, said her employer called her into his bedroom one day soon after she had arrived and told her she had been "bought" for 10,000 riyals (2,670 dollars).
"The employer raped me many times. I told everything to madam. The whole family, madam, the employer, they didn't want me to go. They locked the doors and gates," she was quoted as saying.
Eventually she escaped to the embassy where she waited nine months for justice, only to be told that the case had been thrown out of court and she would be sent home.
Nour Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, had her fingers and toes amputated due to daily beatings and starvation. Charges against her employers were dropped despite a confession after a three-year legal process.
"Employers often take away passports and lock workers in the home, increasing their isolation and risk of psychological, physical, and sexual abuse," HRW said in a statement.
It said Saudi labour laws excluded domestic workers, so many were forced to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week -- often without pay -- for years.
Thousands of domestic workers took shelter each year at the social affairs ministry and their respective embassies. Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal accounted for the bulk of the women.
The ministry was supposed to help negotiate payment but it often sent the workers home "empty-handed" because their earnings were used to pay the employers to release them.
"The restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system ties migrant workers' visas to their employers and means employers can deny workers the ability to change jobs or leave the country," HRW said.
HRW's Varia said the government had spent years considering labour reform "without taking any action."
"It's now time to make these changes, which include covering domestic workers under the 2005 Labor Law and changing the kafala system so that workers' visas are no longer tied to their employers," she said.
"The Saudi government should extend Labor Law protections to domestic workers and reform the visa sponsorship system so that women desperate to earn money for their families don't have to gamble with their lives."
More than eight million migrants work in Saudi Arabia, including 1.5 million domestic workers, most of whom send money back home to their families.