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Contract Slavery in Saudi Kingdom



By Vijay Prashad

December 21, 2013

BETWEEN mid-November and mid-December, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) deported 120,000 Ethiopians. International and Ethiopian agencies received the deportees at Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport. “People are arriving exhausted, but also emotionally traumatised by the ordeal of having to leave Saudi Arabia,” said Frehiwot Worku, Secretary General of the Ethiopian Red Cross. “Many of them are arriving with very little. Some have had to leave all of their belongings behind.” Red Cross workers report that some of the migrants get off the night flights disoriented, some without shoes.

Amongst the deportees are over 200 unaccompanied children. These children had, like many of the adults, travelled overland from Ethiopia to Saudi Arabia via one of the world’s most treacherous routes—through Djibouti, Puntland, Somaliland, the Gulf of Aden, and Yemen. Sharon Dimanche of the International Organisation for Migration told me: “Traffickers and/or smugglers do influence the children and lure them into irregular migration by promising them better opportunities in the KSA.” The situation is not much more different for the adults, many of whom are only a few years older than the children. They go to Saudi Arabia with the hope that its oil wealth will drip down into their pockets. Difficult work conditions matched with an unfair labour system drive many of the workers into desperation. The deportations, which have slowed from 7,000 a day to 2,000 a day, are a sign that something is not right with the relationship between the Saudi employers as well as the KSA and the Ethiopian workers.

Saudi Arabia’s nine million migrant workers make up a third of the kingdom’s population, but they have none of the rights of the King’s subjects. Every few years, when economic crises strike the King’s subjects, the KSA resorts to its Nitaqat, or Saudisation, programme—with the government deporting migrant workers with the empty plea that the private sector will now hire Saudi subjects to replace them. Rather than go after all the migrant workers—which would lead to the collapse of the Saudi economy—King Abdullah’s government targets the undocumented workers, many of whom came to the kingdom with paperwork (Iqama) but lost it when they changed employers. Over the course of the past six months, the Saudi government has removed nearly two million migrant workers from the kingdom—mostly from Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, the Philippines and Yemen (“Work Woes”, Frontline, June 28, 2013). But nothing has been as vicious as the attack against Ethiopian workers.

Kafala System

The Saudi kingdom sits on the second largest oil reserves in the world. That is, as the businessman Turki Faisal al-Rasheed put it, not the whole picture. Over three million rural-based Saudi subjects live below the poverty line. “Three million is a lot,” he points out. The numbers are similar in urban areas. One estimate suggests that 22 per cent of the Saudi King’s subjects live in poverty. During the Arab Spring, the King opened his coffers to forestall any uprising in the country and refurbished the Hafiz system, which allows indigent Saudi subjects to get paid for their nationality. Saudi economists complain that these political payments undermine the incentive for Saudi subjects to do the kind of jobs that are then outsourced to migrant workers.

Migrant workers come under a system—Kafala—that the scholars Ray Jureidini and Nayla Moukarbel call “contract slavery”. Workers are bound to employers, who hold their passports and control their mobility. This is a system rife with abuse, as the employer has all the power and the workers have none at all.

The 2008 Human Rights Watch report As If I Am Not Human: Abuses Against Asian Domestic Workers in Saudi Arabia details the kind of abuse that flows from this system. Criticism from human rights groups and unrest inside the kingdom led the Shura Council of Saudi Arabia to pass a Bill in July 2009 to set limits to the Kafala programme. The new Bill “would require employers to give domestic workers at least nine hours of rest every day, suitable accommodation, and rest breaks”. But there remained worry that the law did not produce a mechanism to monitor the homes for abuse. The 2009 law also says that workers have a “duty to obey employers’ orders” and that workers cannot break the Kafala contract without a “legitimate reason”.

The strictures of the Kafala orders drive many legal migrant workers into the shadow labour market. Halima (a pseudonym) went to Saudi Arabia from her home in Wegdi, a small village in northern Ethiopia. She worked in Haferbatir, near Kuwait, for a very large family, and because of the enormous workload she left her job. Relatives in Jeddah allowed Halima to find work there, but because she had to work outside the procedures of Kafala she entered the illegal economy. Halima’s illegality is a function of the draconian Kafala system. People like Halima get deported while the system is preserved.

The Nitaqat

The periodic deportation of migrant workers from Saudi Arabia comes with a great deal of tension and turmoil. Wild rumours about the migrant workers stalk the country—with the most frequent canard being that Ethiopian maids are particularly rough with their charges. Videos of brutality by Saudi employers against their Ethiopian employees can be seen on YouTube, although the authenticity of these is always hard to determine. Complaints against employer abuse are met with stonewalled silence from the authorities. When employers complain about worker infractions, the state acts swiftly, report human rights activists in Saudi Arabia. Earlier this year, 24-year-old Rizana Nafeek was beheaded when a child in her care died. The Sri Lankan worker said that the child had accidentally choked, but the courts did not accept her view. Sri Lanka and Indonesia have warned their nationals against going to work in Saudi Arabia.

On November 12, in Manfuhah (Riyadh), as Ethiopian migrant workers waited to board buses to take them to the Shumaisi detention centre, a fracas broke out. The Saudi police ended up killing at least three Ethiopian migrant workers, according to human rights activists (and YouTube videos). In one video, a police officer is beating an Ethiopian man while a dead man lies on the street with a bullet wound in his chest. Sixty-eight people were injured in this violence. Saudi Arabia makes it virtually impossible for journalists to enter the country, which is why it is hard to verify independently some of the claims of human rights organisations, who for security reasons do not want to go public with their names.

Over the course of November, as buses with deportees arrived at the Shumaisi centre, groups of frustrated and angry Ethiopians tried to protest (on November 29, a number of them threw rocks at cars on the Mecca-Jeddah expressway). Activists told me that the security services have violently cracked down on any protest at the centre. Colonel Badr al-Saud, director of public relations at the Mecca Police Department, confirmed that such protests had taken place but denied that the police used excessive force. At the gate of the Ethiopian consulate in Jeddah, a few hundred Ethiopians remain, at the time of writing, on a sit-in protest.

Reaction from Addis Ababa

Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn imposed a six-month ban on emigration to Saudi Arabia. His government condemned the killing of “innocent civilians”; strong words coming from a country hesitant to be critical of Saudi Arabia. Ethiopia’s weak economy is reliant upon remittance payments; the legal and Hawala remittance money put together is more than three times the foreign direct investment in Ethiopia. The reaction from Addis Ababa to previous incidents of violence in other Arab countries has also been shockingly muted. In 2012, 33-year-old Alem Dechasa fled her Kafala employer to the Ethiopian embassy in Beirut, Lebanon. Her employer found her and beat her in public outside the doors of the embassy, which could not protect her. In hospital, Alem Dechasa is alleged to have committed suicide. The response from Ethiopia was tepid.

Part of the problem is the remittance payments, but there are other entanglements that make a break very difficult. Saudi Arabia is also one of the main investors in Ethiopia, largely through the offices of the kingdom’s second wealthiest man, Mohammed al-Amoudi. Al-Amoudi’s mother is Ethiopian and he considers himself a native son despite his Saudi subject-hood. His firm, Debra Group, is in agribusiness and also manufactures cement, petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. Al-Amoudi’s relations with the Ethiopian government are said to have suffered when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, his ally, died last year. Saudi-Ethiopian relations rested on the al-Amoudi-Zenawi alliance. This has not stopped al-Amoudi’s investments, including in new cement plants and an expansion of his agribusiness venture, Saudi Star. From 2009, Saudi investment in Ethiopian agriculture expanded with the King Abdullah Initiative for Agricultural Investment Abroad. Ethiopia was to be Saudi Arabia’s bread basket, to grow maize, teff, white sorghum and white wheat for the Saudi market.

As the conflict over Ethiopian workers grew in Saudi Arabia, Saudi investors grew skittish. Some pulled out their money, either to pressure Ethiopia not to act to defend its nationals or fearful of the political outcome of this deportation. “We should admit that mistakes have been committed by both sides,” said Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Shahri, head of the Saudi Agricultural Investors Association in Ethiopia, to the Arab daily Al-Hayat. “The illegal entrance of Ethiopians is unacceptable. The Ministry of Labour has dealt with them without knowing their exact number and the way to deport them. What is happening with Ethiopians in Saudi Arabia will affect our investments in their country on the popular level.”

Ethiopia’s government has been quick to crack down on any protest in front of the Saudi embassy in Addis Ababa. The police arrested Getaneh Balcha, head of the organisational affairs of the opposition Semayawi (Blue) Party. After his release from prison, Balcha disappeared on December 7. His whereabouts are unknown.


In April, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published an important report, Tricked and Trapped: Human Trafficking in the Middle East. The report shows that the Kafala system is “inherently problematic” since it extracts “forced labour” and “reinforces underlying vulnerabilities of migrant workers”. These are strong words from a United Nations agency. The ILO makes several recommendations that are likely to be ignored—reform the Kafala system, bring all workers under the protection of domestic labour laws, increase the power of labour inspectorates for worksite monitoring, and build up worker organisations. The ILO notes that “trade unions are ideally placed to raise awareness, as they are mass membership organisations with direct access to the workplace”. This is precisely what migrant workers around the world clamour for—not an abolishment of their right to work but the creation of more just systems that leave them less vulnerable as they work. This is clearly brought out in a new report, Claiming Rights: Domestic Workers’ Movements and Global Advances for Labour Reform (Human Rights Watch, October 28, 2013).

On September 5, the ILO’s Convention Concerning Decent Work for Domestic Workers went into legal force. It is a broad-minded and powerful convention that lays out the legal basis for domestic worker organisations—the kind of force that would countervail the terrible conditions faced by Ethiopian workers in Saudi Arabia. What is most ironic about the convention is that the states of the Arabian Peninsula, including Saudi Arabia, voted enthusiastically for it.