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Egypt

Executive Summary

According to its constitution, Egypt is a republic governed by an elected president and unicameral legislature. Presidential elections were held in March 2018. Challengers to the incumbent President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi pulled out ahead of the election, citing personal decisions, political pressure, legal troubles, and unfair competition; in some cases they were arrested for alleged violations of candidacy rules. Domestic and international organizations expressed concern that government limitations on association, assembly, and expression severely constrained broad participation in the political process. Domestic and international observers concluded that government authorities professionally administered parliamentary elections in 2015 in accordance with the country’s laws, while also expressing concern about restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression and their negative effect on the political climate surrounding the elections.

The Interior Ministry supervises law enforcement and internal security, including the Public Police, the Central Security Force (CSF), the National Security Sector (NSS), and Customs and Immigration. The Public Police are responsible for law enforcement nationwide. The CSF protects infrastructure and is responsible for crowd control. The NSS is responsible for internal security threats and counterterrorism along with other Egyptian security services. The armed forces report to the minister of defense and are responsible for external defense, but they also have a mandate to “assist” police in protecting vital infrastructure during a state of emergency. Military personnel were granted full arrest authority in 2011 but normally only use this authority during states of emergency and “periods of significant turmoil.” Defense forces operate in the Sinai as part of a broader national counterterrorism operation with general detention authority. The Border Guard Forces, under the Ministry of Defense, are responsible for border control. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

In April the country held a national referendum that approved new constitutional amendments, which among other outcomes extended President Sisi’s current term from four years to six years and allowed the president to run for a third six-year term in 2024. Domestic and international press reported multiple violations of the elections law by the government in the referendum process, including arrests of opponents. The State Council blocked all legal challenges to the referendum and amendments.

President Sisi requested that parliament approve a nationwide state of emergency (SOE) after the 2017 terrorist attack on Coptic churches. Since then, the government has requested, and parliament has renewed, SOEs with one- or two-day gaps between every two SOE periods to meet the legal requirement that SOEs may only be renewed once. In North Sinai, a partial SOE has been in effect since 2014. The government regularly renews that SOE every three months and has imposed partial curfews on parts of North Sinai.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents and terrorist groups; forced disappearance; torture; arbitrary detention; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, and the existence of unenforced criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, such as overly restrictive laws governing civil society organizations; restrictions on political participation; violence involving religious minorities; violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; use of the law to arbitrarily arrest and prosecute LGBTI persons; and forced or compulsory child labor.

The government inconsistently punished or prosecuted officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in government. In most cases the government did not comprehensively investigate allegations of human rights abuses, including most incidents of violence by security forces, contributing to an environment of impunity.

Attacks by terrorist organizations caused arbitrary and unlawful deprivation of life. Terrorist groups conducted deadly attacks on government, civilian, and security targets throughout the country, including places of worship. Authorities investigated terrorist attacks and prosecuted alleged perpetrators. Terrorists and other armed groups abducted civilians in North Sinai, some of whom they beheaded. There were incidents of societal sectarian violence against Coptic Christian Egyptians.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but includes a clause stating, “It may be subject to limited censorship in times of war or public mobilization.” The government frequently did not respect this right.

Freedom of Expression: Citizens expressed their views on a wide range of political and social topics. Nonetheless, the government investigated and prosecuted critics for alleged incitement of violence, insults to religion, insults to public figures and institutions such as the judiciary and the military, or violation of public morals. Individuals also faced societal and official harassment for speech viewed as sympathetic to political protests in other countries, such as Mohamad Ramadan who remained in pretrial detention after his December 2018 arrest for “inciting social unrest” by posting a photo on Facebook of himself wearing a yellow vest akin to those worn by political protesters in France.

The law provides a broad definition of terrorism, to include “any act harming national unity or social peace.” Human rights observers expressed concern that authorities could use the ambiguous definition to stifle nonviolent speech and nonviolent opposition activity.

Between January and June, a local organization that tracks freedom of association and speech recorded 138 violations of the freedoms of media and artistic and digital expression. One example cited by The Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) is the June 25 arrest of several political figures after they met to form a new political alliance (Alliance of Hope) to run in 2020 parliamentary elections. On August 6, the Cairo Criminal Court upheld a freeze on the assets of 83 defendants in the case (no. 930/2019). On September 3, board members of the Journalists’ Syndicate, journalists, and families of the detainees submitted three official complaints to NCHR claiming that the detainees were experiencing poor detention conditions and medical negligence. The next hearing on the renewal of the detention of the defendants was scheduled for January 8, 2020.

On September 24, authorities arrested Hazem Hosni and Hassan Nafaa, both political science professors at Cairo University who were outspoken critics of President Sisi. Hosny was also a spokesman for the 2018 presidential campaign of Sami Anan (see section 3). According to media, Nafaa’s arrest came minutes after a local channel aired a leaked conversation between Nafaa and an al-Jazeera producer in which Nafaa demanded LE 16,500 ($1,000) for conducting an interview with al-Jazeera. On December 17, the State Security Prosecutor ordered the renewal of Hosni and Nafaa’s detention for 15 days pending investigations on charges of joining a banned group and spreading false news.

In a November 19 report, HRW claimed it had documented 28 cases from 2016 to 2019 in which authorities harassed or threatened one or more family members of journalists, media workers, and political and human rights activists who have criticized the government and now live abroad.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a variety of views but with significant restrictions. Independent media reported that entities wholly or partially owned by the intelligence services assumed control of several independent media companies throughout the year. The constitution, penal code, and media and publications law govern media issues. The government regulated the licensing of newspapers and controlled the printing and distribution of a majority of newspapers, including private newspapers and those of opposition political parties. The law does not impose restrictions on newspaper ownership.

The more than 20 state-owned media outlets broadly supported official state policy. The National Press Authority holds the power to appoint and dismiss editorial leadership of state-owned print outlets. The governmental Egyptian Radio and Television Union appointed the heads of state-owned radio and television channels. Both state-owned and private media (including television and online journalism) occasionally broadcast and published mild criticism of government policies, but dominant media narratives supported the president and his policy initiatives.

The law considers websites and social media accounts with at least 5,000 subscribers as media outlets, requires them to pay a licensing fee of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (LE) ($3,030), and grants the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) broad discretion to block their content. According to media reports, the SCMR fined the weekly newspaper al-Mashhad LE 50,000 ($3,030) in March and blocked its website for six months for allegedly publishing sexually explicit material. Al-Mashhad claimed it did not publish illicit material and that the censorship was due to its reports claiming that a police station in Cairo extorted business owners to fund food to be given to voters in the April referendum. According to media reports, the SCMR also prevented al-Mashhad from sending 30 journalists to report from polling stations during the referendum.

As of December the Committee to Protect Journalists reported there were 26 imprisoned journalists in the country.

On June 23, the al-Tahrir news agency stated it was shutting down operations after authorities blocked its website on May 9. According to a June 25 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the SCMR issued a bylaw in March stating that websites in violation of Egypt’s media laws would be blocked.

On November 24, unidentified security officials raided the office of news site Mada Masr, seized documents and electronic equipment, and detained three staff members. Detained staff members were taken to a police station before being released several hours later. On November 27, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement saying that Mada Masr was investigated because it was operating without a permit. No additional information was available on the status of the investigation as of December 16.

On May 21, a court ordered the release of al-Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein, who had been held for 880 days in pretrial detention for allegedly disseminating false news and receiving monetary funds from foreign authorities to defame the state’s reputation. Before processing his release, authorities rearrested Hussein, who remained in pretrial detention awaiting formal charges.

Violence and Harassment: According to media reports and local and international human rights groups, state actors arrested and imprisoned, harassed, and intimidated journalists. Foreign correspondents reported cases where the government denied them entry, deported them, and delayed or denied issuance of media credentials; some claimed these actions were part of a government campaign to intimidate foreign media.

According to media reports, on February 20, authorities detained David Kirkpatrick, a New York Times reporter, in the Cairo International Airport and prevented him from entering the country. Kirkpatrick was the Cairo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2011 to 2015 and is the author of a book on Egypt, Into the Hands of the Soldiers.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Official censorship occurred. The SOE empowered the president to monitor newspapers, publications, editorials, drawings, and all means of expression and to order the seizure, confiscation, and closure of publications and print houses.

According to media reports, authorities blocked 34,000 websites prior to the April referendum, including sites gathering signatures to oppose the amendments. On June 23, AFTE reported that authorities censored three issues of the leftist Al Tagammaa Party’s weekly Al Ahly newspaper that discussed presidential pardons, corruption, and a planned government cabinet reshuffle. The AFTE report noted the government had previously censored Al-Dostour, Al-Mesryoon, Sawt Al Ummah, Al-Sabah, and Al-Bawaba newspapers.

Some activists and many journalists reported privately they self-censored criticism of the government or comments that could be perceived as sympathetic to the MB, due to the overall anti-MB and progovernment media environment. Publishers were also wary of publishing books that criticized religious institutions, such as al-Azhar, or challenged Islamic doctrine.

On March 22, the Musicians’ Syndicate banned famous singer Sherine Abdel Wahab from performing and summoned her for questioning for “insulting Egypt.” The syndicate lifted the ban in early June after she publicly apologized.

Libel/Slander Laws: Local and international rights groups reported several cases of authorities charging and convicting individuals with denigrating religion under the so-called blasphemy law, targeting primarily Christians but also Muslims.

On January 29, atheist video blogger Sherif Gaber launched a crowdfunding page called “Help Me Escape Egypt” to aid him in purchasing another nationality. On March 29, he posted on Twitter that there were two warrants for his arrest for treason and receiving funding from unknown sources. Gaber was arrested for denigration of Islam-related charges in 2018, 2015, and 2013. As of December 16, the government had not detained him.

National Security: The law allows government censors to block the publication of information related to intelligence and national security.

The law imposes a fine on any person who “intentionally publishes…or spreads false news.” The fine is many times the average annual salary of most local journalists. In March 2018 authorities established hotlines for members of the public to call or leave text messages reporting fake news in either traditional or social media that endangers state security.

Judges may issue restraint orders to prevent media from covering court cases considered sensitive on national security grounds. Rights groups stated authorities sometimes misused the orders to shield government, police, or military officials from public scrutiny. Citing safety and security, the government and military restricted media access to many parts of North Sinai.

Authorities have held blogger Islam al-Refai, known as Khorm, who ran a satirical Twitter account with 75,000 followers, in pretrial detention since 2017, according to his attorney. NGOs continued to claim that authorities used counterterrorism and state-of-emergency laws and courts unjustly to prosecute journalists, activists, lawyers, political party members, university professors, and critics for their peaceful criticism.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights, albeit with some exceptions, including the handling of potential refugees and asylum seekers. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Authorities maintained a “no-fly” list that prevented some defendants in court cases from fleeing the country.

In-country Movement: Citizens and foreigners may not travel freely in areas of the country designated as military zones. The government sought to prevent private individuals, journalists, civil society figures, and international organizations from entering North Sinai, stating it was to protect their safety, although it began organizing some supervised visits for journalists to North Sinai in July.

Foreign Travel: The constitution states, “No citizen may be prevented from leaving the State territory.”

Nonetheless, men who have not completed compulsory military service and have not obtained an exemption may not travel abroad or emigrate. National identification cards indicated completion of military service.

Authorities required citizens between ages 18 and 40 to obtain permission from the Interior Ministry to travel to 16 countries: Georgia, Guinea, Indonesia, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Qatar, South Africa, South Korea, Sudan, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, , and Yemen. Enforcement of these regulations was sporadic. The government stated it intended these regulations to make it more difficult for citizens to join terrorist groups and to stop flight of criminals. These regulations also affected the ability of other individuals to travel outside the country.

The government-imposed travel bans on human rights defenders and political activists under investigation or formally charged. Local human rights groups maintained that authorities used travel bans to intimidate and silence human rights defenders, including individuals connected with NGOs facing investigation as part of the reopened NGO foreign-funding case. A September 2018 court ruling stated a travel ban “does not require the investigation of certain facts and their certainty,” but there must be “serious evidence that there are reasons for it and that the decision to prevent travel is due to security reasons and the interests of the state.”

Democracy activist Esraa Abdel Fattah remained unable to depart the country as a result of a travel ban (see section 1.c. regarding her arrest).

Exile: There was no government-imposed exile, and the constitution prohibits the government from expelling citizens or banning citizens from returning to the country. Some Mubarak- and Morsi-era politicians lived outside the country by choice and stated they faced government threats of prosecution.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: From April to June, 413 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) were reported to UNHCR and CARE International, which provided SGBV prevention activities and counseling to 1,750 refugee and asylum seekers.

Media, NGOs, and UNHCR staff reported multiple cases of attacks against refugees, particularly women and children. According to UNHCR, refugees sometimes reported harassment, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Refugee women and girls, particularly sub-Saharan Africans, faced the greatest risk of societal, sexual, and gender-based violence.

According to UNHCR and press reports, police security sweeps increased in neighborhoods known to house Syrian, Sudanese, and other African refugees, as well as migrants, resulting in increased detentions. Detainees reported authorities subjected them to verbal abuse and poor detention conditions.

Refoulement: Although the government often contacted UNHCR upon detaining unregistered migrants and asylum seekers, authorities reportedly sometimes encouraged unregistered detainees to choose to return to their countries of origin or a neighboring country to avoid continued detention, even in cases where the individuals expressed a fear of return. The number of these cases was unknown.

Compared with previous years, fewer Palestinian refugees from Syria entered the country illegally, intending to travel to Europe. In a number of cases, in the absence of valid travel documents or inability to confirm their identities they faced more difficulties, including higher chances of detention or deportation.

Access to Asylum: The constitution provides for the protection of political refugees, but the laws do not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a comprehensive legal regime for providing protection to refugees. The government granted UNHCR authority to make refugee status determinations. UNHCR does not register Libyan citizens; neither does it register or assist Palestinian refugees in the country.

According to UNHCR as of June 30, asylum seekers in the country came mainly from Syria, as well as from Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen. The number of African refugees increased during the year, according to UNHCR, particularly those from Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan.

Since 2013 the government has applied a system of visa and security clearance requirements for Syrian nationals and Palestinian refugees from Syria, thus assuring no direct entries from Syria since Egypt lacked consular services there. Following the UNHCR high commissioner’s visit in 2017, the country relaxed its visa requirements for Syrians seeking family reunification.

Reports of irregular movements of individuals, including asylum seekers, and detention of foreign nationals attempting to depart the country irregularly via the Mediterranean remained low during the year, according to UNHCR, following parliament’s passage and enforcement of a law that dramatically increased patrols on the country’s Mediterranean coast in 2016.

UNHCR and its partners usually had regular access, by request, to detained registered refugees and asylum seekers along the north coast. Local rights groups faced continued resistance from the government when trying to interview detainees at Qanater men’s and women’s prisons outside Cairo, which housed the majority of detained refugees and asylum seekers. Authorities generally granted UNHCR access to asylum seekers at all prison and detention facilities. Authorities generally released asylum seekers registered with UNHCR, although frequently did not do so for detained migrants, many of whom were Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali, and Sudanese (who may have had a basis for asylum claims). Detained migrants–as unregistered asylum seekers–did not have access to UNHCR. Authorities often held them in in police stations until UNHCR or other aid agencies assisted them, although sometimes authorities sent them to regular prisons alongside convicted criminals or deported them.

The government has never recognized UNHCR’s mandate to offer services to Palestinians outside of the fields of operations of the UN Relief and Works Agency, reportedly due to a belief that allowing UNHCR registration would negate Palestinian refugees’ alleged right of return. Approximately 2,900 Palestinian refugees from Syria were also present in the country, the majority reportedly in Cairo. The Palestinian Authority mission in the country provided limited assistance to this population. The Swiss Red Cross also provided some humanitarian assistance to Palestinian refugees from Syria.

Employment: No law grants or prohibits refugees the right to work. Those seeking unauthorized employment were challenged by lack of jobs and societal discrimination, particularly against sub-Saharan Africans. Refugees who found work took low-paying jobs in the informal market, such as domestic servants, and were vulnerable to financial and sexual exploitation by employers.

Access to Basic Services: Refugees, in particular non-Arabic-speaking refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, received limited access to some services, including health care and public education. According to UNHCR, refugees can fully access public-health services, although many did not have the resources to do so, and prices were often higher for refugees due to discrimination. The Interior Ministry restricted access for some international organizations seeking to assist migrants and refugees in Sinai. UNHCR was unaware of any migrants detained in Sinai since 2016. UNHCR provided some refugees with modest support for education and health care, as well as small monthly financial assistance grants for particularly vulnerable refugees. The International Organization for Migration provided additional assistance to particularly vulnerable migrants and individual asylum cases either rejected or being processed by UNHCR.

Refugee children not enrolled in public schools mainly attended refugee-run schools, private schools, or were home schooled. The law requires government hospitals to provide free emergency medical care to refugees, but many hospitals did not have adequate resources to do so. In some cases hospitals insisted that refugees provide payment in advance of receiving services or refused to provide services to refugees. One local refugee agency reported some refugees died due to the lack of medical care. As of March 19, UNHCR reported 10 protests and two suicides committed by refugees in response to the lack of adequate services. In response to the influx of Syrians, the government allowed Syrian refugees and asylum seekers access to public education and health services. The Ministry of Education estimated that 35,000 school-age Syrian children (approximately 90 percent) enrolled successfully in the public-school system.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. Constraints on freedom of expression, association, and assembly, however, limited citizens’ ability to do so.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government did not consistently implement the law effectively, and officials sometimes engaged in corrupt practices with impunity.

Corruption: The Central Agency for Auditing and Accounting was the government’s internal anticorruption body and submitted reports to the president and prime minister that were not available to the public. The auditing and accounting agency stationed monitors at state-owned companies to report corrupt practices. The Administrative Control Authority (ACA), another state institution with technical, financial, and administrative independence, had jurisdiction over state administrative bodies, state-owned enterprises, public associations and institutions, private companies undertaking public work, and organizations to which the state contributes in any form. The ACA is a civilian agency led by personnel seconded from the military and intelligence services. The ACA has no oversight role for allegations of corruption involving the military. In addition to anticorruption, it also has jurisdiction for criminal violations to include human trafficking and financial crimes.

On April 3, the World Bank offered a positive assessment of the country’s anticorruption efforts. The ACA raised more than 400 corruption-related cases and took legal action against more than 1,400 employees January to August. For example, on August 20, the ACA arrested the secretary general of the SCMR, Ahmed Selim, for bribery and corruption.

In another case, on September 15, the Illicit Gains Authority referred Souad al-Khouli, the former deputy governor of Alexandria, to the criminal court based on charges of illegally obtaining more than LE 907,500 ($55,000) by exploiting her public positions. On April 4, the Port Said Felonies court sentenced Gamal Abdel Azim, the former head of the Customs Authority, to 10 years in prison and a fine of LE 769,000 ($46,600) on charges of corruption and bribery. A February report by the Project on Middle East Democracy criticized the lack of transparency in ACA investigations and alleged the organization may selectively target individuals for investigation at the behest of the Presidency.

In August Mohamed Ali, a disgruntled former contractor whose contracting company formerly carried out civilian projects for the army, posted a series of videos accusing President Sisi of wasting public funds on prestige projects. President Sisi stated the allegations were “lies and slander” and that the projects were necessary to build a new state.

Financial Disclosure: There are no financial disclosure laws for public officials. A 2013 conflict-of-interest law forbids government officials from maintaining any pecuniary interest in matters over which they exercise authority.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

International and local human rights organizations stated the government continued to be uncooperative. On April 16, the local development minister said the government had established human rights units in 25 governorates and planned to establish units in Cairo and North Sinai as well. Government officials publicly asserted they shared the civil society organizations’ goals, but they rarely cooperated with or responded to the organizations’ inquiries, according to local NGOs. Some units were in the formative stage, staffed by personnel from the governor’s complaints office who receive basic human rights training. The cabinet established a committee on human rights chaired by the minister of foreign affairs to prepare UN reports and respond to human rights allegations raised against the country. Domestic civil society organizations criticized the government’s consultations with civil society as insufficient.

Extended delays in gaining government approvals and an unclear legal environment continued to limit the ability of domestic and international NGOs to operate. State-owned and independent media frequently depicted NGOs, particularly international NGOs and domestic NGOs that received funding from international sources, as undertaking subversive activities. Some NGOs reported receiving visits or calls to staff, both at work and at home, from security service officers and tax officials monitoring their activities, as well as societal harassment.

Human rights defenders and political activists were also subjected to governmental and societal harassment and intimidation, including through travel bans (see section 2.d.). On October 31, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information released a statement saying that security forces vandalized the car of a lawyer working for the organization and that several days prior security forces had physically beaten the organization’s director and stolen his car.

Well-established, independent domestic human rights NGOs struggled to operate amid increasing pressure from security forces throughout the country. Online censorship (see section 2.a.) diminished the roles of internet activists and bloggers in publicizing information concerning human rights abuses. Authorities sometimes allowed civil society organizations not registered as NGOs to operate, but such organizations often reported harassment, along with threats of government interference, investigation, asset freezes, or closure.

The government continued investigations into the receipt of foreign funding by several human rights organizations (see section 2.b.).

Major international human rights organizations, such as HRW and AI, have not had offices in the country since closing them in 2014 due to “concerns about the deteriorating security and political environment in the country.”

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In October 2018 the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing visited the country, the first rapporteur to visit since 2010. In a December 2018 statement, the rapporteur claimed that individuals she met during her trip faced retaliation in the form of forced evictions, housing demolitions, arbitrary arrest, intimidation, and other reprisals.

Nine other UN special rapporteurs had pending visit requests; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated it was committed to facilitating their visits by the end of 2019. Authorities did not allow the International Committee of the Red Cross access to prisoners and detainees. The Interior Ministry provided some international organizations informal access to some detention centers where authorities detained asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants to provide humanitarian assistance (see section 2.d.).

Following backlash from domestic and international human rights organizations, the United Nations postponed plans for an international conference on torture in Cairo in September.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The quasi-governmental NCHR monitored government abuses of human rights submitted in the form of citizen complaints to the government. The NCHR continues to function with its existing membership, even though under the law the terms of existing NCHR members ended in 2016. A number of well-known human rights activists served on the organization’s board, although some observers alleged the board’s effectiveness was sometimes limited because it lacked sufficient resources and the government rarely acted on its findings. The council at times challenged and criticized government policies and practices, calling for steps to improve its human rights record. In early October the NCHR criticized police procedures during the September arrests of citizens, including not informing arrestees of the charges against them and forcing citizens to display the contents of their mobile phones. In response the Interior Ministry stated that all arrests were legal. The NCHR also held a conference in September to discuss the NGO law and Egypt’s preparations for the Universal Periodic Review with local human rights organizations, and in October to discuss torture.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the rights of workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and strike, with significant restrictions. The constitution provides for freedom of association. The law prescribes union elections every four years and imposes a strict hierarchy for union formation consisting of a company-level trade union committee, a profession, or industry-level general union, and a national-level union. In June the International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on the Application of Standards discussed the country’s failure to meet the terms of Convention 87 concerning the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize. Specifically, the committee considered the minimum threshold of workers required to form an enterprise union appeared to restrict workers’ freedom of association, since 90 percent of all economic activity in the country is conducted in small and medium enterprises with fewer than 50 employees. The committee also noted that the high threshold requirements for general unions and confederations guaranteed the government-sponsored confederation a de facto monopoly.

In July parliament amended the 2017 trade unions law. The amendments reduced the minimum number of workers required to form a trade union committee from 150 to 50, the number of trade union committees required to form a general union from 15 to 10, and the number of workers required to form a general union from 20,000 to 15,000. The new amendments also decreased the number of unions necessary to establish a trade union federation from 10 to seven and the number of workers in a trade union federation from 200,000 to 150,000. Furthermore, the amendments replaced prison penalties for violations of labor laws with financial penalties.

While the law provides for collective bargaining, it imposes significant restrictions. For example, the government sets wages and benefits for all public-sector employees. The law does not provide for enterprise-level collective bargaining in the private sector and requires centralized tripartite negotiations that include workers, represented by a union affiliated with the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF), business owners, and the Ministry of Manpower overseeing and monitoring negotiations and agreements.

The constitution provides for the right to “peaceful” strikes. The Unified Labor Law permits peaceful strikes as well, but it imposes significant restrictions, including prior approval by a general trade union affiliated with ETUF. In May workers at the Mahala Egypt Spinning and Weaving Company went on strike over unpaid salaries and bonuses, which they ended when the company’s administration promised to pay the delayed wages.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and provides for the reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Labor laws do not cover some categories of workers, including agricultural and domestic workers, and other sectors of the informal economy.

The Ministry of Manpower and affiliated directorates did not allow trade unions to adopt any bylaws other than those provided in the law. This position, according to local workers’ rights organizations, was contrary to the law, which states that unions can use the statutory bylaws as guidance to develop their own.

Government enforcement of applicable laws was inconsistent. The government also occasionally arrested striking workers and rarely reversed arbitrary dismissals. The government seldom followed the requirement for tripartite negotiations in collective disputes, leaving workers to negotiate directly with employers, typically after resorting to a strike.

Independent unions continued to face pressure to dissolve. In some cases the Ministry of Manpower delayed responding to unions’ applications for legal status, leaving many in legal limbo. In other instances the Ministry of Manpower refused to legalize proposed unions if an ETUF-affiliated counterpart existed. Independent labor activists claimed that the government placed obstacles on independent unions’ ability to participate in 2018 union elections by delaying or rejecting union registration.

Authorities arrested several labor organizers and subjected others to legal sanctions following the dispersal of a labor strike.

Workers sometimes staged sit-ins on government and private property, often without obtaining the necessary permits. Rights groups claimed authorities sometimes arrested those seeking to obtain protest permits. In January the engineers and workers in al-Nasr Contracting Company organized a strike at the New Administrative Capital to demand their late salaries. The security services reportedly arrested seven workers, including trade unionist Talal Atef. In April Sharabiya Appellant Misdemeanor Court sentenced the seven workers to 30 days in prison on charges of participating in an illegal gathering and refusing to perform their duties at work in order to harm the company. In March the Court of Cassation upheld a court ruling sentencing 27 police officers in South Sinai to three years in prison and cancelled a LE 6,000 fine over charges of protesting and going on strike. The incident dates back to January when 50 police officers in different sectors of South Sinai protested the Interior Ministry’s decision to reduce vacation days to 10 days a month instead of 15 days.

On September 16, security personnel in plain clothes arrested 19 workers who participated in a sit-in to demand payment of annual salary increases for the past two years and unpaid bonuses in a factory in Ismailia. The sit-in began on September 14 in front of the General Investment Authority and blocked the Cairo-Ismaili road. The prosecutor released 13 of the workers the same day without charges and detained six of them, including two women, for 15 days pending formal charges. On September 22, an Ismailia court released them on bail.

On October 7, thousands of Universal Company for Engineering Industries workers protested delayed salaries of three months and other unpaid benefits. Media reported that the protest continued for eight days and included 5,000 workers from different departments of the company.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution states no work may be compulsory except by virtue of a law. The government did not effectively enforce the prohibition but conducted awareness raising activities such as distributing antitrafficking informational booklets to migrant laborers, and the NCW conducted a media campaign about the treatment of domestic workers, a population vulnerable to trafficking, and worked with NGOs to provide some assistance to victims of human trafficking, including forced labor. Penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The law sets the minimum age for regular employment at age 15 and at age 13 for seasonal employment. The constitution defines a child as anyone younger than 18. A Ministry of Manpower decree bars children younger than 18 from 44 specific hazardous occupations, while the law prohibits employment of children younger than 18 from work that “puts the health, safety, or morals of the child into danger.” Provincial governors, with the approval of the minister of education, may authorize seasonal work (often agricultural) for children age 13 and older, provided duties are not hazardous and do not interfere with schooling. The labor code and law limit children’s work hours and mandate breaks.

Overall, authorities did not enforce child labor laws effectively. The Ministry of Manpower, in coordination with the NCCM and the Interior Ministry, enforced child labor laws in state-owned enterprises and private sector establishments through inspections and supervision of factory management. Labor inspectors generally operated without adequate training on child labor issues, although the Ministry of Manpower offered some child labor-specific training. The government did not inspect noncommercial farms for child labor, and there were very limited monitoring and enforcement mechanisms for children in domestic service. When authorities imposed penalties for violations, fines were insufficient to deter violations.

Although the government often did not effectively enforce relevant laws, authorities implemented a number of social, educational, and poverty reduction programs to reduce children’s vulnerability to exploitive labor. The NCCM, working with the Ministries of Education and Social Solidarity, sought to provide working children with social security safeguards and to reduce school dropout rates by providing families with alternative sources of income.

Child labor occurred, although estimates on the number of child laborers varied. According to the 2012 joint ILO and Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics child labor survey, of the 1.8 million children working, 1.6 million were engaged in child labor, primarily in the agricultural sector in rural areas but also in domestic work and factories in urban areas, often under hazardous conditions. Children also worked in light industry, the aluminum industry, construction sites, brick production, and service businesses such as auto repair. According to government, NGO, and media reports, the number of street children in Cairo continued to increase in the face of deteriorating economic conditions. Such children were at greater risk of sexual exploitation or forced begging. In some cases employers abused or overworked children. Children also worked in the production of limestone.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution states all citizens “are equal in rights, freedoms, and general duties without discrimination based on religion, belief, gender, origin, race, color, language, disability, social class, political or geographic affiliation, or any other reason.” It does not specify age, citizenship, sexual orientation, gender identity, or HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases. In April the Ministry of Justice started its first training course for 22 employees working at the state’s real estate departments in Giza and Cairo to use sign language to help persons with disabilities fill out documents. The training comes as part of a cooperation protocol signed in January between the Justice Ministry and the newly established NCPD. While the law provides for persons with disabilities to gain access to vocational training and employment, the government did not effectively enforce prohibitions against such discrimination. Discrimination also occurred against women and migrant workers (see sections 2.d. and 6), as well as workers based on their political views.

An employee facing discrimination can file a report with the local government labor office. If the employee and the employer are unable to reach an amicable settlement, they can file their claim in administrative court, which may order the employer to redress the complaint or to pay damages or legal fees. According to local rights groups, implementation of the law was inadequate. Additionally, the lengthy and expensive litigation process could deter employees from filing claims.

Local rights groups reported several cases of employers dismissing workers or depriving them from work for expressing antigovernment opinions. In March the actors’ professional syndicate revoked the memberships of well-known actors Khaled Abul Naga and Amr Waked, describing their actions as amounting to “high treason” against the homeland and the Egyptian people. The syndicate’s decision came after the two actors participated in a congressional briefing in Washington regarding the human rights situation in Egypt.

In June the Ministry of Religious Endowments warned it would terminate the employment of imams in Sharqiyah Governorate who violated the ministry’s instructions not to hold funeral prayers for the late president Morsi, who died on June 17.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Challenges to improving working conditions in both the private sector and informal sector include uneven application or lack of regulations and restrictions on engaging in peaceful protests as a means of negotiating resolutions to workplace disparities. For example, there is no national minimum wage in the private sector, but the government sets a monthly minimum wage for government employees and public-sector workers, which is above the poverty line. According to labor rights organizations, the government implemented the minimum wage for public-sector workers but applied it only to direct government employees and included benefits and bonuses in calculating total salaries. For government employees and public business-sector workers, the government also set a maximum wage limit per month. The law does not require equal pay for equal work.

The law stipulates a maximum 48-hour workweek for the public and private sectors and provides for premium pay for overtime and work on rest days and national holidays. The law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. The government sets worker health and safety standards, for example, prohibiting employers from maintaining hazardous working conditions. The law excludes agricultural, fisheries, and domestic workers from regulations concerning wages, hours, and working conditions.

The Ministry of Manpower is responsible for enforcing labor laws and standards for working conditions. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The ministry did not attempt to apply labor standards to the informal sector. Penalties, especially as they were often unenforced, were not sufficient to deter violations.

By law workers can remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to employment, although authorities did not reliably enforce this right. In March at least 10 workers were killed and 15 more were injured in an explosion at a military-owned phosphates and fertilizer production facility in Ain Sokhna, a port city east of Cairo. Workers blamed the factory’s administration for failing to comply with the health and safety measures at the site. In May, three workers were killed when a fire broke out in a plastic factory in Sadat city in Menofia Governorate.

According to media reports, laborers in some remote areas worked in extremely dangerous environments. In North Sinai, workers’ movements were restricted by local government-established curfews and checkpoints run by both the military and non-state armed groups. In June terrorists killed four civilian workers who were building a fence around the El Arish airport.

The government provided services, such as free health care, to all citizens, but the quality of services was often poor. Other benefits, such as social insurance, were available only to employees in the formal sector.

Many persons throughout the country faced poor working conditions, especially in the informal economy, which employed up to 40 percent of workers, according to some estimates. Domestic workers, agricultural workers, workers in rock quarries, and other parts of the informal sector were most likely to face hazardous or exploitive conditions. There were reports of employer abuse of citizen and undocumented foreign workers, especially domestic workers. Little information was available on workplace fatalities and accidents.

Jordan

Executive Summary

The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is a constitutional monarchy ruled by King Abdullah II bin Hussein. The constitution grants the king ultimate executive and legislative authority. The multiparty parliament consists of the 65-member Senate (Majlis al-Ayan) appointed by the king and a 130-member popularly elected House of Representatives (Majlis al-Nuwwab). Elections for the House of Representatives occur approximately every four years and last took place in 2016. International observers deemed the elections organized, inclusive, credible, and technically well run.

The Public Security Directorate (PSD) has responsibility for law enforcement and reports to the Ministry of Interior. The PSD, General Intelligence Directorate (GID), gendarmerie, and Civil Defense Directorate share responsibility for maintaining internal security. The gendarmerie and Civil Defense Directorate report to the Ministry of Interior, while the GID reports directly to the king. The armed forces report to the Ministry of Defense and are responsible for external security, although they also have a support role for internal security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture by security officials; arbitrary arrest and detention, including of activists and journalists; infringements on citizens’ privacy rights; restrictions on free expression and the press, including criminalization of libel, censorship, and internet site blocking; restrictions on freedom of association and assembly; incidents of official corruption; “honor” killings of women; violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons; and conditions amounting to forced labor in some sectors.

Impunity remained widespread, although the government took limited, nontransparent steps to investigate, prosecute, and punish officials who committed abuses. Information on the outcomes of these actions was not publicly available for all cases.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides, “The State shall guarantee freedom of opinion; and every Jordanian shall freely express his opinion by speech, writing, photography, and the other means of expression, provided that he does not go beyond the limits of the law.” Authorities applied regulations to limit freedom of speech and press in practice. Authorities applied articles of the counterterrorism law, cybercrimes law, press and publications law, and penal code to arrest local journalists.

Freedom of Expression: The law permits punishment of up to three years’ imprisonment for insulting the king, slandering the government or foreign leaders, offending religious beliefs, or fomenting sectarian strife and sedition. During the year the government restricted the ability of individuals to criticize the government by arresting a number of activists for political expression. Authorities used laws against slander of public officials, blackmail, and libel to restrict public discussion, as well as employed official gag orders issued by the public prosecutor.

During the year Human Rights Watch alleged that the government increasingly targeted activists on charges ranging from insulting the king to undermining the political regime to online slander, which they say violated activists’ right to free expression. On May 20, a group of activists called Jordan Hirak-Karameh (English translation: The Jordanian Movement for Dignity) started an online petition that gathered several hundred signatures protesting the detention of 19 activists who were arrested for their participation in protests and for chanting slogans critical of the king.

In December 2018 the attorney general ordered the detention of media personality Mohammad al-Wakeel, founder of al-Wakeel Media Group, along with an editor working at his website, for posting a caricature deemed offensive to Christians and Muslims. The two men were charged with sectarian incitement and causing religious strife under Article 15 of the Cybercrimes Law and Article 38 of the Press and Publications Law. Authorities released al-Wakeel and the editor after two days at the Juweideh detention center.

In November 2018 authorities arrested the secretary general of the organization Mouminoun (Believers) without Borders, Younis Qandil, and charged him with slander, sectarian incitement, and broadcasting false information for staging his own kidnapping. Earlier in the year, the Ministry of Interior cancelled an academic workshop organized by Qandil’s group, which some considered an attack and insult on Islam. Younis was sentenced to detention at the Juweideh correctional center. As of September he remained in detention. During the year the public prosecutor dropped charges in the 2017 case against local journalist Mohamma Qaddah for slander, incitement, and defamation for his posting of a video on Facebook that authorities described as “insulting” and “derogatory” to women in the country.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: All publications must obtain licenses from the government to operate. Multiple daily newspapers operated; observers considered several as independent of the government, including one regarded as close to the Islamic Action Front (the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood’s legally registered political party). Observers also judged several daily newpapers to be close to the government. The independent print and broadcast media largely operated with limited restrictions, and media observers reported government pressure, including the threat of large fines and prison sentences, to refrain from criticizing the royal family, discussing the GID, covering ongoing security operations, using language deemed offensive to Islam, or slandering government officials. The government influenced news reporting and commentary through political pressure on editors and control over important editorial positions in government-affiliated media. Journalists of government-affiliated and independent media reported that security officials used bribes, threats, and political pressure to force editors to place articles favorable to the government in online and print newspapers.

The law grants the head of the Media Commission authority to close any unlicensed theater, satellite channel, or radio channel. During the year the Media Commission granted broadcasting licenses to companies owned by citizens and foreigners. Those with licenses may not legally broadcast anything that would harm public order, social security, national security, or the country’s relations with a foreign country; incite hatred, terrorism, or violent sedition; or mislead or deceive the public. The cabinet, however, must justify the reasons for rejecting a license and allow the applicant to appeal the decision to the judiciary. There is a fine for broadcasting without a license.

During the year the government rejected broadcast licensing fee exemptions for community radio stations proposed by the Media Commission in February 2018 for financial reasons, according to the media commissioner.

The government has a majority of seats on the board for the leading semiofficial daily newspaper, al-Rai, and a share of board seats for ad-Dustour daily newspaper. According to press freedom advocates, the GID’s Media Department must approve editors in chief of progovernment newspapers.

Media observers noted that, when covering controversial subjects, the government-owned Jordan Television, Jordan News Agency, and Radio Jordan reported only the government’s position.

By law any book can be published and distributed freely. Nonetheless, if the Media Commission deems that passages violate public norms and values, are religiously offensive, or are “insulting” to the king, it can request a court order to prohibit the distribution of the book. During the year the Media Commission banned distribution of 55 books for insulting religion, displaying pornographic images, and promoting homosexuality. The commission approved the importation of approximately 800,000 books. The Media Commission continued to ban the distribution of selected books for religious and moral reasons.

The Media Commission licenses all public-opinion polls and survey research centers in accordance with the Press and Publication Law.

Violence and Harassment: The government subjected journalists to harassment and intimidation.

In its annual report, The Status of Media Freedoms in Jordan in 2018, the Center for Defending the Freedom of Journalists (CDFJ) documented 68 specific cases of violations of freedoms against journalists and media organizations. The CDFJ reported a decline in media freedom violations from 2017 but attributed it primarily to self-censorship and the government’s denial of access to journalists in covering sit-ins and protests during the year.

Authorities arrested or temporarily detained some journalists, and government officials or private individuals threatened some journalists.

AlRai journalist Hussein al-Sharaa was sentenced in 2018 to six months of imprisonment (the highest sentence for such offense) following a complaint filed against him by the PSD for a post he wrote on Facebook, which the PSD considered offensive. The Jordan Press Association appealed the verdict for its issuance without the presence of the defendant’s lawyer. The appeals court released al-Sharaa on bail until completion of the judicial procedures, and the case remained pending.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government directly and indirectly censored the media. The CDFJ report noted continuing widespread self-censorship among journalists in 2018. Journalists claimed that the government used informants in newsrooms and exercised influence over reporting and that GID officials censored reporting. Editors reportedly received telephone calls from security officials instructing them how to cover events or to refrain from covering certain topics or events, especially criticism of political reform. Bribery of journalists took place and undermined independent reporting. Occasionally, government officials provided texts for journalists to publish under their bylines. An opinion poll conducted by the CDFJ found 92 percent of journalists self-censored their reporting in 2018. Journalists cited the declining financial conditions of media outlets, the threat of detention and imprisonment for defamation for a variety of offenses, and court-ordered compensation of as much as 150,000 Jordanian dinars (JD) ($210,000). At times editors in chief censored articles to prevent lawsuits. The government’s use of “soft containment” of journalists, including withholding financial support, scholarships for relatives, and special invitations, led to significant control of media content.

During the year the Media Commission did not circulate any official gag orders restricting discussion in all forms of media, including social media. For grand felony cases or cases of domestic violence, the public prosecutor may issue a gag order to protect the victims or witnesses involved.

Libel/Slander Laws: Article 11 of the Cybercrimes Law allows public prosecutors to detain individuals suspected of violating libel and slander laws. Government prosecutors relied on privately initiated libel, slander, and defamation lawsuits to suppress criticism of public figures and policies. Dozens of journalists, as well as members of parliament, faced libel and slander accusations filed by private citizens. Amendments to the law place the burden of proof for defamation on the complainant.

In January, Amman’s attorney general charged retired civil defense brigadier general Khaled al-Dabbas with slander and defamation, disclosure of secrets without a legitimate reason, and broadcasting false news, for a comment al-Dabbas published on Facebook. After riots broke out in the retired general’s hometown, police intervened to end the protests, and authorities released al-Dabbas the next day. The case was later dismissed for insufficient evidence.

Also in January the attorney general detained activist Mustafa Shoman on charges of slander after he posted a Facebook video implying criticism of the king and crown prince after they invited a municipal worker to join them in watching the national soccer team’s game, calling the interaction staged. Shoman was released from detention on bail in February, and the case continued.

National Security: The government used laws protecting national security to restrict criticism of government policies and officials.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, although there were some restrictions.

f. Protection of Refugees

With the support of the humanitarian community, the government registered and facilitated access to civil documentation for Syrian refugees through the urban verification exercise for refugees, which concluded in March. Through this exercise, the Ministry of Interior issued 478,129 identification cards, allowing refugees to regularize their status living outside of camps, giving them freedom of movement and access to public services and assistance. Additionally, the government returned 205,072 confiscated-upon-arrival documents to Syrian refugees. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there was no backlog of registration for Syrian refugees, and it was possible for Syrians to register with UNHCR upon arrival in the country at centers in Amman and Irbid.

There were reports of forced relocations to Azraq refugee camp, including many to Azraq’s restricted Village 5, as an alternative to deportation for offenses by Syrian refugees; such offenses encompassed “irregular status” (expired registration documents or working without a work permit); criminal activities; and potential security risks, without the latter being clearly defined. As of September, Azraq camp hosted more than 39,900 individuals, including more than 10,000 adults and children in the fenced-off Village 5 area. In 2018 NGOs estimated that the government forcibly relocated more than 7,200 refugees to Azraq camp, including more than 4,000 to Village 5 for security reasons. The vast majority of these refugees were not informed of the reasons for their detention and did not receive legal assistance. Residents of Village 5 had access to basic humanitarian assistance inside the village but had limited access to the broader camp facilities, including the camp hospital, which required a security escort. Although several hundred refugees were screened out of Village 5 each month, the screening process allowing Village 5 residents to relocate to the larger camp remained irregular and slow. Reportedly, many Village 5 residents had remained in this location for more than three years.

A number of Palestinian refugees from Syria (PRS) and other refugees resided in King Abdullah Park (KAP), an unused fenced public space repurposed since 2016 to house PRS, mixed Syrian-PRS families, and some individuals of other nationalities who arrived from Syria. As of August, 479 individuals were held in KAP, of whom 330 were PRS, 135 Syrians, and 14 of other nationalities. Civil documents of PRS and other refugees were held by authorities during their stay in the camp, and residents were required to apply for leave in order to go outside the camp, severely limiting their freedom of movement. Many PRS who lacked legal status in Jordan limited their movements to avoid coming into contact with authorities. Access to basic civil services–including renewal of identity documents, the registration of marriages, deaths, and births–remained highly complex for this group. These vulnerabilities put undocumented refugees at additional risk of abuse by third parties such as employers and landlords.

For those PRS who held Jordanian citizenship, revocation of that citizenship remained a concern. The UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) was aware of at least 50 cases of citizenship revocation since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. In most cases authorities provided no information regarding the reasons for the revocation.

Access to Asylum: The country’s laws do not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government lacked a formal system of protecting refugees. A 1998 memorandum of understanding between the government and UNHCR, renewed in 2014, contains the definition of a refugee, confirms adherence to the principle of nonrefoulement, and allows recognized refugees a maximum stay of one year, during which period UNHCR must find them a durable solution. The time limit is renewable, and the government generally did not force refugees to return to their country of origin. As of 2014, authorities required all Syrians in the country to register with the Ministry of Interior and obtain a ministry-issued identification card.

Several of the country’s border crossings with Syria were closed to new refugee arrivals. The Nassib border crossing with Syria reopened in October 2018 after remaining closed to all traffic for three years, although the Rukban border crossing remained closed. The government determined it would not accept additional Syrian refugees after a 2016 suicide attack along the northeast border with Syria, declaring the surrounding area a “closed military zone.” The government restricted humanitarian access to the area on the Jordanian side of the border. The government’s 2013 announcement that it would not allow entry of PRS remained in effect.

In January the government halted all UNHCR registrations of new non-Syrian refugee asylum seekers. Citing misuse of medical, business, and other visas, the cabinet prohibited registration of non-Syrian refugees pending a government review of registration processes and procedures. As of September the halt in registrations affected more than 4,500 pending refugee cases, primarily from Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, and Yemen.

Employment: Since 2016, the government had issued more than 153,000 work permits to Syrians, 21 percent of which were issued to refugees residing in refugee camps. More than 30,000 of these work permits remained active.

Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees continued to work in the informal economy. Very few non-Syrian refugees had access to the formal labor market, and due to the difficulty in obtaining documentation and work permits and expenses involved in seeking work authorization, many worked in the unofficial labor market.

During the year the Ministries of Interior and Labor, in coordination with the United Nations, permitted Syrian refugees living in the camps to apply for work permits. The agreement allows camp-based refugees to use their work permits as a 30-day leave pass to work outside the camp. Camp-based refugees receiving work permits must report to the camp at least one day per month.

Some residents of Jordan of Palestinian descent, such as those referred to as “Gazans” for short, do not have Jordanian citizenship. To accommodate this population, authorities issued Palestinian refugees originally from Gaza two-year temporary Jordanian passports without national identity numbers, which functioned as travel documents and provided these refugees with permanent residency in Jordan. Without a national identity number, however, Palestinian refugees from Gaza were unable to fully access national support programs and found themselves excluded from key aspects of health and social services support. Those refugees from Gaza who were not registered refugees with UNRWA also experienced restrictions and hindrances in accessing education, obtaining driving licenses, opening bank accounts, and purchasing property.

Access to Basic Services: The government allowed Syrian and other UNHCR-registered refugees to access public health and education facilities. In March the government reduced the fees for Syrian refugees to the same rate as uninsured Jordanians for access to primary and secondary medical care, and exempted them from paying fees for maternity and childhood care. Other non-Syrian refugees, however, continued to pay the foreigner’s rate for health care, a cost unaffordable to most refugees.

The government continued to provide free primary and secondary education to Syrian refugee children and to permit all school-age Syrian refugees access to education. As of the end of the 2018-19 academic year, authorities had not fully completed this objective, and an estimated 83,900 Syrians were still not receiving formal or informal education. Non-Syrian refugees must pay to attend government schools. Public schools, particularly in the north of the country, were overcrowded, and some schools operated on a double-shift schedule to accommodate Syrian students. The government increased the number of double-shift schools to allow additional Syrian refugee students to obtain formal education. Through September more than 134,000 refugee students were enrolled for the 2018-19 school year.

For those not eligible to access formal education because they have been out of school for three or more years, the Ministry of Education developed a catch-up program for refugee students between the ages of nine and 12. Children age 13 and older who were not eligible to enroll in formal education could also participate in nonformal education drop-out programs implemented by NGO partners, in close coordination with the Ministry of Education. A total of 17,575 children benefitted from certified nonformal education in 2018.

Some refugee children continued to face barriers to attending public schools, including lack of transportation, long distances to schools, bullying by fellow students and teachers, or child labor.

Palestinian refugees from Gaza and other non-West Bank areas who entered the country following the 1967 war were not entitled to services, including access to public assistance and higher education. Earlier refugees from Gaza, who came to Jordan between June 1946 and May 1948, were eligible to receive UNRWA services.

Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. The government tolerated the prolonged stay of many Iraqis and other refugees beyond the expiration of the visit permits under which they had entered the country. Iraqi and other non-Syrian refugees accrued fines for overstaying their visit permits. Refugees must pay or settle the fines and penalties prior to receiving an exit visa from Jordan and face a five-year ban from re-entry into Jordan.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their executive branch of government. The king appoints and dismisses the prime minister, cabinet, and upper house of parliament; can dissolve parliament; and directs major public policy initiatives. Citizens have the ability to choose the lower house of parliament in generally credible periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot. Citizens also elect 97 of the 100 mayors, most members of governorate councils, and all members of municipal and local councils. While the voting process was well run, official obstacles to political party activity and campaigning limited participation. International organizations continued to have concerns about the gerrymandering of electoral districts. The cabinet, based on the prime minister’s recommendations, appoints the mayors of Amman, Wadi Musa (Petra), and Aqaba, a special economic zone. Elections for the lower house of parliament took place in 2016. Elections for mayors, governorate councils, and municipal councils took place in 2017.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, although the government did not implement the law effectively. Some officials reportedly engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. During the year there were some investigations into allegations of corruption but very few convictions. The use of family, business, and other personal connections to advance personal economic interests was widespread.

The Jordan Integrity and Anticorruption Commission (JIACC) is the main body responsible for combating corruption, and the Central Bank’s Anti-Money Laundering Unit is responsible for combating money laundering. Despite increased investigations, some local observers questioned the JIACC’s effectiveness due to its limited jurisdiction, insufficient staff, and the small number of investigations involving senior officials or large government projects. There were credible allegations that the commission failed to investigate cases involving high-level government officials. In July parliament amended the integrity and anticorruption law to give the JIACC more authority to access asset disclosure filings. The amendment empowers the JIACC to request asset seizures, international travel bans, and suspension of officials under investigation for corruption. The amendment also increases the JIACC’s administrative autonomy by enabling the commission to update its own regulations and protecting JIACC board members and the chairperson from arbitrary dismissal.

Corruption: In March the SSC began the trial of 54 defendants accused of illegal production and smuggling of tobacco. In December 2018 the government announced it had extradited from Turkey the key suspect in the case, businessman Awni Motee, who fled the country before being arrested in 2018. In January the SSC prosecutor ordered the detention of a former customs department director and former minister of water and irrigation as well as four serving officials linked to the case. The case continued at year’s end.

Financial Disclosure: The law requires certain government officials, their spouses, and dependent children to declare their assets privately to the Ministry of Justice within three months of their assuming a government position. Officials rarely publicly declared their assets. Authorities blocked efforts by transparency activists to identify officials publicly who did not declare their assets. In the event of a complaint, the chief justice or JIACC officials may review the disclosures. Under the law failure to disclose assets could result in a prison sentence of one week to three years or a fine of five to 200 JD ($7 to $280). No officials were punished for failing to submit a disclosure.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A number of domestic and international human rights groups operated in the country with some restrictions. The law gives the government the ability to control NGOs’ internal affairs, including acceptance of foreign funding. NGOs generally were able to investigate and report publicly on human rights abuses, although government officials were not always cooperative or responsive. In at least one case, security services subjected a human rights NGO to intimidation. A legal aid organization reported that lawyers were harassed for following up on cases and threatened with disbarment by the Jordanian Bar Association.

In June the government announced a decision to require that international human rights NGOs obtain approval from the government prior to receiving funds from headquarters or other foreign sources. The decision was reversed in July.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Center for Human Rights (NCHR), a quasi-independent institution established by law, received both government and international funding. The prime minister nominates its board of trustees, and the king ratifies their appointment by royal decree. The board of trustees appoints NCHR’s commissioner general. In August a new board of trustees was appointed, which included Islamists, former ministers, former judges, members of parliament, religious leaders, and civil society representatives. The NCHR compiles an annual report assessing compliance with human rights that sometimes criticizes government practices. The NCHR submits the report to the upper and lower houses of parliament, and to the cabinet. NCHR recommendations are not legally binding, but the GCHR is required to respond to the report’s recommendations and to measure progress towards international human rights standards.

Ministries’ working groups continued to meet and implement their responsibilities under the national human rights action plan, a 10-year comprehensive program launched in 2016 to reform laws in accordance with international standards and best practices, including improving accessibility for persons with disabilities. Developments on the action plan were regularly published on the ministries’ websites. During the year the Civil Service Bureau issued regulations in line with the action plan to improve government hiring practices for persons with disabilities. Ministries stated commitment to the plan but expressed frustration with the limited resources available to implement it.

To implement the action plan, the GCHR maintained a team of liaison officers from government, NGOs, security agencies, and other formal institutions to improve collaboration and communication. The GCHR published an official statement inviting civil society to take part in the drafting of the government’s report to the UN Human Rights Council Universal Periodic Review (UPR).

In August the prime minister appointed a new head of the GCHR to replace the previous head, who resigned in December 2018. In the interim the GCHR position had remained vacant, and the prime minister established a human rights unit in the Prime Minister’s Office. The new GCHR head and the human rights unit coordinate government-wide implementation of the national plan, including drafting and responding to human rights reports. The GCHR office, and the human rights unit during the GCHR vacancy, convened 35 activities during the year under the national human rights plan, including discussions of the UPR recommendations, inclusion of persons with disabilities in the public and private sectors, gender, trafficking in persons, and general human rights awareness workshops.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law, including related regulations and statutes, provides for the right to form and join free trade unions and conduct legal strikes, but with significant restrictions. There is no right to collective bargaining, although the labor code provides for collective agreements. The law identifies specific groups of public- and private-sector workers who may organize. It also defines 17 industries and professions in which trade unions may be established. The law requires that these 17 trade unions belong to the government-linked General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions, the country’s sole trade union federation. The establishment of new unions requires at least 50 founding members and approval from the Ministry of Labor. The law authorizes additional professions to form professional associations on a case-by-case basis. The law allows foreign workers to join unions but does not permit them to form unions or hold union office. Authorities did not permit civil servants to form or join unions or engage in collective bargaining. In 2018 an independent agricultural union attempted to register, but the government refused to review its application. No new trade union has been established since 1976. The constitution prohibits antiunion discrimination, and the law protects workers from employer retaliation due to union affiliation or activities. The law does not explicitly provide the right to reinstatement for workers fired due to antiunion views.

When conflicts arise during labor negotiations, the law requires that union representatives and employers first attempt to resolve the issue through informal mediation. If the issue remains unresolved, the union is required to submit a request for a Ministry of Labor-appointed mediator for 21 days. If the issue persists, it then goes to the minister of labor; then to a mediation council composed of an employer representative, a labor representative, and a chair appointed by the minister of labor; and, finally, to a labor court with a panel of ministry-appointed judges for 21 days. There are limits on the right to strike, including a requirement to provide a minimum of 14 days’ notice to the employer. The law prohibits strikes if a labor dispute is under mediation or arbitration. The labor code prevents management from arbitrarily dismissing workers engaged in labor activism or arbitration, but NGOs reported enforcement was inconsistent due to the limited number, capacity, and resources of Ministry of Labor inspectors.

The government did not fully respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Many worker organizations were not independent of the government, and government influence on union policies and activities continued.

The government subsidized and audited salaries and activities of the General Federation of Jordanian Trade Unions and monitored union elections. The government denied recognition to independent unions organized outside the structure of the government-approved federation. The government did not meet with these unions, and the lack of legal recognition hampered their ability to collect dues, obtain meeting space, and otherwise address members’ workplace concerns. Labor organizations also reported trouble getting government recognition for trade unions in new sectors beyond the 17 established in law, in part because those unions would require approval by a tripartite committee in which the existing 17 union heads are represented.

There were no reports of threats of violence against union heads, although labor activists alleged that the security services pressured union leaders to refrain from activism that challenged government interests. Strikes generally occurred without advance notice or registration.

Labor organizations reported that some management representatives used threats to intimidate striking workers.

Some foreign workers, whose residency permits are tied to work contracts, were vulnerable to retaliation by employers for participating in strikes and sit-ins. Participation in a legally unrecognized strike is counted as an unexcused absence under the law. The law allows employers to consider employment contracts void if a worker is absent more than 10 consecutive days, as long as the employer provides written notice. Labor rights organizations reported instances of refusing to renew foreign workers’ contracts due to attempts to organize in the workplace.

Observers noted that the labor code did not explicitly protect nonunionized workers from retaliation. This was particularly the case for foreign workers in all sectors as well as citizens working in the public sector on short-term contracts (day laborers).

Labor NGOs working to promote the rights of workers generally focused on promoting the rights of migrant workers. Labor NGOs did not face government restrictions additional to or different from those discussed in section 2.b.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor except in a state of emergency, such as war or natural disaster, or when prison sentences include hard labor. The government effectively enforced the law, although penalties were not sufficient to deter violations in all cases. Labor activists noted that law enforcement and judicial officials did not consistently identify victims or open criminal investigations.

The government inspected garment factories, a major employer of foreign labor, and investigated allegations of forced labor. Forced labor or conditions indicative of forced labor occurred, particularly among migrant workers in the domestic work and agricultural sectors. Activists highlighted the vulnerability of agricultural workers due to minimal government oversight. Activists also identified domestic workers, most of whom were foreign workers, as particularly vulnerable to exploitation due to inadequate government oversight, social norms that excused forced labor, and workers’ isolation within individual homes. They further noted cases where domestic workers, who used an employers’ phone to complain to a Ministry of Labor hotline, sometimes experienced retaliation when the hotline returned the call to their employer. NGOs reported the Antitrafficking Unit preferred to settle potential cases of domestic servitude through mediation, rather than referring them for criminal prosecution. High turnover at the unit also reportedly made prosecution more difficult. In January the government distributed materials to recruitment agency offices on the rights of children born to foreign workers.

Government bylaws require recruitment agencies for migrant domestic workers to provide insurance with medical and workplace accident coverage. The bylaws authorize the Ministry of Labor publicly to classify recruitment agencies based on compliance with the labor law, and to close and withdraw the license of poorly ranked agencies. As of June the ministry issued warnings to 44 recruitment agencies and transferred 106 cases of domestic helper complaints to the PSD’s Antitrafficking Unit. A closure recommendation is an internal procedure in which inspectors send to the minister of labor their recommendation to close offices with multiple labor violations. Based on that recommendation, the minister may issue a closure decision.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The law forbids employment of children younger than 16 years old, except as apprentices in light work. The law bans those between the ages of 16 and 18 from working in hazardous occupations, limits working hours for such children to six hours per day, mandates one-hour breaks for every four consecutive working hours, and prohibits work after 8 p.m., on national or religious holidays, and on weekends.

The government effectively enforced the law. The Ministry of Labor’s Child Labor Unit was responsible for coordinating government action regarding child labor in collaboration with the National Committee on Child Labor. The Child Labor Unit, with the ministry’s labor inspectors, was responsible for enforcing all aspects of the labor code, including child labor. Authorities referred criminal violations to the magistrate’s penalty court which handles labor cases. The law provides that employers who hire a child younger than age 16 pay a fine, which was insufficient to deter violations in all cases.

Labor inspectors reportedly monitored cases of legally working children between ages 16 and 18, to issue advice and guidance, providing safe work conditions, and cooperate with employers to permit working children to attend school concurrently. In accordance with the labor code, the ministry employed a zero-tolerance policy for labor of children younger than 16 and hazardous work for children younger than age 18.

The government’s capacity to implement and enforce child labor laws was not sufficient to deter violations. The government had limited capacity to monitor children working in the informal work sector, such as children working in family businesses and the agricultural sector.

The Ministries of Labor, Education, and Social Development collaborated with NGOs seeking to withdraw children from the worst forms of labor.

Syrian refugee children worked in the informal sector without legal work permits. They sold goods in the streets, worked in the agricultural sector, and begged in urban areas. NGOs reported that when government inspections withdrew Syrian refugee children from child labor, inspectors often took the children to the Azraq refugee camp, even when their families lived in distant urban centers or Za’atari refugee camp, separating families for days or months.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law does not prohibit discrimination with respect to employment and occupation on the basis of race, disability, language, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, age, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases, or social status.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to gender, disability, national origin, and sexual orientation (see section 6). Amendments to the labor law passed during the year prohibit discrimination in wages based solely on gender and includes labor law protections for flexible and part-time work contracts.

Union officials reported that sectors employing predominantly women, such as secretarial work, offered wages below the official minimum wage. Many women also reported traditional social pressures discouraged them from pursuing professional careers, especially after marriage. According to a Department of Statistics’ survey on unemployment for the second quarter of the year, economic participation by women was 14.5 percent, and unemployment among women holding a bachelor’s degree was 84.7 percent compared with the overall unemployment rate of 19.2 percent.

NGOs reported foreign workers, including garment workers and domestic workers, were especially vulnerable to gender-based violence in the workplace, including sexual harassment and sexual assault. Despite amendments during the year to the labor law, lawyers criticized the unamended Article 29 on harassment in the workplace, because it did nothing to hold perpetrators of harassment accountable and only assisted victims by allowing them to resign.

Some persons with disabilities faced discrimination in employment and access to the workplace despite the Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which requires 4 percent of a workplace of more than 50 employees to employ persons with disabilities. Some migrant workers faced discrimination in wages, housing, and working conditions irrespective of the labor law (see section 7.e.).

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law provides for a national minimum wage, per month, which is above the poverty line.

The law sets a workweek of 48 hours and requires overtime pay for hours worked in excess of that level. Because there was no limit on mutually agreed overtime, the Ministry of Labor reportedly permitted employees in some industries, such as the garment sector, to work as many as 70 to 75 hours per week, although observers reported many foreign workers requested overtime work.

Employees are entitled to one day off per week. The law provides for 14 days of paid sick leave and 14 days of paid annual leave per year, which increases to 21 days after five years of service with the same firm. Workers also received additional national and religious holidays designated by the government. The law permits compulsory overtime under certain circumstances such as conducting an annual inventory, closing accounts, preparing to sell goods at discounted prices, avoiding loss of goods that would otherwise be exposed to damage, and receiving special deliveries. In such cases actual working hours may not exceed 10 hours per day, the employee must be paid overtime, and the period may not last more than 30 days. There is no cap on the amount of mutually agreed overtime.

Employers are required to abide by all occupational health and safety standards set by the government. The law requires employers to protect workers from hazards caused by the nature of the job or its tools, provide any necessary protective equipment, train workers on hazards and prevention measures, provide first aid as necessitated by the job, and protect employees from explosions or fires by storing flammable materials appropriately.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcement of labor laws and acceptable conditions of work. The number of labor inspectors was insufficient to deter violations. Labor inspectors did not regularly investigate reports of labor or other abuses of domestic workers in private homes, and inspectors could not enter a private residence without the owner’s permission except with a court order. Employees may lodge complaints regarding violations of the labor code directly with the Ministry of Labor or through organizations such as their union or the NCHR. The ministry opened an investigation for each complaint.

Labor standards apply to the informal sector, but the Ministry of Labor lacked the capacity to inspect and monitor workplace violations. Authorities struggled to apply consistently all the protections of the labor code to domestic and agricultural workers, due to the migratory nature of workers in these sectors, cultural barriers preventing direct entry into the workplace, and insufficient number of labor inspectors. Labor organizations stated that many freelancing agricultural and domestic workers, cooks, and gardeners, mostly foreign workers, were not enrolled for social benefits from the Social Security Corporation because only salaried employees were automatically enrolled, and optional enrollment was limited to citizens. Maternity leave is not consistent between the public and private sector. Domestic workers face discrimination by nationality in the wages they earn. Although the Labor Code was amended in 2008 to extend certain rights to domestic and agricultural workers, the law required that each group be covered by its own legislation. A regulation on domestic workers enacted in 2009 did not extend to them collective bargaining rights or the right to form an association. To date there is no bylaw which regulates working conditions for agricultural workers.

The government took some action to prevent violations and improve working conditions, particularly in export-oriented factories in Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs). The Ministry of Labor placed a special focus on enforcing compliance in the QIZs, where most migrant garment workers were employed. The ratio of labor inspectors to workers or places of employment was significantly higher in these zones than for the general population. The government required garment-export manufacturers to participate in the Better Work Jordan program, a global program implemented by the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation to improve labor standards. All 77 of the foreign-exporting factories required by the government to join Better Work Jordan were active members of the program.

Wage, overtime, safety, and other standards often were not upheld. Some foreign workers faced hazardous and exploitative working conditions in a variety of sectors. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations. Authorities did not effectively protect all employees who attempted to remove themselves from situations that endangered their health and safety. Labor organizations reported that female citizen workers were more likely to encounter labor violations, including wages below the minimum wage and harassment in the workplace.

On December 2, a fire at a dormitory in South Shouneh (Jordan Valley) killed 13 Pakistani migrant agricultural workers, according to several media sources. A local NGO reported that the dormitory where the workers were staying was built using combustible materials, which aggravated the spread of the fire. The same NGO criticized the lack of safety protections for agricultural workers under the labor law, and reported that many dormitory houses for migrant workers were built using the same combustible materials.

In the garment sector, foreign workers were more susceptible than citizens to dangerous or unfair conditions. Better Work Jordan stated that reports of coercion decreased during the year. Indebtedness of migrant garment workers to third parties and involuntary or excessive overtime persisted. While the labor law sets the minimum wage, according to an international NGO, a substantial portion of the standard monthly minimum wage for foreign workers in the garment industry was used as an in-kind payment to employment placement services for food, accommodation, and travel for workers from their home countries.

Employers subjected some workers in the agricultural sector, the vast majority of whom were Egyptians, to exploitative conditions. According to a domestic NGO, agricultural workers usually received less than the minimum wage. Some employers in the agricultural sector also reportedly confiscated passports. Egyptian migrant workers were also vulnerable to exploitation in the construction industry; employers usually paid them less than the minimum wage, and they lacked basic training and equipment necessary to uphold occupational health and safety standards.

Domestic workers often faced unacceptable working conditions. While domestic workers could file complaints in person with the Ministry of Labor’s Domestic Workers Directorate or the PSD, many domestic workers complained there was no follow-up on their cases. The Antitrafficking Unit at the PSD operates a 24-hour hotline, with operators available in all languages spoken by migrant domestic workers in the country, including Tagalog, Bengali, and Tamil.

Advocates for migrant domestic workers reported that domestic workers who sought government assistance or made allegations against their employers frequently faced counterclaims of criminal behavior from their employers. Employers could file criminal complaints or flight notifications against domestic workers with police stations. Authorities waived immigration overstay fines for workers deported for criminal allegations or expired work permits. During the year dozens of domestic workers from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka sought shelter at their countries’ embassies in Amman. Most of the domestic workers reportedly fled conditions indicative of forced labor or abuse, including unpaid wages and, to a lesser extent, sexual or physical abuse. By law employers are responsible for renewing foreign employees’ residency and work permits but often failed to do so for domestic employees. As a result authorities considered most of the domestic workers sheltered by embassies illegal residents, and many were stranded because they were unable to pay accumulating daily overstay fees to depart the country. The government continued its cooperation with foreign embassies to waive overstay fees for migrant domestic workers who wished to repatriate after a two-year stay in the country, a policy that greatly reduced the number of domestic workers stranded at their embassies’ shelters.

Kuwait

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Kuwait is a constitutional, hereditary emirate ruled by the Al-Sabah family. While there is also a democratically elected parliament, the amir holds ultimate authority over most government decisions. The last parliamentary general election was held in 2016 and was generally free and fair with members of the opposition winning seats. By-elections were held in March for two seats vacated by opposition members of parliament who had left the country after being sentenced to prison.

Police have sole responsibility for the enforcement of laws not related to national security, and the Kuwait State Security (KSS) oversees national security matters; both report to the Ministry of Interior, as does the Kuwait Coast Guard. The armed forces are responsible for external security and report to the Ministry of Defense. The Kuwait National Guard is a separate entity responsible for critical infrastructure protection, support for the Ministries of Interior and Defense, and the maintenance of national readiness. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: reports of torture; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including criminalization of libel, censorship, and internet site blocking; interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; trafficking in persons; criminalization of consensual adult male same-sex sexual conduct; and reports of forced labor, principally among foreign workers.

The government took steps in some cases to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses, whether in the security services or elsewhere in the government. Impunity was a problem in corruption cases.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, although these rights were violated. The courts convicted more than one dozen individuals for expressing their opinions, particularly on social media. The law also imposes penalties on persons who create or send “immoral” messages and gives unspecified authorities the power to suspend communication services to individuals on national security grounds.

Freedom of Expression: The Press and Publications Law establishes topics that are off limits for publication and discussion, and builds on the precedent set by the penalty law. Topics banned for publication include insulting religion, in particular Islam; criticizing the amir; insulting members of the judiciary or displaying disdain for the constitution; compromising classified information; insulting an individual or his or her religion, sorcery, and publishing information that could lead to devaluing of the currency or creating false worries about the economy. The government generally restricted freedom of speech in instances purportedly related to national security, including the glorification of Saddam Hussein, and referring to the “Arabian Gulf” as the “Persian Gulf.”

Local activists reported they were regularly contacted by state security services and Ministry of Information officials after they published opinions deemed contrary to the government view. Activists also reported being contacted for the same reason by the Kuwaiti Embassy when they were residing abroad. In October the foreign minister stated he had directed “Kuwait’s diplomatic missions [abroad] to firmly pursue people offending Kuwait or its leaders.” As of November the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had received 52 such complaints from various embassies in Kuwait: 43 against bloggers and social media users, and the remainder against local newspapers and TV networks, according to press reports. The same reports indicated that Kuwaiti embassies overseas had reportedly filed 25 cases against bloggers and TV networks in host countries, accusing them of offending Kuwait, according to the ministry. Government authorities did not always take immediate action in the cases of social media posts to which they objected made by citizens while overseas, but under the law the government may take action once the author returns to the country. Under existing law there is broad latitude in the interpretation of what constitutes a crime when voicing dissent against the amir or the government, and activists can face up to seven years in prison for each count of the offense.

In May the Court of Appeals upheld a verdict sentencing 22 citizens, including media figures and political activists, to three years’ imprisonment for repeating the “anti-Amir” speech made by former opposition leader Musallam al-Barrak in 2012. The court also ordered each defendant to pay a bail of 3,000 KD ($10,000).

The courts continued to sentence political activists to harsh prison sentences for charges of speaking out against the amir, government, religion, or neighboring states. In one case a citizen was sentenced to 86 years in prison for voicing his antigovernment opinion on social media, and in another case a citizen received 75 years. Both citizens fled the country before the verdicts were handed down.

Political activist Sagar al-Hashash, who was out of the country in self-imposed exile, has been convicted multiple times (including twice during the year) on various charges that included defaming the amir, speaking out against the judiciary, or insulting neighboring countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Most recently, al-Hashash was sentenced to five additional years imprisonment for defaming the amir, bringing his total sentence to 92 years.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. All print media were privately owned, although the media’s independence was limited. The government did not permit non-Islamic religious publishing companies, although several churches published religious materials solely for their congregations’ use. The law allows for large fines and up to 10 years in prison for persons who use any means (including media) to subvert the state. The Ministry of Commerce and Industry may ban any media organization at the request of the Ministry of Information. Media organizations can challenge media bans in the administrative courts. Newspaper publishers must obtain an operating license from the Ministry of Information. Broadcast media, made up of both government and privately owned stations, are subject to the same laws as print media. In November a governmental committee tasked to investigate allegations of missing public funds ordered that their investigation remain confidential and prohibited the publication of any news about the investigation in all print, audio, and video media.

In October a civil court ruled that the Ministry of Interior must pay 60,000 KD ($200,000) to a journalist as compensation for assault by police while covering protests in 2010.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Ministry of Information censored all imported books, commercial films, periodicals, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, and other materials per the guidelines enumerated for speech and media. In May statistics issued by the Ministry of Information showed 3,766 books were banned from being imported between 2016 until 2018. Media outlets exhibited a range of opinions on topics relating to social problems, but all apparently self-censored, avoiding critical discussion on topics such as the amir, foreign policy, and religion, to avoid criminal charges or fines or to keep their licenses. Discussions of certain sensitive topics, such as the role of women in society and sex, were also self-censored. Authorities censored most English-language educational materials that mentioned the Holocaust and required educational material either to refer to Israel as “Occupied Palestine” or to remove such references entirely, although authorities did not censor these topics in news media. Widely available satellite dishes and virtual private networks allowed unfiltered media access.

Throughout the year publishers reportedly received pressure from the Ministry of Information, resulting in the publishers often restricting which books were available in the country. One author appealed to lift the ban on his book; the appeal was pending at year’s end. According to the Ministry of Information, the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs reviewed books of a religious nature.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law mandates jail terms for anyone who “defames religion,” and any Muslim citizen or resident may file criminal charges against a person the complainant believes has defamed Islam. Any citizen may file a complaint with the authorities against anyone the citizen believes defamed the ruling family or harmed public morals.

National Security: The law forbids publication or transmission of any information deemed subversive to the constitutional system on national security grounds. The government prosecuted online bloggers, political activists, and social media outlets under the Cybercrime Law, the Printing and Publishing Law, and the National Security Law. On January 2, security forces arrested journalist and writer Aisha al-Rasheed under the Cybercrime Law following online posts about corruption of government officials. On January 6, the Public Prosecutor’s Office ordered her release on bail.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution generally provides for freedom of internal movement, but numerous laws constrain foreign travel.

Because there is no path to citizenship, all legal noncitizen workers are considered foreign residents rather than migrants.

Foreign Travel: Bidoon and foreign workers faced problems with, or restrictions on, foreign travel. The government restricted the ability of some Bidoon to travel abroad by not issuing travel documents, although it permitted some Bidoon to travel overseas for medical treatment and education, and to visit Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj. The Ministry of Interior has not issued “Article 17” passports (temporary travel documents that do not confer nationality) to Bidoon except on humanitarian grounds since 2014. In August the Ministry of Interior said it would indefinitely suspend the issuance of “Article 17” passports.

The law also permits travel bans on citizens and noncitizens accused or suspected of violating the law, including nonpayment of debts, and it allows other citizens to petition authorities to impose one. This provision was sometimes imposed arbitrarily and resulted in delays and difficulties for citizens and foreigners leaving the country. The Ministry of Justice announced in July that it would not impose travel bans on those who owed “small amounts” (defined as 300 KD or $1,000). In December the Ministry of Justice announced that 65,888 travel bans were placed on Kuwaitis and foreigners during the year.

Citizenship: By law the government is prohibited from revoking the citizenship of an individual who was born a citizen unless that individual has taken a second nationality. Additionally, the government can revoke the citizenship of naturalized citizens for cause and can subsequently deport them. The justifications for such revocations include: felony conviction for “honor-related and honesty-related crimes,” obtaining citizenship dishonestly, and threatening to “undermine the economic or social structure of the country.” In March the cabinet approved the regranting of citizenship to former opposition figure Saad al-Ajmi. Al-Ajmi’s citizenship had been revoked by the government under Article 11 of the 1959 Kuwaiti Nationality Law and was restored only after he renounced other nationalities and submitted a written apology to the amir. According to the government, 376 individuals were granted citizenship during the year, and 106 had their citizenship revoked.

In May 2018 the Court of Cassation affirmed that it is not permissible to withdraw citizenship from any citizen without a legitimate reason, stressing that a final court ruling must justify any withdrawal of citizenship. There were, however, cases in which natural born citizens had their citizenship revoked, even when courts found it illegal.

Persons who had their citizenship revoked, and any family members dependent on that individual for their citizenship status, became stateless individuals. Authorities can seize the passports and civil identification cards of persons who lose their citizenship and enter a “block” on their names in government databases. This “block” prevented former citizens from traveling or accessing free health care and other government services reserved for citizens.

The law prohibits the granting of citizenship to non-Muslims, but it allows non-Muslim male citizens to transmit citizenship to their descendants.

The government may deny a citizenship application by a Bidoon resident based on security or criminal violations committed by the individual’s family members. Additionally, if a person loses citizenship, all family members whose status was derived from that person also lose their citizenship and all associated rights.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The government generally cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to persons of concern.

Access to Basic Services: The government enacted policies making healthcare and education more expensive for foreign workers than for citizens. Human rights organizations reported the immediate effect of this policy was that many foreign workers and their families receiving medical treatment chose to be discharged from hospitals rather than receive treatment they could no longer afford.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution stipulates the country is a hereditary emirate. The 50 elected members of the National Assembly (plus government-appointed ministers) must, by majority vote conducted by secret ballot, approve the amir’s choice of crown prince. According to the Succession Law, the crown prince must be a male descendant of Sheikh Mubarak Al-Sabah and meet three additional requirements: have attained the age of 30, possess a sound mind, and be a legitimate son of Muslim parents. The National Assembly may remove the amir from power by a two-thirds majority vote if it finds that any of these three conditions is or was not met.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by government officials, but the government did not implement the law effectively. Observers believed officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The Anti-Corruption Authority (ACA) is charged with receiving and analyzing complaints and forwarding complaints to the appropriate authorities in either the Public Prosecutor’s Office or police for further investigation or action. As of September the ACA had received 136 corruption reports, four administrative violation reports, and three financial irregularity reports. During the year the ACA referred 28 reports to the Office of the Public Prosecutor.

There were many reports that individuals had to pay intermediaries to receive routine government services. Police corruption was a problem, especially when one party to a dispute had a personal relationship with a police official involved in a case. Widespread reports indicated that police favored citizens over noncitizens. There were several reports of corruption in the procurement and bidding processes for lucrative government contracts. In November the amir removed his son, Defense Minister Sheikh Nasser Al-Sabah, and Interior Minister Sheikh Khaled al-Jarrah al-Sahab from the cabinet after the former publicly accused the latter of corruption. As a result, the prime minister submitted the resignation of the entire Council of Ministers to the amir, who swore in a new cabinet in December.

All judicial officers received training on corruption and transparency obligations as part of the Judicial Institute’s official curriculum.

Corruption: The State Audit Bureau is responsible for supervising public expenses and revenues and for preventing misuse or manipulation of public funds. The government distributes reports by the State Audit Bureau annually to the amir, prime minister, head of parliament, and minister of finance. The public did not have access to these reports. Parliament’s Committee on the Protection of Public Funds frequently announced inquiries into suspected misuse of public funds. For the first time in the country’s history, a former health minister and two other high level officials were referred to the ministerial court over charges of public funds encroachment and embezzlement. In December the Public Funds Prosecution Office released statistics showing a 750 percent increase in public funds crimes between 2009 and 2018.

In December the public prosecutor agreed to take a case alleging the fraudulent appointment of legal experts at the Ministry of Justice. Lawyers argued that two former ministers had wasted public funds and forged documents in the hiring of 560 legal experts.

In April a public prosecutor referred former director of the Public Institution for Social Security Fahad al-Rajaan and his wife to the criminal court on charges of embezzling over 240 million KD ($800 million), and money laundering. In June the criminal court sentenced him and his wife to life imprisonment.

In November the Court of Cassation sentenced a former ambassador to Thailand to seven years in jail over charges of embezzling more than 299,000 KD (one million dollars) in public funds.

Investigations have uncovered widespread use of false academic credentials by citizens and foreign residents in the public and private sectors, exposing a lack of transparency in the hiring and promotion of officials.

Financial Disclosure: In 2018 the Public Prosecution received 110 reports filed by the ACA against officials who failed to submit their financial statements on time.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The government imposed some limits on the operations of domestic and international human rights groups. Domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with limited restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. The law permits the existence of NGOs, but the government continued to deny registration to some. To be registered NGOs are required to demonstrate that their existence is in the public interest. Registered NGOs must show they will conduct business beneficial to the country; their work cannot undermine cultural values and norms as defined by the government. NGOs may not engage in political activity or encourage sectarianism.

Major local NGOs dedicated specifically to human rights included the Kuwait Society for Human Rights and the Kuwaiti Association of the Basic Evaluators of Human Rights. The majority of local registered NGOs were devoted to the rights or welfare of specific groups such as women, children, prisoners, and persons with disabilities. These organizations operated with little government interference. A few dozen local unregistered human rights groups also operated discreetly but ran the risk of sanction if they were too vocal in calling out abuses. The government and various national assembly committees met occasionally with local NGOs and generally responded to their inquiries.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Assembly’s Human Rights Committee, which operates independently of the government, is an advisory body that primarily hears individual complaints of human rights abuses and worked with plaintiffs and relevant stakeholders to reach a mutual settlement. The committee visited the Central Prison and the Central Deportation Center throughout the year to review overcrowding, prison and detainee treatment, and the condition of both facilities. The committee had adequate resources and was considered effective. In January the committee started receiving grievances online.

During the year the Ministry of Foreign Affairs created a new independent department led by an assistant foreign minister to deal exclusively with human rights issues. The department oversees all of the government’s human rights endeavors and is tasked with producing human rights reports and responding to such reports produced by international organizations and foreign governments.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law protects the right of Kuwaiti workers to form and join trade unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes, with significant restrictions. The government, however, did not always respect these rights.

The law does not apply to public-sector employees, domestic workers, or maritime employees. Discrete labor laws set work conditions in the public and private sectors, with the oil industry treated separately. The law permits limited trade union pluralism at the local level, but the government authorized only one federation, the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF). The law also stipulates any new union must include at least 100 workers and that at least 15 must be citizens.

The law provides workers, except for domestic workers, maritime workers, and civil servants, a limited right to collective bargaining. There is no minimum number of workers needed to conclude such agreements. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Based on available information, it was unclear whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

Public-sector workers do not have the right to strike. Citizens in the private sector have the right to strike, although cumbersome provisions calling for compulsory negotiation and arbitration in the case of disputes limit that right. The law does not prohibit retaliation against striking workers or prevent the government from interfering in union activities, including the right to strike. In November hundreds of workers at Kuwait International Airport held a one-hour strike to demand better working conditions and compensation for daily exposure to pollution and noise. In December cleaners at the Ministry of Education protested missing wages dating back to July.

According to the PAM, there were 2.75 million workers in the country. Only 17.7 percent of the total workforce were citizens. Most citizens (78 percent as of 2018) worked in the public sector, in part because the government provided lucrative benefits to citizens, including generous retirement funding.

The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference with union functions. It provides for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Nevertheless, the law empowers the courts to dissolve any union for violating labor laws or for threatening “public order and morals,” although a union can appeal such a court decision. The Ministry of State for Economic Affairs can request the Court of First Instance to dissolve a union. Additionally, the amir may dissolve a union by decree.

The government enforced applicable laws, with some exceptions, and procedures were generally not subjected to lengthy delay or appeals.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits and criminally sanctions forced or compulsory labor “except in cases specified by law for national emergency and with just remuneration.” The law allows for forced prison labor as a punishment for expressing certain political views, and in cases of seafarers who breach discipline. Although the law prohibits withholding of workers’ passports, the practice remained common among sponsors and employers of foreign workers, and the government demonstrated no consistent efforts to enforce this prohibition. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

Employers confined some domestic and agricultural workers to their workspaces by retaining their passports and, in the case of some domestic workers, locked them in their work locations. Workers who fled abusive employers had difficulty retrieving their passports, and authorities deported them in almost all cases. The government usually limited punishment to administrative actions such as assessing fines, shutting employment firms, issuing orders for employers to return withheld passports, or requiring employers to pay back wages. In June the Public Authority for Manpower announced it had shut down 1,600 companies that had received government contracts, for failing to pay workers on time.

In January a number of laborers demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Public Works to protest against the withholding of four months’ back pay. The laborers were employed by a company contracted by the ministry for maintenance services. Similar protests were reported in April against a company that contracted with the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs. It was later reported that the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs distributed all back salaries.

In September a company owner was sentenced by the Court of Appeals to seven years in prison on charges of visa trading. In June a criminal court sentenced a Kuwaiti female lawyer to five years in jail over charges of forced labor and trafficking in persons.

Some incidents of forced labor and conditions indicative of forced labor occurred, especially among foreign domestic and agricultural workers. Such practices were usually a result of employer abuse of the sponsorship system (kafala) for noncitizen workers. Employers frequently illegally withheld salaries from domestic workers and minimum-wage laborers.

Domestic servitude was the most common type of forced labor, principally involving foreign domestic workers employed under kafala, but reports of forced labor in the construction and sanitation sectors also existed. Forced labor conditions for migrant workers included nonpayment of wages, long working hours, deprivation of food, threats, physical and sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement, such as withholding passports or confinement to the workplace. In 2018 employers filed 4,500 “absconding” reports against private sector employees. Domestic workers have filed approximately 240 complaints against their employers in accordance with the domestic labor law. As of September, PAM statistics indicated that 3,793 domestic helper-related complaints had been filed between April and August 2019, including 2,087 in August alone. Numerous domestic workers who escaped from abusive employers reported waiting several months to regain passports, which employers had illegally confiscated when they began their employment.

The PAM operated a shelter for abused domestic workers but still did not allow them to leave the country without permission of their employers. As of October, according to a government source, the shelter had a capacity of 500 victims. It housed as many as 450 residents in April before the residency amnesty that removed travel bans from workers seeking to return home. According to a 2018 report, 145 workers were resident at the shelter.

A government owned company for recruiting domestic workers officially launched its services in 2017 and initially planned to bring 120 domestic workers a month from the Philippines and approximately 100 male workers from India. In February the company announced that it helped bring nearly 900 domestic workers into the country since September 2017 when it started receiving applications. The target recruitment fee depends on domestic workers’ experience and skillset. The government regularly conducted information awareness campaigns via media outlets and public events and otherwise informed employers to encourage compliance by public and private recruiting companies with the new law.

There were numerous media reports throughout the year of sponsors abusing domestic workers or injuring them when they tried to escape; some reports alleged that abuse resulted in workers’ deaths. Female domestic workers were particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse. Police and courts were reluctant to prosecute citizens for abuse in private residences but prosecuted some serious cases of abuse when reported, particularly when the cases were raised by the source country embassies. According to a high-level government official, authorities prosecuted several cases of domestic worker abuse.

In May, Filipina household worker Constancia Lago Daya, died after allegedly suffering physical and sexual assault by her employer. The Kuwaiti Public Prosecutor later filed a felony murder complaint against her employer. In June lawyers for the Philippines Embassy filed charges against a Kuwaiti man for sexually assaulting his Filipina domestic worker. The court subsequently summoned the man for questioning. Media reported in December that a couple, of which the husband was allegedly employed by the Ministry of Interior, was detained for investigation after they brought their 26-year-old Filipina maid to the hospital where she subsequently died with marks of physical abuse visible on her corpse, including missing organs and vaginal lacerations suggesting rape, according to statements made to the press in unofficial preliminary accounts by officials who conducted the autopsy.

Numerous media reports highlighted the problem of visa trading, where companies and recruitment agencies work together to “sell” visas to prospective workers. Often the jobs and companies attached to these visas do not exist, and the workers were left to be exploited and find work in the black market to earn a living and pay the cost of the residency visa. Arrests of traffickers and illegal labor rings occurred almost weekly. In October the PAM announced that it had referred 18 websites and online accounts to the Ministry of Interior’s cybersecurty department for the sale of domestic workers. Since workers cannot freely change jobs, they were sometimes willing to leave their initial job due to low wages or unacceptable working conditions and enter into an illegal residency status with the hope of improved working conditions at another job.

In September a court sentenced two individuals (one a Kuwaiti citizen) to life imprisonment and four others to three-year sentences for selling 400 visas for $5,000 each. Nine other cases of visa trafficking (alleging visas valued between $5,000-6,500) were under investigation at year’s end. These investigations and prosecutions followed a January government policy to begin prosecuting trafficking crimes under antitrafficking laws (vice labor laws) and the appointment of a deputy chairman of the national anti-TIP committee.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The legal minimum age for employment is 18, although employers may obtain permits from the Ministry of State for Economic Affairs to employ juveniles between 15 and 18 years of age in some nonhazardous trades. Juveniles may work a maximum of six hours a day with no more than four consecutive hours followed by a one-hour rest period. Juveniles cannot work overtime or between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Although not extensive, there were credible reports that children of South Asian origin worked as domestic laborers. Some underage workers entered the country on travel documents with falsified birth dates.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Information was unavailable regarding whether penalties were sufficient to deter violations. PAM labor and occupational safety inspectors routinely monitored private firms for labor law compliance. Noncompliant employers faced fines or a forced suspension of their company operations. Nevertheless, the government did not consistently enforce child labor laws in the informal sector, such as in street vending.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The law sets a national monthly minimum wage in the oil and private sector and a minimum monthly wage for domestic workers. Most low-wage employees lived and worked in the country without their families, and employers generally provided at least some form of housing. In July, Kuwait ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment by Public and Private Employers, which will come into effect in July 2020.

The law limits the standard workweek to 48 hours (40 hours for the petroleum industry) and gives private-sector workers 30 days of annual leave. The law also forbids requiring employees to work more than 60 hours per week or 10 hours per day. The law provides for 13 designated national holidays annually. Workers are entitled to 125 percent of base pay for working overtime and 150 percent of base pay for working on their designated weekly day off. The government effectively enforced the law except with regard to domestic workers. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

The government issued occupational health and safety standards that were current and appropriate for the main industries. For example, the law provides that all outdoor work stop between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. during June, July, and August, or when the temperature rises to more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. A worker could file a complaint against an employer with the PAM if the worker believed his safety and health were at risk. As of August 26, the Kuwait Society for Human Rights received 356 complaints of employers violating the summer heat work ban. In May it reported that 12 workers were killed in workplace accidents caused by employer negligence in the preceding 16 months.

The law and regulations governing acceptable conditions of work do not apply to domestic workers. The Public Authority for Manpower has jurisdiction over domestic worker matters and enforces domestic labor working standards.

The Ministry of State for Economic Affairs is responsible for enforcement of wages, hours, overtime, and occupational safety and health regulations of nondomestic workers. Enforcement by the ministry was generally good, but there were gaps in enforcement with respect to unskilled foreign laborers. Several ministry officials cited inadequate numbers of inspectors as the main reason for their inability to better enforce the laws.

Labor and occupational safety inspectors monitored private firms. The government periodically inspected enterprises to raise awareness among workers and employers and to assure that they abided by existing safety rules, controlled pollution in certain industries, trained workers to use machines, and reported violations.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. The number of inspectors was not sufficient to deter violations. The Ministry of State for Economic Affairs monitored work sites to inspect for compliance with rules banning summer work and recorded hundreds of violations during the year. Workers could also report these violations to their embassies, the KTUF, or the Labor Disputes Department. Noncompliant employers faced warnings, fines, or forced suspensions of company operations, but these were not sufficient to deter violators.

In the first 10 months of the year, the Labor Disputes Department received approximately 15,150 complaints from workers, of which approximately 5,800 were referred to the courts. These complaints were either about contract issues, such as nonpayment of wages, or about difficulties transferring work visas to new companies. Most of the complaints were resolved in arbitration, with the remaining cases referred to the courts for resolution. In July the Court of Appeals ordered al-Kharafi & Sons to pay heirs of a deceased Egyptian foreign resident (a former employee of the company) as compensation for the company’s negligence and noncompliance to safety and security regulations. The lawsuit indicated employees of the company caused the unintentional death of the victim due to negligence by tasking the employee to clean a six-meter (19.6 feet)-deep manhole without proper gear and without checking for poisonous gases.

At times the PAM intervened to resolve labor disputes between foreign workers and their employers. The authority’s labor arbitration panel sometimes ruled in favor of foreign laborers who claimed violations of work contracts by their employers. The government was more effective in resolving unpaid salary disputes involving private sector laborers than those involving domestic workers. Media reports indicated that the Ministry of Social Affairs won 58 court cases against visa traders by October.

Foreign workers were vulnerable to unacceptable conditions of work. Domestic workers and other unskilled foreign workers in the private sector frequently worked substantially in excess of 48 hours a week, with no day of rest.

Domestic workers had little recourse when employers violated their rights except to seek admittance to the domestic workers shelter where the government mediated between sponsors and workers either to assist the worker in finding an alternate sponsor or to assist in voluntary repatriation. There were no inspections of private residences, which is the workplace of the majority of the country’s domestic workers. Reports indicated employers forced domestic workers to work overtime without additional compensation. In July the PAM announced it was planning to unveil a “blacklist” system that would prevent the sponsorship of domestic workers by recruitment offices or employers that violate workers’ rights.

Some domestic workers did not have the ability to remove themselves from an unhealthy or unsafe situation without endangering their employment. There were reports of domestic workers’ committing or attempting to commit suicide due to desperation over abuse, including sexual violence or poor working conditions. A 2016 law provides legal protections for domestic workers, including a formal grievance process managed by the PAM. A worker not satisfied with the department’s arbitration decision has the right to file a legal case via the labor court.

Several embassies with large domestic worker populations in the country met with varying degrees of success in pressing the government to prosecute serious cases of domestic worker abuse. Severe cases included those where there were significant, life-threatening injuries.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos al-Said since 1970. The sultan has sole authority to enact laws through royal decree, although ministries and the bicameral Majlis Oman (parliament) can draft laws on nonsecurity-related matters, and citizens may provide input through their elected representatives. The Majlis Oman is composed of the Majlis al-Dawla (upper house or State Council), whose 85 members are appointed by the sultan, and the elected 86-member Majlis al-Shura (lower house or Consultative Assembly). In October nearly 350,000 citizens participated in the Majlis al-Shura elections for the Consultative Assembly; there were no notable claims of improper government interference.

The Royal Office controls internal and external security and coordinates all intelligence and security policies. Under the Royal Office, the Internal Security Service investigates all matters related to domestic security. The Royal Oman Police (ROP), including the ROP Coast Guard, is also subordinate to the Royal Office and performs regular police duties. The Royal Office and Royal Diwan–the sultan’s personal offices–maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture of prisoners and detainees in government custody; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; required exit permits for foreign workers; restrictions on political participation; and criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) conduct.

Authorities generally held security personnel and other government officials accountable for their actions. The government acted against corruption during the year, with cases proceeding through the court system.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for limited freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice the public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” Therefore, it is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities have prosecuted individuals for writing about the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative. In January 2018 the government issued a new penal code that generally increased maximum penalties for crimes related to “undermining the state.” International human rights organizations expressed concern that the 2018 penal code contains vaguely defined articles that the security services could use to target activists and further restrict freedom of expression, including online.

In September the ROP arrested an expatriate for posting a video on social media in which he threw his Omani residency card on the ground and allegedly used “abusive language” about the police. In November human rights organizations reported that authorities arrested Musallam Al-Ma’ashani at the Sarfait border crossing upon his return to Oman from Yemen. These groups and social media users claimed authorities arrested Al-Ma’ashani for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar, which he intended to submit to the Ministry of Information for display at the 2020 Muscat International Book Fair. According to social media posts, authorities released Al-Ma’ashani on November 25 on bail after approximately two weeks in detention.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media did not operate freely. Authorities tolerated limited criticism in privately owned newspapers and magazines; however, editorials generally were consistent with the government’s views. Although mainstream social debate occurred in traditional and social media (especially on Twitter), the government and privately owned radio and television stations did not generally broadcast political material criticizing the government.

In January human rights observers reported that police briefly detained two journalists from the Hala FM radio station while they covered a protest in Muscat over unemployment. The journalists were reportedly released the same day. Some social media users who photographed and recorded the same protest claimed the ROP forced them to delete their photos and videos.

According to human rights organizations, authorities arrested at least two individuals in February for criticizing on social media the government’s contacts with Israel.

In 2017 the Supreme Court upheld previous court rulings and permanently shut down al-Zaman, an independent newspaper. A journalist and an editor of the paper served prison sentences and were released in 2017. A second journalist was convicted and sentenced, but later acquitted. Human rights organizations claimed the closure of al-Zaman had a chilling effect upon freedom of expression in the country.

Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists were ineligible for a license.

Violence and Harassment: Some journalists reported harassment by high-level government officials for printing stories perceived as critical of their particular ministries.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Headlines in both public and private media print outlets were subject to an official nontransparent review and approval process before publication. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship. The law permits the Ministry of Information to review all media products including books produced within or imported into the country. The ministry occasionally prohibited or censored material from domestic and imported publications viewed as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive. The OHRC reported that four publications violated the printing law and were therefore not permitted in the country. There is only one major publishing house in the country, and publication of books remained limited. The government required religious groups to notify the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs before importing any religious materials.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense, which allows for up to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to 1,000 rials ($2,600).

National Security: The government prohibited publication of any material that “undermines the prestige of the state.”

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. Human rights organizations expressed concern that overly broad provisions in the penal code could further restrict the work of human rights activists and limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although that right is not codified. Citizens related to citizens living abroad who criticized the government reportedly were told not to leave the country. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees personnel occasionally visited the country but did not maintain an office or personnel locally.

In-country Movement: There are no official government restrictions on internal travel for any citizen. The government must approve on a case-by-case basis official travel by foreign diplomats to the Dhofar and Musandam regions. There were reports many foreign domestic employees had their passports confiscated by employers, who sponsor the foreign workers, even though the law prohibited this practice. In February an Egyptian foreign worker posted a video online in which she alleged that her sponsor was holding her passport, rendering her unable to travel to Egypt to visit her dying mother.

Employers have a great amount of control over these workers, particularly domestic workers who are not covered by existing labor laws. The country’s visa-sponsorship system (kafala) ties migrant workers to their employers and prevents them from changing jobs without their sponsor’s consent. Migrant workers generally cannot work for a new employer in the country within a two-year period without the permission of their current employer, even if they complete their contract. Employers can have a worker’s visa canceled arbitrarily. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, or reentry bans.

Foreign Travel: Foreign workers must obtain exit permits from their employer to leave the country legally. Exit permits may be denied when there is a dispute over payment or work remaining, leaving the foreign citizen in country with recourse only through local courts. In theory, courts provided recourse to workers denied exit permits, but the process was opaque with domestic workers consistently alleging that existing dispute resolution mechanisms were inadequate to protect them. In the past, travel bans–through confiscation of passports–were imposed on citizens involved in political activism. No new cases were reported during the year.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The country has a large number of female migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and the Philippines, many of whom are employed as domestic workers. Nongovernmental organizations based outside the country and embassies of labor-sending countries alleged that domestic workers faced discrimination, to include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The country criminalizes slavery and trafficking, but enforcement was weak. Although forced labor is punished under the labor law, domestic workers are excluded from that law’s protections. In 2018 courts convicted 15 individuals for human trafficking crimes.

The government generally did not allow refugees to remain in the country. The most recently available UNHCR data from February 2018 indicated that there were 51,000 individuals in the country who had fled conflict, including an estimated 5,000 Yemenis. The status of these individuals was precarious, as Oman does not have a national framework regulating issues related to asylum.

Refoulement: The government did not provide comprehensive protection to refugees from involuntary returns to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, subjecting refugees to the possibility of refoulement. Tight control over the entry of foreigners effectively limited access to protection for refugees and asylum seekers.

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refuge for internally displaced persons, and the government has established a system for providing protection. The ROP’s system for granting asylum and resettlement is not transparent, and the law does not specify a timeframe in which the ROP must adjudicate an asylum application. It is current policy not to recognize refugees from conflict zones, such as Yemen, although the government provided temporary medical care to certain Yemeni citizens. In practice, there are no substantive legal protections for asylum seekers in the country.

Durable Solutions: When third-country nationals presented themselves on the Oman-Yemen border, the government worked with local embassies to facilitate a return to these individuals’ home countries. In cases where individuals could not return to their home country, like Syrians, the government would facilitate travel to a third country of their choice.

Temporary Protection: The government provided emergency medical care to certain Yemeni citizens who demonstrated they could not receive adequate care in Yemen. These Yemenis and one accompanying family member per patient were offered status in Oman during the treatment period.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. The sultan retains ultimate authority on all foreign and domestic issues. With the exception of the military and other security forces, all citizens who have reached 21 years of age have the right to vote for candidates for the Majlis al-Shura and the provincial councils.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively.

Corruption: There were reports of government corruption, including in the police, ministries, and state-owned companies. Political and social favoritism were widespread in public and private institutions.

In June the public prosecution announced that it had brought to trial a case of alleged embezzlement within the Ministry of Education.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws. When selected for disclosure, officials are required to list their finances, business interests, and property, as well as that of their spouses and children. These records are made public, and there are fines associated with noncompliance. The State Audit Authority monitors this process.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

No independent, officially sanctioned, domestic human rights organizations existed in the country. There were civil society groups that advocated for persons protected under human rights conventions, particularly women and persons with disabilities. These groups were required to register with the Ministry of Social Development.

The law permits domestic and international actors to request permission to engage in human rights work, but none did because they believed the government was not likely to grant permission.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The OHRC, a government-funded commission made up of members from the public, private, and academic sectors, reported on human rights to the sultan via the State Council. The OHRC also published an annual report summarizing the types of complaints it received and how it handled those complaints. The OHRC also conducted prison visits and continued a community and school outreach program to discuss human rights with students.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides that workers can form and join unions, as well as conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, but with significant restrictions. The law provides for one general federation, to which all unions must affiliate, and which represents unions in regional and international fora. The law requires a minimum of 25 workers to form a union, regardless of company size. The law requires an absolute majority of an enterprise’s employees to approve a strike, and notice must be given to employers three weeks in advance of the intended strike date. The law allows for collective bargaining; regulations require employers to engage in collective bargaining on the terms and conditions of employment, including wages and hours of work. Where there is no trade union, collective bargaining may take place between the employer and five representatives selected by workers. The employer may not reject any of the representatives selected. While negotiation is underway, the employer may not act on decisions related to problems under discussion. The law prohibits employers from firing or imposing other penalties on employees for union activity, although it does not require reinstatement for workers fired for union activity.

Despite the legal protections for labor unions, no independent organized labor unions existed. Worker rights continued to be administered and directed by the General Federation of Oman Workers (GFOW).

Government-approved unions are open to all legal workers regardless of nationality, though the law prohibits members of the armed forces, other public security institutions, government employees, domestic workers, as well as individuals convicted of criminal activity or acts against the security of the country or national unity from forming or joining such unions. In addition, labor laws apply only to workers who perform work under a formal employment agreement and excludes domestic workers.

The law prohibits unions from accepting grants or financial assistance from any source without the Ministry of Manpower’s prior approval. All unions are subject to the regulations of the government federation and may be shut down or have their boards dismissed by the federation.

The government generally enforced applicable laws effectively and respected the rights to collectively bargain and conduct strikes, although strikes in the oil and gas industries are forbidden. The GFOW reported in a survey conducted by the International Trade Union Confederation that employers bypassed collective bargaining and retaliated against workers who participated in strikes. The government provided an alternative dispute resolution mechanism through the Ministry of Manpower, which acted as mediator between the employer and employee for minor disputes such as disagreement over wages. If not resolved to the employee’s satisfaction, the employee could, and often did, resort to the courts for relief. The country lacked dedicated labor courts, and observers noted the mandatory grievance procedures were confusing to many workers, especially foreign workers. The Ministry of Manpower had sufficient resources to act in dispute resolution. Union leaders reported intimidation by companies for their activities and complained they were passed over for promotion.

Freedom of association in union matters and the right to collective bargaining exist, but often the threat of a strike can prompt either company action to resolution or spur government intervention. Strikes rarely occurred and were generally resolved quickly, sometimes through government mediation.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forced or compulsory labor, but the law explicitly excludes domestic workers. All police officials underwent training in how to identify victims of trafficking in persons to help them identify cases of forced or compulsory labor.

Conditions indicative of forced labor were present. By law all foreign workers, who constituted approximately one-half of the workforce and the majority of workers in some sectors, must be sponsored by a citizen employer or accredited diplomatic mission. Some men and women from South and Southeast Asia, employed as domestic workers or as low-skilled workers in the construction, agriculture, and service sectors, faced working conditions indicative of forced labor, including withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, usurious recruitment fees, nonpayment of wages, long working hours without food or rest, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. These situations were generally considered civil or contract matters by authorities, who encouraged dispute resolution rather than criminal action. Authorities continued to rely on victims to identify themselves and report abuses proactively, rather than proactively investigating trafficking in vulnerable communities.

Sponsorship requirements left workers vulnerable to exploitative and abusive conditions and made it difficult for them to change employers (see section 2.d.). Some sponsors allow their employees to work for other employers, sometimes in return for a fee. This practice is illegal, but enforcement was weak, and such arrangements left workers vulnerable. The government clarified that sponsors of domestic workers are not allowed to send their workers to another home to work, but the regulation was weakly enforced. Some employers of domestic workers, contrary to law, withheld passports and other documents, complicating workers’ release from unfavorable contracts and preventing workers’ departure after their work contracts expired. In some cases, employers demanded exorbitant release fees totaling as much as four months’ salary before providing a “no-objection certificate” (NOC) to permit the worker to change employers. Without this NOC, foreign workers are required to either depart the country for a minimum of two years or remain in their current position. There were reports that sponsors were reluctant to provide NOCs, which would result in loss of the foreign labor certificate for that position.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 16, or 18 for certain hazardous occupations. Employees younger than 18 may work only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and are prohibited from working for more than six hours per day, on weekends, or on holidays. The law allows exceptions to the age requirement in agricultural works, fishing, industrial works, handicrafts, sales, and administrative jobs, under the conditions that it is a one-family business and does not hinder the juvenile’s education or affect health or growth.

The Ministry of Manpower and Royal Oman Police are responsible for enforcing laws with respect to child labor. The law provides for fines for minor violations and imprisonment for repeat violations. Employers are given time to correct practices that may be deemed child labor.

In 2018 the country made a moderate advance in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, which did not appear to be a widespread problem. The government does not publish information on the enforcement of child labor laws and lacks a reciprocal mechanism between the labor inspectorate and social services.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/ .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not address discrimination based on race, sex, gender, nationality, political views, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or having other communicable diseases, or social status. Discrimination occurred based on gender, sexual orientation, nationality, disability and gender identity. Foreign workers were required to take HIV/AIDS tests and could only obtain or renew work visas if the results were negative.

Although some educated women held positions of authority in government, business, and media, many women faced job discrimination based on cultural norms. The law entitles women to paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work. The government, the largest employer of women, observed such regulations, as did many private sector employers.

The law provides persons with disabilities the same rights as other citizens in employment, and the provision of other state services. Persons with disabilities, however, continued to face discrimination. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, but many older buildings, including government buildings and schools, did not conform to the law. The law also requires private enterprises employing more than 50 persons to reserve at least 2 percent of positions for persons with disabilities. Authorities did not systematically enforce this regulation.

For further discussion of discrimination, see section 6.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The country has a minimum monthly wage for citizens, but it does not apply to noncitizens in any occupation. Minimum wage regulations do not apply to a variety of occupations and businesses, including small businesses employing fewer than five persons, dependent family members working for a family firm, or some categories of manual laborers. Most citizens who lived in poverty were engaged in traditional subsistence agriculture, herding, or fishing, and generally did not benefit from the minimum wage. The private sector workweek is 45 hours and includes a two-day rest period following five consecutive days of work. Government workers have a 35-hour workweek. The law mandates overtime pay for hours in excess of 45 per week.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law states an employee may leave dangerous work conditions without jeopardy to continued employment if the employer was aware of the danger and did not implement corrective measures. Employees covered under the labor law may receive compensation for job-related injury or illness through employer-provided medical insurance.

Neither wage and hour nor occupational safety and health regulations apply to domestic workers.

The Ministry of Manpower is responsible for enforcing labor laws, and in 2018 it employed inspectors in Muscat and around the country. It generally enforced the law effectively with respect to citizens; however, it did not always effectively enforce regulations regarding hours of employment and working conditions for foreign workers.

Labor inspectors performed random checks of worksites to verify compliance with all labor laws. Inspectors from the Department of Health and Safety of the Labor Care Directorate are responsible for enforcement of health and safety codes. Limited inspections of private sector worksites are required by law to deter or redress unsafe working conditions in the most dangerous sectors.

The Ministry of Manpower effectively enforced the minimum wage for citizens. No minimum wage existed for noncitizens. In wage cases the Ministry of Manpower processed complaints and acted as mediator. In a majority of cases, the plaintiff prevailed, gaining compensation, the opportunity to seek alternative employment, or return to their country of origin in the case of foreign laborers, although they rarely used the courts to seek redress. The ministry was generally effective in cases regarding minor labor disputes.

The government increased efforts during 2018 to prevent trafficking in persons violations, which disproportionately affected foreign workers.

Foreign workers were vulnerable to poor, dangerous, or exploitative working conditions. There were reports that migrant laborers in some firms and households worked more than 12 hours a day without a day off for below-market wages. Employers often cancelled the employment contracts of seriously sick or injured foreign workers, forcing them to return to their countries of origin or remain in the country illegally. Some labor inspections focused on enforcing visa violations and deporting those in an irregular work visa status rather than verifying safe and adequate work conditions.

There are no maximum work-hour limits for domestic workers nor any mandatory rest periods, although the contract between the employer and worker can specify such requirements. There were some reports that domestic workers were subject to overwork with inadequate rest periods. Separate domestic employment regulations obligate the employer to provide domestic workers with free local medical treatment throughout the contract period. Penalties for noncompliance with health regulations were insufficient to deter violations. Some domestic workers were subjected to abusive conditions.

There was no data available on workplace fatalities or safety.

Saudi Arabia

Executive Summary

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud). In 2015 the country held its most recent municipal elections on a nonparty basis for two-thirds of the 3,159 seats in the 284 municipal councils around the country. Independent polling station observers did not identify significant irregularities with the elections.

The State Security Presidency (SSP), the National Guard, and the Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The SSP includes the General Directorate of Investigation (Mabahith), Special Security Forces, and Special Emergency Forces; police are under the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces.

Through royal decrees the government instituted significant reforms to male guardianship provisions that had long required women to obtain permission from a close male relative for a range of activities, including applying for passports and traveling abroad, registering the birth of a child, registering a marriage or divorce, obtaining status as a “head of household,” and seeking legal guardianship of children. Other new regulations expanded women’s economic empowerment by banning gender discrimination in the workplace and opening new employment opportunities for women.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful killings; executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture of prisoners and detainees by government agents; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners; arbitrary interference with privacy; criminalization of libel, censorship, and site blocking; restrictions on freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and movement; severe restrictions of religious freedom; citizens’ lack of ability and legal means to choose their government through free and fair elections; trafficking in persons; violence and official discrimination against women, although new women’s rights initiatives were implemented; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and prohibition of trade unions.

In several cases the government did not punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. Following the high-profile October 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, a court sentenced five officials to death and three officials to prison on December 23. The court ruled that guilt could not be established in the case of three other defendants.

In September state-owned oil processing facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais were attacked by drones and missiles. Houthi militants in Yemen claimed responsibility, but the Saudi government concluded Iran was responsible for the attack. Houthi militants were also responsible for numerous other attacks on civilian infrastructure inside Saudi Arabia, including airports, schools, hospitals, and oil facilities. Saudi Arabia continued air operations in Yemen throughout the year as leader of a coalition formed in 2015 to counter the 2014 Houthi takeover of government institutions and facilities. Saudi-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen reportedly resulted in civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure on multiple occasions. The pace of airstrikes declined in the fall, as the warring parties pursued a negotiated settlement to the conflict. The coalition’s Joint Incident Assessment Team (JIAT) investigated allegations of civilian casualties, but the Saudi government did not prosecute any cases based on JIAT findings.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law does not provide for freedom of expression, including for the press. The Basic Law specifies, “Mass media and all other vehicles of expression shall employ civil and polite language, contribute towards the education of the nation, and strengthen unity. The media are prohibited from committing acts that lead to disorder and division, affect the security of the state or its public relations, or undermine human dignity and rights.” Authorities are responsible for regulating and determining which speech or expression undermines internal security. The government can ban or suspend media outlets if it concludes they violated the press and publications law, and it monitored and blocked hundreds of thousands of internet sites. There were frequent reports of restrictions on free speech.

The counterterrorism law’s definition of terrorism includes “any conduct…intended to disturb public order…or destabilize the state or endanger its national unity.” The law also penalizes “anyone who challenges, either directly or indirectly, the religion or justice of the king or crown prince…or anyone who establishes or uses a website or computer program…to commit any of the offenses set out in the law.” Local human rights activists, international human rights organizations, and the UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism criticized the law for its overly broad and vague definitions of terrorism and complained the government used it to prosecute peaceful expression and dissent.

Freedom of Expression: The government monitored public expressions of opinion and took advantage of legal controls to impede the free expression of opinion and restrict individuals from engaging in public criticism of the political sphere. The law forbids apostasy and blasphemy, which can carry the death penalty, although there were no recent instances of death sentences being carried out for these crimes (see section 1.a.). Statements that authorities construed as constituting defamation of the king, monarchy, governing system, or Al Saud family resulted in criminal charges for citizens advocating government reform. The government prohibits public employees from directly or indirectly engaging in dialogue with local or foreign media or participating in any meetings intended to oppose state policies.

Some human rights activists were detained and then released on the condition that they refrain from using social media for activism, communicating with foreign diplomats and international human rights organizations, and traveling outside the country, according to human rights organizations.

The government detained a number of individuals for crimes related to their exercise of free speech during the year. From September to November, human rights groups and foreign media reported that authorities detained at least six persons, including an academic, poet, and tribal chief, for allegedly criticizing the General Entertainment Authority (GEA).

On October 10, Omar al-Muqbil, an academic at Qassim University, was allegedly arrested over a video criticizing the GEA’s recent policy of hosting concerts by international artists. In the video he accused the GEA of “erasing society’s original identity.” On October 21, poet Safar al-Dughilbi was summoned for questioning regarding a poem he wrote that referred to the “ill-practices” of the GEA. On October 22, the Prisoners of Conscience Twitter account announced a chief of the Otaiba tribe, Faisal Sultan Jahjah bin Humaid, was detained and questioned following a tweet criticizing the GEA and calling for “reasonable forms of entertainment.”

On November 12, the chairman of the GEA, Turki Al al-Sheikh, warned on Twitter the government would “take legal steps against anyone who criticizes or complains about the authority’s work.”

Between November 16 and November 20, authorities detained at least 11 persons, mostly journalists, writers, and entrepreneurs, according to the ALQST. A few days later, authorities released at least eight of those detained.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The Press and Publications Law governs printed materials; printing presses; bookstores; the import, rental, and sale of films; television and radio; foreign media offices and their correspondents; and online newspapers and journals. Media fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Media. The ministry may permanently close “whenever necessary” any means of communication–defined as any means of expressing a viewpoint that is meant for circulation–that it deems is engaged in a prohibited activity, as set forth in the law.

Media policy statements urged journalists to uphold Islam, oppose atheism, promote Arab interests, and preserve cultural heritage. In 2011 a royal decree amended the press law to strengthen penalties, create a special commission to judge violations, and require all online newspapers and bloggers to obtain a license from the ministry. The decree bans publishing anything “contradicting sharia, inciting disruption, serving foreign interests that contradict national interests, and damaging the reputation of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or senior government officials.”

The law states that violators can face fines up to 50,000 riyals ($13,300) for each violation of the law, which doubles if the violation is repeated. Other penalties include banning individuals from writing. While the Violations Considerations Committee in the Ministry of Media has formal responsibility for implementing the law, the Ministry of Interior, the CPVPV, and judges considered these issues regularly and exercised wide discretion in interpreting the law. It was unclear which of these institutional processes accords with the law.

Although unlicensed satellite dishes were illegal, the government did not enforce restrictions on them, and their use was widespread. Many foreign satellite stations broadcast a wide range of programs into the country in Arabic and other languages, including foreign news channels. Access to foreign sources of information, including via satellite dishes and the internet, was common. Foreign media were subject to licensing requirements from the Ministry of Media and could not operate freely. Privately owned satellite television networks, headquartered outside the country, maintained local offices and operated under a system of self-censorship.

On March 3, local media reported that authorities temporarily suspended a talk show hosted by journalist and Saudi Broadcasting Corporation president Dawood al-Shirian after it showed episodes on the guardianship system, the shortage of driving schools for women, and Saudi women seeking asylum abroad. The show returned a week later on March 10, according to Okaz daily newspaper.

On June 11, local media reported the GEA banned Kuwaiti artist Mona Shadad from appearing on local radio and television channels after Shadad appeared in a video praising Qatar.

Violence and Harassment: Authorities subjected journalists, writers, and bloggers to arrest, imprisonment, and harassment during the year (see sections 1.c., Prison and Detention Center Conditions and 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).

Throughout the year NGOs, academics, and the press reported on the government’s targeting of dissidents using automated social media accounts to ensure that progovernment messages dominated social media trend lists and effectively silenced dissenting voices. Automated account activity was reportedly accompanied by online harassment by progovernment accounts in some instances. Dissidents with large social media followings were targeted for offline harassment and surveillance as well.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government reportedly penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines and directly or indirectly censored the media by licensing domestic media and by controlling importation of foreign printed material.

All newspapers, blogs, and websites in the country must be government licensed. The Ministry of Media must approve the appointment of all senior editors and has authority to remove them. The government provided guidelines to newspapers regarding controversial issues. The Saudi Press Agency reported official government news. The government owned most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities in the country, and members of the royal family owned or influenced privately owned and nominally independent operations, including various media outlets and widely circulated pan-Arab newspapers published outside the country. Authorities prevented or delayed the distribution of foreign print media covering issues considered sensitive, effectively censoring these publications.

The government censored published material it considered blasphemous, extremist, racist, or offensive or as inciting chaos, violence, sectarianism, or harm to the public order. In 2017 the PPO stated that producing and promoting “rumors that affect the public order” was a crime under the cybercrimes law and punishable by up to five years in prison, a fine of three million riyals ($800,000), or both. In June 2018 the PPO warned against sending, producing, or storing any material that stirs up tribalism and fanaticism or harms public order, which is also punishable by the above penalties. On July 10, the Shura Council called on the General Commission for Audiovisual Media to intensify efforts to prevent the broadcast of content that contravenes the country’s laws, customs, traditions, and public decorum or harms the reputation of the kingdom and its people. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the council underlined the need to enhance control of the electronic games market through surveillance of stores, markets, and websites in accordance with local and international regulations.

In some cases, however, individuals criticized specific government bodies or actions publicly without repercussions. The Consultative Council (Majlis ash-Shura), an advisory body, frequently allowed print and broadcast media to observe its proceedings and meetings, but the council closed some high-profile or controversial sessions to the media.

Libel/Slander Laws: There were numerous reports during the year of the government using libel laws to suppress publication of material that criticized policies or public officials.

The cybercrimes law provides for a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment for “defamation and infliction of damage upon others through the use of various information technology devices,” including social media and social networks.

National Security: Authorities used the cybercrimes law and the counterterrorism law to restrict freedom of expression, including by prosecuting numerous individuals under these laws on charges related to statements made on social media.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law does not provide for freedom of assembly and association, which the government severely limited.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law does not contain provisions for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation.

In-country Movement: The government generally did not restrict the free movement of male citizens within the country. The guardianship system does not require a woman to have the permission of her male guardian (normally a father, husband, son, brother, grandfather, uncle, or other male relative) to move freely within the country (see section 6, Women). Courts, however, sometimes ruled that women should abide by a male guardian’s request to stay at home by “occasionally upholding a guardian’s right to obedience from his female dependents,” according to an HRW report.

Authorities respected the right of citizens to change residence or workplace, provided they held a national identification card (NIC). The law requires all male citizens who are 15 or older to possess a NIC. In 2012 the Ministry of Interior announced it would start issuing NICs to all female citizens at the age of 15, phasing in the requirement over a seven-year period. There was minimal information available regarding whether this initiative was successfully implemented.

In June 2018 the country lifted its longstanding ban on women driving. The process of issuing licenses, however, was slowed by the small number of training schools available to women, which resulted in waiting lists for driving classes, since a driving school certificate is a requirement to obtain a license. Another obstacle was the high cost of driver’s education for women, which international media reported was four to five times as expensive as men’s fees, reportedly because women’s schools had better technology and facilities.

Foreign Travel: There are restrictions on foreign travel. Many foreign workers require an exit visa and a valid passport to depart the country. Saudi citizens of both genders younger than 21, other dependents, or foreign citizen workers under sponsorship require a guardian’s consent to travel abroad. On June 20, Okaz reported that married Saudi men younger than 21 no longer require guardian consent to travel abroad. According to Ministry of Interior regulations, a noncitizen wife needs permission from her husband to travel, unless both partners sign a prenuptial agreement permitting the noncitizen wife to travel without the husband’s permission. Government entities can ban the travel of citizens and noncitizens without trial, and male family members can “blacklist” women and minor children by reporting them as “disobedient,” prohibiting their travel.

On August 1, the government published Royal Decree 134/M, which stipulates that citizens of either gender older than 21 can obtain and renew a passport and travel abroad without guardian permission. The travel regulations entered into effect on August 20. On October 14, local media reported that as many as 14,000 adult women had obtained their passports since August without seeking the consent of their legal guardian.

Employers or sponsors controlled the departure of foreign workers and residents from the country; employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf. Sponsors frequently held their employees’ passports against the desires of the employees, despite a law specifically prohibiting this practice. Foreign workers typically provided sponsors with their residence permit before traveling in exchange for their passport to ensure the worker’s return to their employer after their travel.

The government reportedly confiscated passports for political reasons and revoked the rights of some citizens to travel, often without providing them notification or opportunity to contest the restriction. Most travel bans reportedly involved individuals in court cases relating to corruption, state security concerns, or labor, financial, and real estate disputes. Many relatives of citizens detained in relation to the government’s anticorruption campaign as well as relatives of detained clerics and human rights activists were also reportedly under travel bans.

The government seized the U.S. passports of the wife and children of dual U.S.-Saudi citizen Walid Fitaihi, barring them from leaving the kingdom and freezing their assets following Fitaihi’s detention in 2017. While the international travel ban for family members had been lifted at times during Fitaihi’s detention, it was reinstated following Fitaihi’s release on bond and subsequent charging in July.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law provides that the “state will grant political asylum if public interest so dictates.” There are no regulations implementing this provision. Generally, there is not a codified asylum system for those fleeing persecution, and the country is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention. The government permitted refugees recognized by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stay in the country temporarily, pending identification of a durable solution, including third-country resettlement or voluntary repatriation. The government generally did not grant asylum or accept refugees for resettlement from third countries. Government policy is to refuse refugee status to persons in the country illegally, including those who have overstayed a pilgrimage visa. The government strongly encouraged persons without residency to leave, and it threatened or imposed deportation. Access to naturalization was difficult for refugees.

The government granted six-month visas to Syrian and Yemeni citizens, and a royal decree allowed pro forma extensions of these visas. On January 8 and July 11, the General Directorate of Passports announced renewal of visitor identification cards for Yemeni citizens in accordance with royal directives. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported, however, that during the year more than 30,000 Yemenis were deported due to their immigration status (see section 7.e., Acceptable Conditions of Work). In April 2018 then foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir stated that, since the start of the Syrian conflict, the country had taken in approximately two and one-half million Syrians and treated them as its own citizens, providing them with free health care, work, and education. He added that the country’s universities and schools had more than 140,000 Syrian students.

The IOM reported that as of August an estimated 300,000 Ethiopians had returned to Ethiopia since the government launched a campaign titled “A Nation without Violations” in 2017. HRW reported that a number of these migrants came to Saudi Arabia after experiencing persecution by the Ethiopian government and that deportations may have returned individuals to potentially harmful circumstances. HRW also noted migrants had faced abusive prison conditions in Saudi Arabia.

The government did not recognize the right of Saudi citizens to petition for access to asylum or refugee status in foreign countries. In several cases the government prosecuted and penalized Saudi citizens who sought asylum in foreign countries, according to multiple sources (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association). In January an 18-year-old Saudi citizen, citing fear for her life, was granted refugee status in Canada after fleeing from her family to Bangkok. Rahaf Mohammed claimed the Saudi embassy in Bangkok tried to force her to return to Saudi Arabia.

Employment: Refugees and asylum seekers were generally unable to work legally, although Syrian and Yemeni citizens who possessed a temporary visa could obtain a visitor card from the Ministry of Interior, which reportedly allows these persons to work. The renewable permits are valid for up to six months and tied to the validity period of their temporary visas; men between the ages of 18 and 60 were eligible to apply. In 2017 the General Directorate of Passports allowed Yemeni men to convert their visitor identification card to a residency permit if their Yemeni passport and visitor identification card were valid.

Access to Basic Services: The government provides preferential access to education, health care, public housing, and other social services to citizens and certain legal residents. A royal decree issued in 2012 permitted all Syrians in Saudi Arabia free access to the educational system and a separate decree issued in 2015 gave Yemenis in Saudi Arabia free access to schools. The Ministry of Education modified these decisions in February 2018, announcing that Syrian and Yemeni students holding visitor identification cards were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools and universities and would have to enroll in private ones at their own expense. The UNHCR office in Riyadh provided a subsistence allowance covering basic services to a limited number of vulnerable families, based on a needs assessment. Authorities worked with UNHCR to provide medical treatment, also following a needs assessment.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage; it establishes an absolute monarchy led by the Al Saud family as the political system. The Allegiance Council, composed of up to 34 senior princes appointed by the king, is formally responsible for selecting a king and crown prince upon the death or incapacitation of either. Only select members of the ruling family have a voice in the choice of leaders, the composition of the government, or changes to the political system.

The law provides citizens the right to communicate with public authorities on any matter and establishes the government on the principle of consultation (shura). The king and senior officials, including ministers and regional governors, are required to be available through majlis, open-door meetings where in theory any male citizen or noncitizen may express an opinion or a grievance without an appointment.

Most government ministries and agencies had women’s sections to interact with female citizens and noncitizens, and at least two regional governorates hired female employees to receive women’s petitions and arrange meetings for women with complaints for, or requests of, the governor.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption. Some officials engaged in corrupt practices, and perceptions of corruption persisted in some sectors. Government employees who accepted bribes faced 10 years in prison or fines up to one million riyals ($267,000).

The Supreme Anticorruption Committee, the National Anticorruption Commission (Nazaha), the PPO, and the Control and Investigation Board are units of the government with authority to investigate reports of criminal activity, corruption, and “disciplinary cases” involving government employees. These bodies are responsible for investigating potential cases and referring them to the administrative courts.

While Nazaha is responsible for promoting transparency and combating all forms of financial and administrative corruption, the relationship between Nazaha and the newer Supreme Anticorruption Committee was unclear. Nazaha’s ministerial-level director reported directly to the king. In 2015 the Shura Council criticized Nazaha for its failure to refer for investigation a sufficient number of corruption cases. The council also stated the public did not believe Nazaha could handle its responsibility to investigate and punish corruption.

Legal authorities for investigation and public prosecution of criminal offenses are consolidated within the PPO; the Control and Investigation Board is responsible for investigation and prosecution of noncriminal cases. Financial audit and control functions are vested in the General Auditing Board. The HRC also responded to and researched complaints of corruption.

On December 12, King Salman issued three royal decrees consolidating anticorruption responsibilities under a single entity, the new Control and Anticorruption Commission. The decrees consolidate the Control and Investigation Board, Mabahith’s Administrative Investigations Directorate (within the General Investigation Directorate), and the National Anticorruption Commission (Nazaha) into the new commission, which is to be led by Mazen bin Ibrahim al-Khamous, who assumed leadership of Nazaha in August. The consolidated agency is intended to have criminal investigation and prosecutorial authorities that its predecessors lacked. As with Nazaha, the new Control and Anticorruption Commission will report directly to the king.

Provincial governors and other members of the royal family paid compensation to victims of corruption during weekly majlis meetings where citizens raised complaints.

Corruption: Nazaha continued operations and referred cases of possible public corruption to the PPO. Nazaha reported that the commission received 15,591 complaints in 2018, up from 10,402 in 2017.

On January 29, local media reported the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs suspended 126 local government employees at municipalities across the kingdom on corruption charges. “They are charged with involvement in a number of cases including financial and managerial corruption, abuse of power, as well as other legal and criminal violations,” the ministry announced on Twitter.

On February 5, Public Prosecutor Saud al-Mu’jab announced the launch of the Financial Reports Office, part of the government’s General Auditing Bureau. Al-Mu’jab noted the office would monitor state spending and help sustain the fight against corruption after the end of the anticorruption campaign, which the Royal Court announced on January 30.

The Royal Court noted that in the anticorruption campaign, launched in 2017, the government had recovered 400 billion riyals ($106.7 billion) in cash, real estate, and other assets as settlements. It added that the anticorruption committee, led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, summoned 381 individuals for questioning and reached financial settlements with 87 suspects. Eight individuals declined to settle and were referred to the PPO. The cases of an additional 56 individuals were not settled due to preexisting criminal charges against them, the Royal Court stated.

Human rights organizations criticized the government for using the anticorruption campaign as a pretext to target perceived political opponents and for arbitrarily detaining and abusing individuals targeted in the crackdown (see sections 1.c. and 1.d., Pretrial Detention).

In September the government appointed a new Supreme Anticorruption Committee head who announced he would prioritize elimination of corruption in the government ministry and agency ranks.

Financial Disclosure: The government had a uniform schedule of financial disclosure requirements for public officials.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The law provides that “the State shall protect human rights in accordance with Islamic sharia.” The government restricted the activities of domestic and international human rights organizations. The government did not allow international human rights NGOs to be based in the country and restricted access to the country for visits. International human rights and humanitarian NGOs reported the government was at times unresponsive to requests for information and did not establish a clear mechanism for communication with NGOs on both domestic human rights issues and issues relating to the conflict in Yemen. There were no transparent standards governing visits by international NGO representatives. The HRC stated that the government welcomed visits by legitimate, unbiased human rights groups but added the government could not act on the “hundreds of requests” it received, in part because it was cumbersome to decide which domestic agencies would be their interlocutor.

The government often cooperated with and sometimes accepted the recommendations of the NSHR, the sole government-licensed domestic human rights organization. The NSHR accepted requests for assistance and complaints about government actions affecting human rights.

The government viewed unlicensed local human rights groups with suspicion, frequently blocking their websites and charging their founders with founding and operating unlicensed organizations.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The government had mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse. The HRC is part of the government and requires the permission of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs before meeting with diplomats, academics, or researchers with international human rights organizations. The HRC president has ministerial status and reports to the king. The well-resourced HRC was effective in highlighting nonpolitically sensitive problems and registering and responding to the complaints it received, but its capacity to effect change was more limited. The HRC worked directly with the Royal Court and the cabinet, with a committee composed of representatives of the Consultative Council and the Ministries of Labor and Social Development and Interior, and with Consultative Council committees for the judiciary, Islamic affairs, and human rights.

During the year the HRC and NSHR were more outspoken in areas deemed less politically sensitive, including child abuse, child marriage, prison conditions, and cases of individuals detained beyond their prescribed prison sentences. They avoided topics such as protests or cases of political activists or reformers that would require directly confronting government authorities. The HRC board’s 18 full-time members included four women and at least three Shia members; they received and responded to complaints submitted by their constituencies, including problems related to persons with disabilities, religious freedom, and women’s rights. The Consultative Council’s Human Rights Committee also actively followed cases and included women and Shia among its members; a woman served as chairperson of the committee.

The HRC and NSHR maintained records of complaints and outcomes, but privacy laws protect information about individual cases, and information was not publicly available. According to HRC figures, the body received at least 1,070 human rights-related complaints between January and April. On January 5, the NSHR stated it received 2,871 complaints in 2017. Topics of complaints included labor, abuse, citizenship, social welfare, health, and education. During the year the Board of Grievances held hearings and adjudicated claims of wrongdoing, but there were no reported prosecutions of security force members for human rights violations.

The HRC, in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, provided materials and training to police, other security forces, the Ministry of Defense, and the CPVPV on protecting human rights.

Military and security courts investigated abuses of authority and security force killings. The Board of Grievances, a high-level administrative judicial body that hears cases against government entities and reports directly to the king, is the primary mechanism to seek redress for claims of abuse. Citizens may report abuses by security forces at any police station or to the HRC or NSHR.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

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.

The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. There were no labor unions in the country, and workers faced potential dismissal, imprisonment, or, in the case of migrant workers, deportation for union activities.

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 approves the committee members and authorizes ministry and employer representatives to attend committee meetings. Committee members must submit the minutes of 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 that are limited to improvements to working conditions, health and safety, productivity, and training programs.

In April 2018 Riyadh governor Prince Faisal bin Bandar Al Saud warned against illegal assemblies by workers to protest delayed salaries. He advised that foreign workers should seek recourse from the offices of provincial governors and through legal processes, and he reiterated the importance of both employers’ and employees’ abiding by their contractual obligations.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. Forced labor occurred, especially among migrant workers–notably domestic servants. 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. Labor law prohibits the confiscation of passports and nonpayment of wages. Violations of labor laws could result in penalties, but these did not sufficiently deter violations. Many noncitizen workers, particularly domestic employees not covered under the labor law, were unable to exercise their right to end their contractual work. An employer may require a trainee to work for him or her upon completion of training for a period not to exceed twice the duration of the training or one year, whichever is longer.

Restrictive sponsorship laws increased workers’ vulnerability to forced labor conditions and made many foreign workers reluctant to report abuse. The contract system does not allow workers to change employers or leave the country without the written consent of the employer under normal circumstances. If wages are withheld for 90 days, a ministerial decree permits an employee to transfer his or her sponsorship to a new employer without obtaining prior approval from the previous employer. There were reports, however, that the Ministry of Labor and Social Development did not always approve petitions to transfer sponsorship due to withheld wages, including some cases in which wages had been withheld for more than three months. During the year numerous migrant workers reported being dismissed, sometimes after months of nonpayment of salaries. Some remained stranded in the country because they were unable to pay required exit visa fees. A few countries that previously allowed their citizens to migrate to the country for work prohibited their citizens from seeking work in Saudi Arabia after widespread reports of worker abuse.

The government continued implementation of the Wage Protection System (WPS), which requires employers to pay foreign workers through bank transfers, thereby allowing the ministry to track whether workers were paid appropriately. All employers with more than 10 employees were required to comply with WPS regulations as of 2017. WPS covered five million employees in 34,000 businesses. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development fined companies for delaying payment for employees’ salaries on the first occurrence and blocked companies from accessing government services if a company delayed salaries for two or more months. The fines appeared to be insufficient to deter violations.

Throughout the year the government strictly implemented measures to limit the number of noncitizen workers in the country. The government also penalized Hajj tourist agencies that engaged in human smuggling and local companies that abused the country’s visa laws to bring individuals into the country for reasons other than to employ them directly. A smaller number came as religious pilgrims and overstayed their visas. Because of their undocumented status, many persons in the country were susceptible to forced labor, substandard wages, and deportation by authorities.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law provides that no person younger than 15 may legally work unless that person is the sole source of support for the family. Children between the ages of 13 and 15 may work if the job is not harmful to health or growth and does not interfere with schooling. The law provides that hazardous operations or harmful industries may not employ legal minors, and children younger than 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. Penalties generally were considered sufficient to deter violations.

The HRC and NSHR are responsible for monitoring enforcement of 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. Authorities most commonly enforced the law in response to complaints of children begging on the streets.

Most child labor involved children from other countries, including Yemen and Ethiopia, forced into begging rings, street vending, and working in family businesses.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or HIV-positive status. Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred with respect to all these categories. There are no effective complaint resolution mechanisms present to deter these discriminatory regulations and practices.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Development explicitly approved and encouraged the employment of women in specific sectors, particularly in government (see section 3, Participation of Women and Minorities) and retail, but women faced many discriminatory regulations. The first-quarter Labor Market Report by the General Authority for Statistics found that Saudi girls and women (15 years of age and above) constituted 8.4 percent of the country’s total labor force (Saudi and non-Saudi, 15 years of age and above). The same report estimated that women and girls, both Saudi and foreign, represented 17.8 percent of all employed persons (15 years of age and above) in the country. Most non-Saudi women were employed as domestic workers. Rules limited the type of work women were allowed to perform and required them to wear a veil. In practice gender segregation continued to take place in the workplace.

There is no regulation requiring equal pay for equal work. In the private sector, the average monthly wage of Saudi women workers was 58 percent of the average monthly wage of Saudi men. Labor dispute settlement bodies did not register any cases of discrimination against women.

In recent years the government decreased the number of restrictions on women’s employment in various sectors (see sections 3 and 6, Women). The most recent reform came in October, when the government announced women could enlist in the military. There were no women working as judges or as members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars. Women are barred from work in mining, oil refineries, construction, and power generation. Nevertheless, some factories and manufacturing facilities, particularly in the Eastern Province, employed men and women, who worked separate shifts during different hours of the day. The law grants women the right to obtain business licenses without the approval of their guardians, and women frequently obtained licenses in fields that might require them to supervise foreign workers, interact with male clients, or deal with government officials. Although it is illegal for a potential employer to ask a female applicant for her guardian’s permission when she applies for a job, some employers required them to prove such permission. In medical settings and the energy industry, women and men worked together, and in some instances women supervised male employees. Women who work in establishments with 50 or more female employees have the right to maternity leave and childcare.

By an amended decree effective on September 4, labor and social insurance regulations mandate that employers treat all workers equally and bar discrimination “between workers on the basis of gender, disability, age, or any other forms of discrimination, whether in work, employment or advertising [a] vacancy.” The decree expands previous regulations barring employers from firing female workers on maternity leave and includes protection from dismissal for pregnancy-related illness if the absence is less than 180 days per year. The amendments also raised the mandatory retirement age of women to 60, the same as for men.

The Ministry of Labor and Social Development is responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Vocational rehabilitation projects and social care programs increasingly brought persons with disabilities into the mainstream. In June the Ministry of Education stated it had taken measures to integrate disabled students, including special education programs in regular schools, training faculty members who work with students with disabilities, and providing technological instruments for students with disabilities free of charge.

Discrimination with respect to religious beliefs occurred in the workplace. Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A very small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies (see section 3, Participation of Women and Minorities). Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.

Discrimination against Asian and African migrant workers occurred (see section 6, National/Racial/Ethnic Minorities). The King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue continued programs that sought to address some of these problems and provided training during the year to combat discrimination against national, racial, or ethnic groups. There were numerous cases of assaults on foreign workers and reports of worker abuse.

Informal discrimination in employment and occupation occurred on the basis of sex, gender, race, religion, national origin, and sexual orientation or gender identity.

In 2017 the Ministry of Interior’s General Directorate of Passports announced a national campaign to identify, arrest, fine, and deport individuals found in violation of the country’s residency laws under the title of “Nation without Violators.” The campaign began with a 90-day grace period or general amnesty to allow irregular migrants to depart the country “without penalty,” after which authorities extended the grace period in coordination with international organizations. The Ministry of Interior stated that nearly 4.15 million foreign citizens were arrested between November 2017 and November 2019 for violating work, residency, and entry rules. Approximately 1,036,800 violators were deported during the cited period, according to the ministry. The Human Rights Committee reported that law enforcement agencies had been trained in screening vulnerable populations for human trafficking indicators and the campaign was being carried out in accordance with protections against trafficking in persons.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The monthly minimum wage for public-sector employees was above the estimated poverty-income level. There was no private-sector minimum wage for foreign workers, and the government did not mandate a general minimum private-sector wage for citizens.

By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours but can extend to 60 hours, subject to payment of overtime, which is 50 percent more than the basic wage.

An estimated 9.4 million noncitizens, including approximately 947,000 noncitizen women, made up approximately 76 percent of the labor force, according to the General Authority for Statistics labor market survey for the fourth quarter of 2018. Legal workers generally negotiated and agreed to work conditions prior to their arrival in the country, in accordance with the contract requirements contained in the labor law.

The law provides penalties for bringing foreigners into the country to work in any service, including domestic service, without following the required procedures and obtaining a permit. The penalties were insufficient to deter violations.

The labor law provides for regular safety inspections and enables ministry-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 government effectively enforced the law. The Ministry of Health’s Occupational Health Service Directorate worked with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development 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 citizens privately reported frequent failures to enforce health and safety standards. The ministry employed nearly 1,000 labor inspectors.

The law requires that a citizen or business must sponsor foreign workers in order for them to obtain legal work and residency status, although the requirement exempts Syrian and Yemeni citizens who overstayed their visas. According to the IOM, 32,532 Yemenis were deported between January and July due to their immigration status. The ministry implemented measures allowing noncitizen workers to switch their employer to a new employer or company that employed a sufficient quota of Saudi citizens. Despite these revised measures, some workers were unaware of the new regulations and had to remain with their sponsor until completion of their 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 the workers’ 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 employees from departing the country until the dispute was resolved. Authorities, however, would not jail or forcibly return fleeing workers who sought to exit the country within a 72-hour period or coordinate with their embassy for repatriation as long as the employees did not have criminal charges or outstanding fines pending against them.

Bilateral labor agreements set conditions on foreign workers’ minimum wage, housing, benefits including leave and medical care, and other topics. These provisions were not drafted in line with international standards, and they varied depending on the source country’s relative bargaining power. The labor law and the law against trafficking do not provide penalties to deter abuse of such workers.

The government engaged in news campaigns highlighting the plight of abused workers, trained law enforcement and other officials to combat trafficking in persons, and worked with the embassies of labor-source countries to disseminate information about labor rights for foreign workers. As in previous years, during Ramadan the HRC broadcast a public awareness program on television emphasizing the Islamic injunction to treat employees well.

The government did not always enforce the laws protecting migrant workers effectively. There were credible reports that some migrant workers were employed on terms to which they had not agreed and experienced problems, such as delays in the 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.

There were credible reports that some noncitizen workers, particularly domestic employees, were unable 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 in the country, usually held foreign workers’ passports, a practice prohibited by law. In some contract disputes, sponsors asked authorities to prevent the employee from leaving the country until resolution of the dispute to coerce the employee into accepting a disadvantageous settlement or risking deportation without any settlement.

While some foreign workers were able to contact the labor offices of their embassies for assistance, domestic workers experienced challenges when attempting to gain access to their embassies, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and telephone access, confiscation of their passports, and being subjected to threats and verbal and physical abuse. During the year hundreds of domestic workers, the majority of whom were female, 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, some domestic servants could contact the NSHR, the HRC, the governmental Interministerial General Secretariat to Combat Human Trafficking, and the Migrant Workers’ Welfare Department, which provided services to safeguard migrant workers’ rights and protect them from abuse. Some were able to apply to the offices of regional governors and lodge an appeal with the Board of Grievances against decisions by those authorities.

On October 13, refiner SASREF reported an apparent industrial accident killed two workers and injured two others during maintenance work. On February 11, the General Organization for Social Insurance stated that at least 47 persons working in the private sector died and 291 others were injured as a result of workplace accidents the previous year.

United Arab Emirates

Executive Summary

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a federation of seven semiautonomous emirates with a resident population of approximately 9.4 million, of whom an estimated 11 percent are citizens. The rulers of the seven emirates constitute the Federal Supreme Council, the country’s highest legislative and executive body. The council selects a president and a vice president from its membership, and the president appoints the prime minister and cabinet. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, ruler of Abu Dhabi emirate, is president, although Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi exercises most executive authority. The emirates are under patriarchal rule with political allegiance defined by loyalty to tribal leaders, leaders of the individual emirates, and leaders of the federation. A limited, appointed electorate participates in periodic elections for the partially elected Federal National Council (FNC), a consultative body that examines, reviews, and recommends changes to legislation and may discuss topics for legislation. The last election was in October, when appointed voters elected 20 FNC members. Citizens may express their concerns directly to their leaders through traditional consultative mechanisms such as the open majlis (forum).

Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces. Each emirate maintained a local police force called a general directorate, which was officially a branch of the federal Ministry of Interior. All emirate-level general directorates of police enforced their respective emirate’s laws autonomously. They also enforced federal laws within their emirate in coordination with each other under the federal ministry. The federal government maintained federal armed forces under the Ministry of Defense for external security.

Significant human rights issues included allegations of torture in detention; arbitrary arrest and detention, including incommunicado detention, by government agents; political prisoners; government interference with privacy rights; undue restrictions on free expression and the press, including criminalization of libel, censorship, and internet site blocking; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; the inability of citizens to choose their government in free and fair elections; and criminalization of same sex sexual activity, although no cases were publicly reported during the year. The government did not permit workers to join independent unions and did not effectively prevent physical and sexual abuse of foreign domestic servants and other migrant workers.

The government investigated, prosecuted, and punished officials who committed abuses. There were no public reports of impunity involving officials, but there was also no publicly available information on whether authorities investigated complaints of police abuses, including prison conditions and mistreatment.

The United Nations, human rights groups, and others alleged UAE military operations as part of the Saudi-led Coalition in Yemen killed civilians, damaged civilian infrastructure, and obstructed delivery of humanitarian aid. Human rights groups alleged UAE-backed security forces in Yemen committed torture, sexual assault, and mistreatment against detainees. The government rejected allegations that members of its security forces serving in Yemen had committed human rights abuses, and there was no publicly available information on whether the government carried out any investigations into these reported incidents.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press. However, the law prohibits criticism of national rulers and speech that may create or encourage social unrest. The government restricted freedom of speech and press. The media conformed to unpublished government guidelines. Editors and journalists are aware of government “red lines” for acceptable media content, enshrined in federal libel and slander laws. On other socially sensitive issues, they commonly practice self-censorship.

Freedom of Expression: After the onset of widespread regional turmoil in 2011, authorities severely restricted public criticism of the government and individual ministers. The government continued to make arrests or impose other restrictions for speech related to and in support of Islamist political activities, calls for democratic reforms, criticism of or perceived insults against the government and government institutions, and, in rarer cases, criticism of individuals. In November 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that both online verbal and written insults are a prosecutable offense.

In other cases, authorities brought individuals to trial for posting material on social media platforms. The material was considered a violation of privacy or personally insulting to acquaintances, colleagues, employers, or religions. In April Dubai police arrested a man for allegedly publishing a video on social media that mocked the traditional dress of Emiratis.

After the government severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in 2017, the General Prosecutor declared that showing any sympathy with Qatar or objecting to the government’s position against Qatar in written, visual, or verbal form, would be punishable by three to 15 years in prison or a minimum fine of 500,000 AED ($136,000). These restrictions continued to apply to social media users in the country. The government continued to block Qatari-funded al-Jazeeras website and most Qatari broadcasting channels. During the year there were no confirmed arrests under the declaration.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: International NGOs categorized the press, both in print and online, as not free. Except for regional media outlets located in Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s free trade zones, the government owned most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations. Journalists reported the government maintains unpublished guidelines for acceptable media content. The government also influenced privately owned media through the National Media Council (NMC), which directly oversaw all media content. Satellite-receiving dishes were widespread and provided access to uncensored international broadcasts. In 2018 the NMC issued regulations for electronic media, including rules for publishing and selling advertising, print, video, and audio material. The regulations required those benefitting monetarily from social media advertising to purchase a license from the NMC.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: By law the NMC, whose chair the president appoints, licenses and censors all publications, including private association publications. In practice, domestic and foreign publications were censored to remove criticism of the government, ruling families, or friendly governments. Censorship also extends to statements that “threaten social stability,” and materials considered pornographic, excessively violent, derogatory to Islam, or supportive of certain Israeli government positions. In July Ajman authorities referred a resident to the Ajman criminal court for insulting Islam during a family gathering. The law also criminalizes as blasphemy acts that provoke religious hatred or insult religious convictions through any form of expression, including broadcasting, printed media, or the internet. Government and private institutions must obtain a license before publishing or broadcasting media or advertising content, or face penalties. This applies to any media or advertising activity and to any person or entity that issues any type of publication, including clubs, associations, diplomatic missions, foreign centers, and movie theaters.

Government officials reportedly warned journalists when they published or broadcast material deemed politically or culturally sensitive. Editors and journalists commonly practiced self-censorship due to fear of government retribution, particularly as most journalists were foreign nationals and could be deported. Authorities did not allow some books they viewed as critical of the government, Islam, and local culture, as well as books that supported the Muslim Brotherhood or its ideology.

Libel/Slander Laws: The government used libel and slander laws to suppress criticism of its leaders and institutions. The law criminalizes acts that defame others online or through information technology, including communication applications such as WhatsApp. In February a British woman was fined 10,000 AED ($2,722) and ordered deported by the Criminal Court of Ajman on defamation charges when she insulted her former husband on WhatsApp and Facebook years prior.

Those convicted of libel face up to two years in prison. The maximum penalty for libel against the family of a public official is three years in prison.

National Security: Authorities often cited the need to protect national security as the basis for laws that curb criticism of the government or expression of dissenting political views. For example, the country’s cybercrime laws include broad limitations on using electronic means to promote disorder or “damage national unity.” Human rights groups criticized these laws for excessively restricting freedom of speech, particularly in statements at the United Nations Human Rights Council in response to the country’s most recent Universal Periodic Review.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law generally provided for freedom of internal movement, emigration, and repatriation. While the government generally respected these rights, it imposed certain legal restrictions on foreign travel. The lack of passports or other identity documents restricted the movement of stateless persons, both within the country and internationally. The government allowed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations to provide protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

Foreign Travel: Authorities generally did not permit citizens and residents involved in legal disputes under adjudication and noncitizens under investigation to travel abroad. In addition, authorities sometimes arrested individuals with outstanding debts or legal cases while in transit through an airport.

At the sole discretion of emirate-level prosecutors, foreign nationals had their passports taken or travel restricted during criminal and civil investigations. Some individuals were also banned from foreign travel. These measures posed particular problems for noncitizen debtors, who in addition to being unable to leave the country, were usually unable to find work without a passport and valid residence permit, making it impossible to repay their debts or maintain legal residency. In some cases, family, friends, local religious organizations, or other concerned individuals helped pay the debt and enabled the indebted foreign national to depart the country. According to media reports, the president pardoned 669 prisoners ahead of Eid al-Adha and pledged to settle financial obligations of released prisoners. Rulers across the emirates pardoned over 1,800 prisoners ahead of national day. In May a Dubai-based businessperson cleared the debts of 600 prisoners to honor the holy month of Ramadan.

Travel bans were placed on citizens and noncitizens. For example, citizens of interest for reasons of state security, including former political prisoners, encountered difficulties renewing official documents, resulting in implicit travel bans. Authorities did not lift travel bans until the completion of a case in the judicial system. In complex cases, particularly in the investigation of financial crimes, travel bans remained in place for three years or more. In January Dubai’s Rental Dispute Center launched a smart system that allows rent defaulters with travel bans to settle their dues at the airport. Under the system, defaulters may present their case virtually to a judge and settle part of the amount owed prior to traveling.

In June the International Court of Justice rejected the UAE’s request for immediate measures against Qatar, ruling that the rights claimed did not fall under the antidiscrimination treaty. The UAE requested that the court bring provisional measures against Qatar to include that Qatar stop its national bodies and its State-owned, controlled and funded media outlets from disseminating false accusations regarding the UAE. In 2017 the government and several other regional countries severed diplomatic ties with Qatar and enacted a blockade on air, sea, and land traffic to and from Qatar. Qatari citizens were given two weeks to leave the UAE and were banned from traveling to and transiting the UAE. Emirati citizens were banned from visiting or transiting through Qatar. The UAE Ministry of Interior established a hotline to assist blended Qatari-Emirati families, allowing them to remain in the UAE on a case-by-case basis.

Custom dictates that a husband may prevent his wife, minor children, and adult unmarried daughters from leaving the country by taking custody of their passports.

Citizenship: The government may revoke naturalized citizens’ passports and citizenship status for criminal or politically provocative actions.

f. Protection of Refugees

UNHCR lacked formal legal status in the country separate from the UN Development Program. The government nevertheless worked with UNHCR on a case-by-case basis to address refugee issues. The government did not formally grant refugee status or asylum to aliens seeking protection, but it allowed some refugees to remain in the country temporarily on an individual basis. This nonpermanent status often presented administrative, financial, and social hardships, including the need frequently to renew visas and the inability to access basic services such as health care and education for children. In June 2018 the government announced that citizens of war-torn countries who were living in the UAE and had overstayed their visas would be permitted to apply from August 1 to October 31 of that year for a permit to legally remain in the UAE for one additional year. These applicants were also exempted from immigration fines. According to foreign observers, as of September the government had not issued instructions on how to extend the permits issued in August 2018, which expired in August 2019, or whether this would be allowed.

Refoulement: The family of Abudujilili Supi, a Uighur man from China legally residing in the UAE, reported to media that Supi was detained by local police in 2018 after he left afternoon prayers at the Abdullah bin Rawaha mosque in Sharjah. Supi’s wife, who witnessed the arrest, was given no explanation why he was arrested. Supi called her from detention three days later informing her that he was told he would be forced to return to China involuntarily by UAE authorities. His whereabouts remained unknown. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) addressed a letter to the government in January stating that the expected deportation to Pakistan of Rashid Hussain Brohi (see section 1.e.) “would appear to be in contravention of the principle of nonrefoulement.”

According to Amnesty International and the WGEID, authorities arrested Rashid Hussain Brohi, a Pakistani activist in the Baloch National Movement, without a warrant. Reports claimed that Brohi, who fled to the country after allegedly receiving threats from Pakistani security forces, was held incommunicado from December 2018 until his deportation to Pakistan in June. The WGEID addressed a letter to the government in January stating that deportation of Brohi to Pakistan “would appear to be in contravention of the principle of nonrefoulement.”

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government had not established a transparent, codified system for providing protection to refugees. While the government extended informal protection from return to refugees in some cases, any persons lacking legal residency status were technically subject to local laws on illegal immigrants, and authorities could detain them. In some cases, authorities confined individuals seeking protection at an airport to a specific section of the airport while they awaited resettlement in another country.

Employment: Access to employment was based on an individual’s status as a legal resident, and persons with a claim to refugee status but who lacked legal residency status, including those with either short-term visitor visas or expired visas, were generally not eligible for employment.

Access to Basic Services: Access to education and other public services, including health care, is based on an individual’s status as a legal resident. As a result, some families, particularly from Iraq and Syria, reportedly did not have access to healthcare or schools. The government provided or allowed access to some services on a case-by-case basis, often after the intervention of UNHCR representatives. Some hospitals were willing to see patients without the mandatory insurance but required full payment up front.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. Federal executive and legislative power is in the hands of the Federal Supreme Council, a body composed of the hereditary rulers of the seven emirates. It selects from its members the country’s president and vice president. Decisions at the federal level generally are by consensus among the rulers, their families, and other leading families. The ruling families, in consultation with other prominent tribal figures, also choose rulers of the emirates.

Citizens could express their concerns directly to their leaders through an open majlis, a traditional consultative mechanism. On occasion women attended a majlis. If a majlis was closed to women, men sometimes voiced concerns as proxies on behalf of women. In addition, authorities sometimes held a women-only majlis or a majlis focused specifically on women’s issues.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. There were isolated reports of government corruption.

Nepotism and conflict of interest in government appointments and contract allocations existed. The Ministries of the Interior and Justice and the state audit institutions are responsible for combating government corruption.

Corruption: In July the Ras al-Khaimah Criminal Court sentenced a government employee to six months in jail and a fine of 104,000 AED ($28,312) for embezzling public funds and forging documents.

Authorities also prosecuted cases of police corruption. In July a Dubai police officer was charged with illegally arresting a victim, abetting a crime, and illegally providing official information after he arrested a visitor on behalf of a businessman who forced the detainee to sign a promissory note.

Financial Disclosure: There are no financial disclosure laws, regulations, or codes of conduct requiring officials to disclose their income and assets. The operating instructions for the FNC elections did require all candidates to disclose sources of funding for their campaigns.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The government generally did not permit domestic or international organizations to focus on domestic political or human rights issues.

The government directed, regulated, and subsidized participation by all NGO members in events outside the country. All participants had to obtain government permission before attending such events. The government also restricted entry to the country by members of international NGOs. The Antidiscrimination Law, which prohibits multiple forms of discrimination and criminalizes acts the government interprets as provoking religious hatred or insulting religion through any form of expression, provides a legal basis for restricting events such as conferences and seminars. The law also criminalizes the broadcasting, publication, and transmission of such material by any means, including audio/visual or print media, or via the internet, and prohibits conferences or meetings the government deems promote discrimination, discord, or hatred.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not allow international human rights NGOs to maintain offices in the country but did allow their representatives to visit on a limited basis. There were no transparent standards governing visits from international NGO representatives.

Government Human Rights Bodies: Two recognized local human rights organizations existed: The government-supported the EHRA, which focused on human rights problems and complaints on matters such as labor conditions, stateless persons’ rights, and prisoners’ well-being and treatment; and the Emirates Center for Human Rights Studies, which focused on human rights education for lawyers and legal consultants. Several EHRA members worked in the government and the organization received government funding. The EHRA claimed it operated independently without government interference, apart from requirements that apply to all associations in the country. In September 2018 the EHRA accused HRW and Amnesty International of disseminating incorrect and misleading information regarding the human rights situation in the country.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law does not protect the right to organize, strike, or bargain collectively. The law does not permit workers to form or join unions. The labor law forbids strikes by public sector employees, security guards, and migrant workers. The law does not entirely prohibit strikes in the private sector but allows an employer to suspend an employee for striking. In the private sector, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, formerly the Labor Ministry, must approve and register individual employment contracts. The labor law does not apply to agricultural workers or to most workers in export processing zones. Domestic workers fall under a separate labor law but are regulated by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. Persons with a claim to refugee status but who lacked legal residency status, including those with either short-term visitor visas or expired visas, were generally not eligible for employment.

Private sector employees may file collective employment dispute complaints with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization, which by law acts as mediator between the parties. Employees may then file unresolved disputes within the labor court system, which forwards disputes to a conciliation council. Public sector employees may file an administrative grievance or a case in a civil court to address a labor-related dispute or complaint. Administrative remedies are available for labor complaints, and authorities commonly applied them to resolve issues such as delayed wage payments, unpaid overtime, or substandard housing.

All foreign workers have the right to file labor-related grievances with the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. The ministry sometimes intervened in foreign workers’ disputes with employers and helped negotiate private settlements. The law allows employers to request the government to cancel the work permit of, and deport for up to one year, any foreign worker for unexcused absences of more than seven days or for participating in a strike.

The government generally enforced labor laws. In 2018 the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization issued its second Workers Welfare Report, which outlined and provided statistics on the ministry’s enforcement and dispute settlement activities regarding recruitment, contract integrity, payment of wages and overtime, housing accommodation, and health and safety. It also discussed domestic legislative and regulatory reforms affecting domestic workers.

Professional associations were not independent, and authorities had broad powers to interfere in their activities. For example, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization had to license and approve professional associations, which were required to receive government approval for international affiliations and travel by members. The government granted some professional associations with majority citizen membership a limited ability to raise work-related issues, petition the government for redress, and file grievances with the government.

In Dubai the CDA regulates and provides licensing services to nonprofit civil society organizations and associations that organize ongoing social, cultural, artistic, or entertainment activities. In Dubai, all voluntary organizations and individual volunteers are required to register with the CDA within six months. In addition, all voluntary activities require a CDA permit, but there are no prescribed penalties for noncompliance.

Foreign workers may belong to local professional associations; however, they do not have voting rights and may not serve on association boards. Apart from these professional associations, in a few instances, some foreign workers came together to negotiate with their employers on issues such as housing conditions, nonpayment of wages, and working conditions.

The threat of deportation discouraged noncitizens from voicing work-related grievances. Nonetheless, occasional protests and strikes took place. The government did not always punish workers for nonviolent protests or strikes, but it dispersed such protests, and sometimes deported noncitizen participants. According to media reports, 900 men living in company accommodations in Dubai and Ras al-Khaimah appealed to the Ministry of Labor for assistance after their employer failed to pay wages for 10 months.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law, particularly in the domestic worker sector.

The government took steps to prevent forced labor through continued implementation of the Wages Protection System (WPS) (see section 7.e.). The government enforced fines for employers who entered incorrect information into the WPS, did not pay workers for more than 60 days, or made workers sign documents falsely attesting to receipt of benefits. According to local media reporting, some firms withheld ATM cards from employees, withdrawing the money and paying the employee anywhere between 35 to 40 percent less than the mandated salary.

In July the government announced it had launched 132 educational lectures to inform 6,640 workers in Dubai about UAE labor laws and regulations as well as occupational health and safety standards in the workplace.

The domestic worker law that regulates domestic workers’ contracts, rights and privileges, prohibitions, and recruitment agencies was implemented throughout the year.

It was relatively common for employers to subject migrant domestic workers, and to a lesser degree, construction and other manual labor workers, to conditions equivalent to forced labor. Workers experienced nonpayment of wages; unpaid overtime; failure to grant legally required time off, withholding of passports, threats; and, in some cases, psychological, physical, or sexual abuse. Contract substitution remained a problem. In a few cases physical abuses led to death. Local newspapers reported on court cases involving violence committed against maids and other domestic workers. In August local media reported that the Philippine Overseas Labor Office in Dubai had sheltered a total of 1,737 women between January and June, 86 percent of whom left their employers due to alleged maltreatment, including long work hours, verbal and physical abuse, and lack of food.

In violation of the law, employers routinely held employees’ passports, thus restricting their freedom of movement and ability to leave the country or change jobs. In labor camps it was common practice for passports to be kept in a central secure location, accessible with 24 or 48 hours’ notice. In most cases individuals reported they were able to obtain documents without difficulty when needed, but this was not always the case. There were media reports that employees were coerced to surrender their passports for “safekeeping” and sign documentation that the surrender was voluntary. With domestic employees, passport withholding frequently occurred, and enforcement against this practice was weak.

Some employers forced foreign workers in the domestic and agricultural sectors to compensate them for hiring expenses such as visa fees, health exams, and insurance, which the law requires employers to pay, by withholding wages or having these costs deducted from their contracted salary. Some employers did not pay their employees contracted wages even after they satisfied these “debts.” There were other reports from community leaders that employers would refuse to apply for a residency visa for their domestic workers, rendering them undocumented and thus vulnerable to exploitation.

Although charging workers recruitment fees was illegal, workers in both the corporate and domestic sectors often borrowed money to pay recruiting fees in their home countries, and as a result spent most of their salaries trying to repay home-country labor recruiters or lenders. These debts limited workers’ options to leave a job, and sometimes trapped them in exploitive work conditions. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization oversees recruitment of domestic workers. In 2018 the ministry established Tadbeer recruitment centers, one-stop shops for recruitment agencies to register their services, workers to undergo interviews and receive training, and visas and identification documents to be distributed. However, locals reported that Tadbeer has been slow to bring these recruitment centers up to full functionality, noting ongoing difficulties with processing basic services.

Also see the Department of State’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits employment of persons younger than 15 and includes special provisions regarding children ages 15 to 18. The law, however, excludes agricultural work, leaving underage workers in these sectors unprotected. Under the law governing domestic workers, 18 is the minimum age for legal work. The law allows issuance of work permits for 12- to 18-year-old persons, specifically for gaining work experience and under specific rules. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization is responsible for enforcing the regulations and generally did so effectively.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The Antidiscrimination Law prohibits all forms of discrimination based on religion, ethnicity, or race, although without specific reference to employment. Penalties are adequate and include fines and jail terms of six months to 10 years. To date the law has only been applied in cases of religious discrimination, including one incident that occurred in a work environment.

No specific law prohibits or regulates discrimination regarding sex, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, social origin, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity, age, language, or communicable disease status in employment or occupation. Various departments within the Ministries of Human Resources and Emiratization, Education, and Community Development are responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities, and the government enforced these rights in employment, housing, and entitlement programs. Enforcement was effective for jobs in the public sector and the government made efforts to encourage private sector hiring of persons with disabilities. In September the Government Accelerators program organized a recruitment drive for persons with disabilities seeking private sector jobs. Some emirates and the federal government included statements in their human resources regulations emphasizing priority for hiring citizens with disabilities in the public sector and actively encouraged the hiring of all persons with disabilities. Public sector employers provided reasonable accommodations, defined broadly, for employees with disabilities. The employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector remained a challenge due to a lack of training and opportunities, and societal discrimination. Women who worked in the private sector, and especially nonnationals, regularly did not receive equal benefits and reportedly faced discrimination in promotions and equality of wages. Labor law prohibits women from working in hazardous, strenuous, or physically or morally harmful jobs. The domestic worker law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, gender, religion, political opinion, national, or social origin. Nevertheless, job advertisements requesting applications only from certain nationalities were common and not regulated. In free zones individualized laws govern employment requirements. For example, in the Dubai International Financial Center, employers may not discriminate against any person based on sex, marital status, race, national identity, religion, or disability.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national minimum wage. There was very limited information on average domestic, agricultural, or construction worker salaries or on public sector salaries. In some sectors minimum wages were determined by workers’ nationality and years of experience.

The law prescribes a 48-hour workweek and paid annual holidays. The law states daily working hours must not exceed eight hours in day or night shifts, and provides for overtime pay to employees working more than eight hours in a 24-hour period, with the exception of those employed in trade, hotels, cafeterias, security, domestic work, and other jobs as decided by the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization.

Government occupational health and safety standards require that employers provide employees with a safe work and living environment, including minimum rest periods and limits on the number of hours worked, depending on the nature of the work. For example, the law mandates a two-and-one-half-hour midday work break, from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m., between June 15 and September 15, for laborers who work in exposed open areas, such as construction sites. Companies are required to make water, vitamins, supplements, and shelter available to all outdoor workers during the summer months to meet health and safety requirements. Employers who do not comply are subject to fines and suspension of operations. The government may exempt companies from the midday work break if the company cannot postpone the project for emergency or technical reasons. Such projects include laying asphalt or concrete and repairing damaged water pipes, gas lines, or electrical lines.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization was responsible for enforcing laws governing acceptable conditions of work for workers in professional and semiskilled job categories, but did not do so in all sectors, including the informal sector. To monitor the private sector, the ministry had active departments for inspection, occupational safety, combating human trafficking, and wage protection.

Workers in agriculture and other categories overseen by the Ministry of Interior come under a different regulatory regime. These workers are not covered by private and public sector labor law, but have some legal protections regarding working hours, overtime, timeliness of wage payments, paid leave, health care, and the provision of adequate housing; however, enforcement of these rules was often weak. As a result, these workers were more vulnerable to unacceptable work conditions.

There was no information available on the informal economy, legal enforcement within this sector, or an estimate of its size; however, anecdotal reports indicate it was common for individuals to enter the country on a nonwork visa and join the informal job sector, subjecting them to exploitative conditions. The government encouraged undocumented residents to legalize their status or leave the country voluntarily during a five-month amnesty period from August to December 2018.

Sailors faced particular difficulty remedying grievances against employers. In 2018 the Federal Authority for Land and Maritime Transport announced that ship owners operating in the country’s ports were required to carry insurance contracts for all sailors on board and mandated that sailors must be deported to their home countries in case of abandonment by the ship owner. In August the UAE coast guard allowed sailors from the abandoned MV Tamim Aldar ship to seek refuge on shore after spending three years stranded 46 km (31 miles) off the coast of Ras al-Khaimah waiting for their salaries to be paid. Complaints included unpaid salaries, harsh living conditions, lack of fuel, food, fresh water, and access to medical treatment. According to media reports, during the year the Indian diplomatic mission in Dubai has helped repatriate more than 100 sailors caught in similar circumstances.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization conducted inspections of labor camps and workplaces such as construction sites. The government also routinely fined employers for violating the midday break rule and published compliance statistics. The Abu Dhabi Judicial Department and Dubai Courts employed buses as mobile courts, which traveled to labor camps to allow workers to register legal complaints. Abu Dhabi’s mobile courtroom was used for cases involving large groups or those who encountered difficulties attending court.

The government took action to address wage payment issues. Its implementation of the WPS and fines for noncompliance discouraged employers from withholding salaries to foreign workers under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization. The WPS, an electronic salary transfer system, requires private institutions employing more than 100 employees to pay workers via approved banks, exchange bureaus, and other financial institutions, to assure timely and full payment of agreed wages, within 10 days of payment due date. Under the law after 16 days of nonpayment, the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization will freeze issuance of new work permits to the employer. If the nonpayment lingers past 29 days, the ministry refers the case to the labor courts; after 60 days, a fine of 5,000 AED ($1,360) per unpaid worker is imposed, up to a maximum of 50,000 AED ($13,600). For companies employing less than 100 employees, the freezes, fines, and court referrals only apply after 60 days of nonpayment. The ministry monitored these payments electronically. The WPS, however, did not apply to foreign workers under the authority of the Ministry of Interior, such agricultural workers or to domestic laborers.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization conducted site visits to monitor the payment of overtime. Violations resulted in fines and in many cases a suspension of permits to hire new workers.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization continued efforts to provide for adequate health standards and safe food and facilities in labor camps. A ministerial decree requires that employers with 50 or more employees must provide low salaried workers (those earning less than 2,000 AED, or $550 per month) with accommodations. It conducted regular inspections of health and living conditions at labor camps, stated that it issued written documentation on problems needing correction, and reviewed them in subsequent inspections. Nevertheless, some low-wage foreign workers faced substandard living conditions, including overcrowded apartments or unsafe and unhygienic lodging in labor camps. In some cases, the ministry cancelled hiring permits for companies that failed to provide adequate housing. During some inspections of labor camps, the ministry employed interpreters to assist foreign workers in understanding employment guidelines. The ministry operated a toll-free hotline in several languages spoken by foreign residents through which workers were able to report delayed wage payments or other violations. The ministry’s mobile van units also visited some labor camps to inform workers of their rights.

The government instituted a revised standard contract for domestic workers aimed to protect domestic workers through a binding agreement between employers and domestic workers. The contract provides for transparency and legal protections concerning issues such as working hours, time-off, overtime, health care, and housing. Officials from some originating countries criticized the process, saying it prevented foreign embassies from reviewing and approving the labor contracts of their citizens. As a result, some countries attempted to halt their citizens’ travel to the UAE to assume domestic labor positions. Many still entered on visit visas, however, and then adjusted status, making them vulnerable to exploitation by illegal recruiters.

The government allowed foreign workers to switch jobs without a letter of permission from their employer. Labor regulations provide foreign employees the option to work without an employment contract or, in cases in which a contract was in force, to change employer sponsors after two years, as well as within the first two years within the terms of the contract. The government designed this regulation to improve job mobility and reduce the vulnerability of foreign workers to abuse. The regulation, however, did not apply to agricultural or domestic workers.

The government-supported NGO EHRA promoted worker rights. It conducted unannounced visits to labor camps and work sites to monitor conditions and reported violations to the Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization.

There were cases in which workers were injured or killed on job sites; however, authorities typically did not disclose details of workplace injuries and deaths, including the adequacy of safety measures. The Ministry of Human Resources and Emiratization routinely conducted health and safety site visits. The ministry mandated that companies with more than 15 employees submit labor injuries reports. A ministerial resolution requires that private companies that employ more than 500 workers must hire at least one local as an occupational health and safety officer; companies with more than 1,000 employees must hire two health and safety officers. In addition, Dubai emirate required construction companies and industrial firms to appoint safety officers accredited by authorized entities to promote greater site safety.

Reports of migrant worker suicides or attempted suicides continued. In some cases, observers linked the suicides to poor working and living conditions, low wages, and financial strain caused by heavy debts owed to originating-country labor recruitment agencies. Dubai police and the Dubai Foundation for Women and Children, a quasi-governmental organization, conducted vocational training programs with some elements aimed at decreasing suicidal behavior.