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. Although the law prohibits withholding of workers’ passports, the practice remained common among sponsors and employers of foreign workers, particularly domestic employees in the home, and the government demonstrated no consistent efforts to enforce this prohibition. The government did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
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 January a group of foreign workers employed at a company contracted by the Ministry of Communications filed a complaint with the PAM over four months of unpaid salaries for 200 employees. The group also alleged that the company forced them to pay an illegal fee of 900 dinars ($2,930) for their residence permits under threat of expelling them from their housing. In July the Ministry of Education announced it was moving to suspend the licenses of six private schools for not paying teachers’ wages.
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 foreign 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. As of November private sector and domestic labor employers filed approximately 15,000 reports claiming that employees “absconded.” Domestic workers filed approximately 425 complaints against their employers in accordance with the domestic labor law. As of November, PAM statistics indicated that 2634 domestic helper-related complaints had been filed. 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. In July the PAM announced it would no longer accept private sector complaints over absenteeism, after reports some employers were filing them maliciously as a pretext to violate labor laws.
In September the PAM, the Supreme Council for Planning and Development, the United Nations Development Program and the International Organization for Migration launched the “Tamkeen Initiative” to implement the International Recruitment Integrity System to promote ethical recruitment of migrant workers.
The PAM operated a shelter for abused domestic workers. As of November according to a government source, the shelter had a capacity of 500 and housed 461 female domestic workers, victims of abuses or persons who were otherwise unwilling to continue to work for their employers and preferred to leave the country.
A government-owned recruiting company designed to mitigate abuses against domestic workers (“Al-Durra”) 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. Al-Durra’s services included worker insurance, a 24/7 abuse hotline, and follow-up on allegations of labor rights violations. As of November the company announced that it helped bring into the country 205 domestic workers from the Philippines, 354 from India, 978 from Sri Lanka and four from Burkina Faso. 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 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 August a female citizen was detained for torturing an elderly Sri Lankan maid by burning various parts of her body. Her three underage sons were also involved. Security forces freed the Sri Lankan migrant woman and transferred her to the Sri Lankan embassy to complete legal procedures. The case was pending as of November. In September the government announced it was opening an investigation into the death and alleged torture of a separate Sri Lankan domestic worker. The sponsor and his wife were under investigation.
In January the Philippines imposed a full ban on new workers bound to the country after the death of Filipina domestic worker Jeanelyn Villavende. The Philippine government noted that an autopsy showed Villavende was raped and beaten before she died at the hands of her employers in December. The Public Prosecutor detained because of her death a couple who had employed Villavende and referred the case to the Criminal Court on charges of premeditated murder, which carries the death sentence. The defendants denied the charges in a February court appearance. The government lifted the worker ban in February after coming to agreement over a standardized work contract that gave additional protections to workers. On December 30, the wife was sentenced to death by the Criminal Court and the husband was sentenced to four years for attempting to cover up the crime. Under the law, all death sentences are automatically reviewed by the Appeals Court.
Numerous media reports highlighted the problem of residence permit or visa trading, wherein companies and recruitment agencies collude to “sell” visas fraudulently to prospective workers. Often the jobs and companies attached to these visas do not exist, and workers are vulnerable to exploitation in the black market where they are forced to earn a living and repay the cost of their residence visa. Arrests of traffickers and illegal labor rings occurred almost weekly. In July the Minister of Social Affairs and Minister of State for Economic Affairs announced that the ministry had suspended the licenses of 2,207 companies and institutions in connection with visa trading. In August the PAM stated it had referred more than 400 companies to the Public Prosecutor over visa trading allegations since the beginning of the pandemic. Since workers cannot freely change jobs, many were unwilling to leave their initial job, even if their position existed only “on paper,” or due to low wages, wage nonpayment, or unacceptable working conditions. Workers who left their employers due to abusive treatment, nonpayment of wages or other practices associated with visa trading risked falling into illegal residency status, being accused of “absconding,” and being deported.
The COVID-19 pandemic brought increased public and press attention to visa trading. Civil society groups, press outlets, and MPs called for the government to increase its efforts to protect victims and punish traders and their enablers. In April and May, the Ministry of Interior announced numerous visa-trading investigations into government officials and those with government ties.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.