SAUDI ARABIA: Tier 2

The Government of Saudi Arabia does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking but is making significant efforts to do so. The government demonstrated overall increasing efforts compared to the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Saudi Arabia was upgraded to Tier 2. These efforts included reporting more investigations, prosecutions, and convictions overall, particularly for forced labor; implementing its national referral mechanism (NRM); and providing robust training on the mechanism, identification, and referral procedures across all government agencies. The government also reported disaggregated victim identification and referral data for the first time, provided greater access to interpretation and legal services for victims, and coordinated with NGOs for the first time to provide protection services to victims. The government also held its largest awareness campaign and utilized existing mechanisms to refer labor violations that exhibited trafficking indicators for criminal investigation and prosecution. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. It continued to fine, jail, and/or deport migrant workers for prostitution or immigration violations, many of whom may have been unidentified trafficking victims. In addition, officials regularly misclassified potential trafficking crimes as administrative labor law violations or failed to refer such cases for criminal investigation. While the sponsorship system remained in place during the reporting period, in March 2021, the government began to implement labor reforms, allowing all expatriate workers covered under the Labor Law—with the exclusion of domestic workers—to obtain an exit and re-entry visa, obtain final exit visas, or change employers without an employer’s permission at the conclusion of their contract or after one year. These reforms may remove some aspects of employers’ unilateral control over the covered workers that could be used to create conditions of forced labor.

Continue to investigate as potential trafficking crimes (not just as administrative issues) indicators of trafficking such as passport retention, withholding of wages, labor violations, and complaints of abuse. • Undertake serious efforts to prevent penalization of trafficking victims by proactively screening for trafficking among those arrested for immigration violations, prostitution, or those who flee abusive employers and face countercharges and deportation. • Ensure border guards and police are adequately trained to proactively identify potential victims and disseminate new screening protocols widely across the Kingdom. • Regularly use and train officials on the national referral mechanism to ensure victims among vulnerable populations, including domestic workers, illegal foreign workers, deportees, and persons in commercial sex, receive proper care and are not wrongfully penalized. • Expand implementation of electronic contracts so that workers can utilize the new labor reforms and include domestic workers in these reforms. • Amend the anti-trafficking law to remove sentencing provisions that allow fines in lieu of imprisonment for sex trafficking offenses. • Continue to increase efforts to prosecute and convict traffickers, and sentence convicted traffickers to significant prison terms under the anti-trafficking law. • Pursue criminal investigations against all officials allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes. • Expand usage of the specialized Public Prosecutor’s Office (PPO) sub-units to detect potential trafficking cases across the country. • Institute regular trainings for government officials on identifying cases of both labor and sex trafficking and differentiating between forced labor and labor-related crimes.

The government increased law enforcement efforts. The 2009 anti-trafficking law criminalized sex trafficking and labor trafficking and prescribed punishments of up to 15 years’ imprisonment, a fine of up to 1 million Saudi Arabian riyal (SAR) ($266,670), or both; penalties increased under aggravating circumstances, including trafficking committed by an organized criminal group or against a woman, child, or person with disabilities. These penalties were sufficiently stringent; however, by allowing for a fine in lieu of imprisonment, the penalties for sex trafficking were not commensurate with those prescribed for other serious crimes such as kidnapping, false imprisonment, or sexual abuse. The Council of Ministers’ Decision 166 prohibited withholding workers’ passports as a lesser criminal offense, punishable by fines. During the reporting period, the government established a committee advised by an international organization and composed of the Ministry of Interior (MOI), Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), Ministry of Justice (MOJ), the PPO, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (MHRSD), and the Saudi Human Rights Commission (HRC) to consider amendments to the 2009 anti-trafficking law. The government did not draft an amendment during the reporting period.

As in the previous reporting period, officials disaggregated and shared law enforcement data by the type of trafficking and comprehensive case specifics, including reporting the number of traffickers sentenced and the penalties prescribed. While several government entities disclosed their respective law enforcement datasets, the disparate, contradictory totals suggested limited interagency coordination. During the reporting period, the MOI reported investigating 610 potential trafficking cases, the PPO reported investigating 106 cases, and the MOJ reported investigating 59 potential trafficking cases, totaling 775 cases involving 1,111 alleged traffickers. Of these 775 cases, 570 were for forced labor, four for child sex trafficking, and 35 for sex trafficking, with the remainder for forced begging and “slavery-like practices.” During the previous reporting period, the government investigated 320 potential trafficking cases. During the current reporting period, the government reported prosecuting 127 individuals in 52 cases; it did not report how many cases and individuals it prosecuted in the previous reporting period. Of the 52 cases prosecuted, the government reported convicting 62 defendants under the anti-trafficking law, compared with convicting 46 defendants in the previous year. The government reported it acquitted an unknown number of traffickers in 22 cases, suspended proceedings for an unknown number of traffickers in one case, and three cases of forced labor involving an unknown number of traffickers remained in the prosecution stage at the close of the reporting period. Of these 62 defendants convicted, 38 were for forced labor, 11 for sex trafficking, six for forced begging, and seven for “slavery-like practices.” The government reported it sentenced all convicted traffickers to terms of imprisonment ranging from three months to six years and two months (with the majority receiving one year or more), plus fines, travel bans, and confiscation of personal assets used to facilitate each crime. In another reported case, courts sentenced a Saudi male to one year imprisonment and a 10,000 SAR fine ($2,670) for recruiting several domestic workers from their employer’s homes and forcing them to work in domestic servitude. Additionally, the courts sentenced two Indian males to three years’ imprisonment each for forcing a woman into commercial sex through threats of physical abuse. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking crimes; however, corruption and official complicity in trafficking crimes remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year.

The government reported launching several initiatives during the reporting period to continue to investigate, prosecute, and convict criminal cases, including cases of trafficking, through digital platforms. The government launched electronic litigation services through its Najiz platform. The MOJ reported receiving 7,000 written pleadings, held more than 6,000 virtual hearings, and issued more than 2,200 judgments. It also launched tele-trials, allowing trials to be held remotely in five courts and five prisons across the Kingdom; it held 1,443 remote trials during the reporting period, including for an unknown number of trafficking cases. Government officials in many instances continued to misclassify trafficking cases as administrative immigration or labor law violations without routinely undertaking criminal investigations or prosecutions against traffickers. The PPO maintained 107 trafficking-specific, operational investigative sub-units within PPO branch offices (two in Riyadh and the remainder in the capital of each province) to identify potential trafficking cases among existing criminal cases. The PPO continued to have a panel of five human trafficking experts who informed anti-trafficking policy and served as resources at the PPO headquarters and for circuit offices. Throughout the reporting period, the Kingdom’s human trafficking entities conducted 29 anti-trafficking trainings, some in close partnership with two international organizations and others conducted solely by MHRSD and MOI; the trainings reached more than 2,424 private and public sector representatives. The programs covered topics such as victim identification and referral, trafficking data management, inspection procedures, and investigative processes for trafficking crimes. In partnership with an international organization, the government disseminated information packets and held six workshops to improve overall trafficking case management approaches, including case research, investigation, evidence-collection, and inspection techniques, all aimed at developing the capabilities of criminal and labor courts, specialized PPO investigators, and criminal investigation officers from various sectors of the MOI on advanced criminal investigation methods and mechanisms for prosecuting defendants in trafficking cases.

The government increased efforts to protect trafficking victims. During the reporting period, the government identified and referred 1,255 trafficking victims to government-run shelters, a decrease compared with 1,457 trafficking victims it identified and referred to care during the previous year. For the first time, the government provided disaggregated victim identification data by type of trafficking—of the 1,255 identified victims, 906 were forced labor victims, mostly in the domestic work and industrial sectors, while the remainder included 46 sex trafficking victims, 18 victims of enslavement, 218 victims of forced begging, nine victims of child trafficking, and 54 victims of “slavery-like practices.” Seventy-three victims were children. The victims were nationals of Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, Nigeria, Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Turkey, Uganda, Vietnam, and Yemen.

During the reporting period, the government, in collaboration with two international organizations, facilitated robust training of relevant government entities on the NRM launched at the end of the previous reporting period, as well as best practices on victim identification and referral. The training reached 1,331 people, including MHSRD officials, shelter staff, call center and hotline staff, HRC branch officials, Ministry of Health (MOH) and Ministry of Education (MOE) officials, members of the Domestic Workers Dispute Resolution Committee, representatives from 29 recruitment agencies, and members of charity organizations in the Kingdom. Following the dissemination of the hard-copy NRM to front-line officials, government agencies, NGOs, civil society, and other stakeholders during 2020, the government began development of an electronic version of the NRM to better coordinate agencies and track and input data on identification and referrals in real-time; however, it had not implemented the electronic NRM by the end of the reporting period due to limitations imposed by the pandemic. The government continued to publish information pertaining to trafficking indicators on relevant government websites and distributed leaflets with similar material to all official stakeholders to ensure potential victims could be identified and referred to protective services according to the NRM.

MHRSD remained responsible for the operation of shelters across the country for vulnerable populations and abuse victims, and the entity disclosed the government allocated approximately 25 million SAR ($6.7 million) to specifically support trafficking victims during the year. MHRSD operated shelters for child victims of forced begging in Mecca, Jeddah, Dammam, Medina, Qassim, and Abha, in addition to welfare centers for vulnerable female domestic workers and trafficking victims in 13 locations throughout the Kingdom. Each shelter provided accommodation, social services, health care, psychological counseling, education, and legal assistance. The government offered these services to all victims it identified during the reporting period. Diplomats from labor-source countries had regular access to their nationals residing in government-run shelters and reported conditions and quality of services in the shelters varied slightly across the Kingdom but were overall satisfactory and safe. Some embassies and consulates—including those of Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Uganda—also operated shelters for their respective nationals. Foreign diplomats noted that Saudi officials frequently left potential trafficking victims at their respective embassies rather than referring them to Saudi shelters and noted that Saudi government shelters accepted only female domestic workers, not men or women from other employment sectors. The government reported that it planned to gradually shift shelter responsibilities to NGOs and open a dedicated trafficking shelter for all potential victims of trafficking in coordination with NGOs, although the opening of the shelter was delayed due to the pandemic. In an effort to identify entities that could support this new shelter, the government, in cooperation with an international organization, conducted a workshop with 71 representatives of civil society organizations in January 2021. During the reporting period, some embassies of labor-source countries reported that the government shelters stopped accepting new victims since the pandemic began. However, for the first time, the government reported coordinating with various NGOs to provide protection services to potential trafficking victims during the year as a result of limited capacity of government shelters to take victim referrals due to COVID-19 testing requirements, suspension of flights to repatriate victims already sheltered, and compliance with social distancing requirements. The government reported it launched a community fund during the reporting year to support the non-profit sector in supporting those affected by the pandemic; individuals and institutions made donations so NGOs could implement initiatives and provide support to vulnerable communities, including the provision of protection services to potential trafficking victims. The government reported 19 additional potential trafficking victims received support from NGOs during the reporting period.

The Labor Law does not apply to domestic workers; therefore, its protections do not extend to such workers. However, Decision No.310/1434 of 2013 granted some protections for this population through regulations on working hours, rest periods, annual leave, end of service benefits, written employment contracts, and payment of wages on a monthly basis. Under this decision, domestic workers included both male and female household workers, private drivers, gardeners, and security guards. International NGOs continued to express concern that because the Labor Law did not protect these workers, the law did not explicitly prohibit charging recruitment fees to workers or confiscating a domestic worker’s passport. Additionally, the law did not require compensation for overtime, nor did it limit the workday to eight hours (domestic workers could work up to 15 hours a day including breaks). The law also included vague provisions on suitable accommodation, paid sick leave, and healthcare. NGOs reported domestic workers could experience non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workloads, and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Domestic workers could change employers with sponsor permission anytime and without sponsor permission after two years of employment; a transfer of sponsorship could be made at any time without the employer’s permission in several circumstances, including if the employer failed to pay the salary of the worker for three consecutive months, failed to obtain a residency permit or renew an expired permit, abused the worker, or filed a false absconding charge against the worker. However, domestic workers continued to require sponsor permission to receive an exit permit, and the newest reforms to the sponsorship system that provided expatriate workers covered under the Labor Law the ability to change employers and leave the country permanently or leave and re-enter without employer approval did not apply to domestic workers.

There were persistent complaints among migrant workers of unpaid wages, passport retention, physical or sexual abuse, or substandard working conditions, all of which were trafficking indicators. As in previous years, the government often deported migrant workers without proactively screening for signs of trafficking during the reporting period. On average, it deported 700-800 Ethiopian laborers per week, according to Ethiopian officials familiar with the deportations. Reasons for deportations included alleged violations of work, residence, and entry rules. In October 2020, several prominent NGOs and media outlets reported that tens of thousands of Ethiopians, Yemenis, and other migrants had been detained in overcrowded and unsanitary immigration detention facilities following the pandemic-related ban of flights to several labor-source countries, including Ethiopia. Reports indicated that some of the detained migrants arrived from Yemen, pushed out by Houthi attacks, and that others were undocumented migrants working illegally in Saudi Arabia; however, a few migrants with valid residency permits were also detained. In September 2020, labor-source countries, including Ethiopia, began accepting return flights, but the government did not report if it screened those deported or repatriated for trafficking indicators before departing. In an effort to increase capacity to screen for potential trafficking victims, the PPO directed all its branches and law enforcement agencies to cease deportation of any potential trafficking victims or anyone involved in an active trafficking case without the PPO’s prior approval. Additionally, during the reporting period, the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT) formed a subcommittee of MOI, MHRSD, PPO, and HRC staff to ensure proper procedures for screening and identifying potential victims of trafficking were in place at detention centers; however, the government did not report any outcomes from this subcommittee at the close of the reporting period or whether authorities identified any trafficking victims as a result. The government instructed each circuit court to screen defendants for potential trafficking indicators and to drop pending charges against identified trafficking victims. However, diplomats from several labor-source countries reported Saudi authorities regularly detained, fined, and/or jailed their nationals, including some unidentified trafficking victims, for immigration violations as a result of having been subjected to forced labor or sex trafficking. Furthermore, since the government did not routinely screen for potential trafficking indicators among vulnerable populations and police frequently arrested and/or deported undocumented migrant workers, authorities likely arrested and deported unidentified victims during the year.

The government extended to all identified trafficking victims the option of remaining in the country—either in a shelter or via transfer to a new employer—during judicial proceedings, or alternatively an immediate exit visa; these benefits did not require a successful prosecution or cooperation with law enforcement personnel. However, in previous reporting periods, diplomatic representatives from labor-source countries reported trafficking victims were not permitted to seek employment while residing in government-run shelters. In October 2020, the MHRSD began implementation of a new policy, issued under Circular No.65551, which granted work permits and temporary residence to workers identified as potential trafficking victims so they could work, if they chose, while their labor dispute or criminal case was adjudicated; this included potential trafficking victims whose work permits had expired. The government reported that it developed this specific policy after soliciting input from potential trafficking victims during the year and that a potential victim could receive this benefit regardless of whether they resided in the shelter; however, it did not report how many work permits or temporary residence it granted to potential trafficking victims. The government reported it allowed victims to submit testimony in written form or remotely via recording as they preferred, and it ensured victims’ identities remained confidential. In contrast, diplomats from several labor-source countries reported the government advised some victims to testify in person. The government reported that a potential victim’s testimony was only taken if the potential victim provided informed consent, in adherence with the NRM. In June 2020, the PPO issued Circular No.63677 that stressed no potential victim of trafficking should be repatriated without their testimony being taken first (if they provided informed consent), as unreliable flight schedules due to the pandemic caused some potential victims to depart the country before their statement could be submitted. The law entitled trafficking victims to legal assistance, security protection, translation services, and the right to immediate repatriation or continued residence in country until resolution of the case, in addition to medical and psychological care, shelter, and rehabilitation. In regard to legal assistance, the government reported that victims were provided with seven lawyers in 16 trafficking cases, four counsels in 18 cases, and received legal guidance from a law firm in one case during the reporting period. In November 2020, the government activated the Unified Translation Center Initiative to provide translation services to the courts and judicial facilities to protect the rights of non-Arabic speaking victims in court proceedings. The initiative, which had 22 interpreters that covered 20 languages, handled approximately 800 cases each month during the reporting period, including an unknown number of trafficking cases. Officials permitted victims to obtain restitution directly from the government and/or by filing civil suits against traffickers; however, such settlements rarely took place through the established system and reportedly generally occurred outside of civil court proceedings through government-supported mediation efforts. These proceedings often did not entail criminal prosecution, and officials preferred to reimburse back-wages informally and/or assist in repatriating the victims, neither of which was a victim-centered or trauma-informed practice.

The government demonstrated increased efforts to prevent trafficking, including significant steps to reform its sponsorship system, allowing expatriate workers covered under the Labor Law to obtain an exit and re-entry visa, obtain final exit visas, or change employers at the conclusion of their contract or after one year without an employer’s permission, therefore lessening workers’ vulnerability to forced labor. It demonstrated improved progress on implementation of its 2017-2020 national action plan (NAP) to combat trafficking that focused on monitoring, prevention, building government capacity, inter-ministerial coordination, effective law enforcement, and provision of protective services for victims. The NCCHT reported meeting approximately every two weeks throughout the reporting period; it created a subcommittee to draft the next iteration of the NAP to be published in 2021. The committee actively increased its engagement with civil society organizations through workshops and training, created a subcommittee to review the anti-trafficking law, and established an executive arm of the committee responsible for trafficking case processing and management and ensuring effective application of the NRM—which included points of contacts from each agency represented on the committee, as well as the MOH, the Saudi Red Crescent Society, the MOE, the Saudi Bar Association, and the General Organization for Technical and Vocational training. Additionally, the government renewed its anti-trafficking partnership with the IOM in March 2021 and held a roundtable with two international organizations and 13 embassies, including labor-source countries, to discuss the Kingdom’s recent changes to the labor law and to receive feedback on ways to improve its trafficking response. In October 2020, the Saudi government joined the second annual Anti-Trafficking Forum in the Middle East, hosted by the United Arab Emirates.

The government continued to operate and utilize its online domestic labor portal known as Musaned, meaning “support” in Arabic. This system consisted of a website and smartphone application that allowed potential employees in various sectors and individual employers to verify the license of a recruitment agency, review materials on employee and employer rights and responsibilities (in Arabic and English only), complete and electronically sign contracts, and request a visa. The system intended to eliminate unregulated brokers, increase transparency and accountability of recruitment agencies and work contracts, and reduce the risk of forced labor. It also included a complaints resolution mechanism and associated resources. Musaned also served as a tool for authenticating contracts for domestic workers. Diplomats from multiple labor-source countries reported Musaned enhanced the ability of embassies to monitor newly arrived nationals. However, in some cases, embassies found some information entered in the platform, such as address of residence and place of work, was either missing or incorrect following a transfer, impeding efforts to track reported victims of abuse and trafficking. Finally, MHRSD continued a pilot program called Weddi (“friendly” in Arabic), which was an alternative dispute resolution mechanism whereby a worker could electronically submit a complaint and supporting documentation. If either the employee or employer rejected the proposed resolution via arbitration, officials would automatically transfer the case to the MOJ labor courts for administrative settlement.

Pursuant to a ministerial circular promulgated in September 2019, authorities continued to implement a mechanism to electronically verify work contracts to prevent contract switching and fraudulent documentation. The initiative aimed to obligate all private sector companies to sign contracts with their employees enabling MHRSD to electronically account for, authenticate, and monitor all employment contracts in the private sector. During the reporting period, the MHSRD further developed this electronic contract program into a Single Electronic Contract to ensure compliance with labor laws through provisions on contract data, type of work, salary, duration of contract, working hours, weekends and annual leave, making the system mandatory for all private sector companies in November 2020. Each contract was verified by both the employer and employee and filed through the Mudad electronic platform. It also granted employees access to their contract and ensured MHSRD could impose sanctions on establishments that contravened the terms contained therein. The e-contract could also be used in a potential labor dispute as an enforceable deed to protect the rights of the employee. Representatives from labor-source countries reported the e-contact was a helpful tool that enhanced transparency and accountability for their nationals who raised labor disputes against an employer during the reporting year. The government reported that if an employer did not have an e-contract on file that an employee could approve electronically, the employer could be fined up to 3,000 SAR ($800), multiplied by the number of employees at the company. At the end of the reporting period, MHSRD reported 5,000,000 ratified contracts existed within the Mudad system, out of a total of 9,000,000 employee contracts in the Kingdom.

During the reporting period, the government continued to expand usage of its Wage Protection System (WPS), which required employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer via a Saudi bank, thereby permitting the government to track disbursements and prevent non- or delayed payment of wages—a key forced labor indicator prominent across the Kingdom. In December 2020, the government extended the WPS to require 100 percent of private sector companies to register, including those with just one employee. The government reported it also used the Mudad platform to track WPS compliance in real-time, and through this electronic platform, a notification of payment was sent to the employee. The government reported that in instances where employers withheld wages from the employee, the system required the employer to explain the reason for non-payment; the explanation would be sent to the employee for approval. If approval was not given, the MHSRD reported it would investigate the employer and screen for other potential trafficking indicators. This system became mandatory during the reporting period and continued to review payrolls and impose penalties for any firm that failed to maintain at least 80 percent compliance on a monthly basis, resulting in suspension of government services and recruitment privileges. Authorities penalized companies for less than 80 percent compliance and/or for failing to submit monthly WPS data. The government reported a 2020 compliance rate of 68.33 percent for companies with 30 employees or more, and a compliance rate of 13 percent for companies with 11-29 employees. In total, the government reported 5,659 violations of companies for non-compliance in both the WPS and e-contract system. Although the WPS was not available for domestic workers, the government continued to mandate individual employers of domestic labor issue prepaid payroll or salary cards as soon as the domestic worker arrived in the Kingdom to ensure a legal working relationship between employer and employee and safeguard employees’ prescribed wages.

In the previous reporting period, the government removed the requirement for employer approval to receive a final exit visa for commercial or domestic workers whose sponsors failed to pay required fees, renew a worker’s status, or were absent; however, the majority of workers continued to need employer permission to depart the country or change sponsors for the majority of the reporting period, rendering them at greater risk of forced labor. As part of a larger suite of labor reforms announced by the MHRSD in November 2020 through Ministerial Resolution No.51848/1442, which the government began to implement in March 2021, private sector workers no longer needed their employer’s permission to travel abroad (obtain an exit and re-entry visa), obtain final exit visas, or change employers at the conclusion of their contract or after one year; this provided increased freedom of movement and lessened the risks of forced labor for seven million private sector workers in the Kingdom. Sources reported the government intended to use both the Abshir and Qiwa electronic applications to automate the process for transferring employment, notifying an employer of an employee’s departure and re-entry, and providing an employee a final exit visa. Several NGOs expressed concern these initial reforms did not include the 3.7 million domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia, a group highly vulnerable to abuse. The government reported domestic workers would be added to the reforms at an unspecified later date. NGOs also reported concerns that although the reforms were a step in the right direction, the sponsorship system would continue to persist as long as both the employee’s work and residence visas were tied to an employer. Additionally, these organizations noted the reforms did not abolish the exit permit entirely—a worker must still submit a request to MHRSD for an exit permit, and the ministry will, in turn, notify the employer electronically of their worker’s departure. The employer had ten days to lodge an inquiry into the worker’s exit permit request, and an employer’s inquiry could potentially be used to deny the worker an exit permit.

The government made efforts to prevent vulnerability to exploitation and potential trafficking for migrant workers who experienced job loss, expired visas, and loss of wages related to the pandemic. The MHSRD reported all work permits for migrant workers that expired between March 18 and June 30 were automatically extended for three months, benefitting more than 1.5 million workers; the government extended this initiative several times during the reporting period to address vulnerabilities of workers who lost residency status due to expired permits as part of pandemic response measures. Additionally, the government allowed laborers to temporarily work for other employers through the Ajeer program, which created more jobs for migrant workers whose employers could not afford to employ them, benefitting 7,115 workers. The government also reported extending the validity of all re-entry visas for migrant workers stranded abroad due to the suspension of international flights and whose visas expired while abroad; this initiative benefitted nearly seven million workers during the reporting period. To regulate the employer-employee relationship at the onset of the pandemic, the government invoked Article 41 of the labor law in April 2020, allowing employers and employees to agree to reduced salaries and work hours or paid annual leave as part of their entitlement to avoid firing employees and rendering them more vulnerable to trafficking due to an irregular status. However, this policy also allowed employers to implement a period of unpaid leave with employee consent, which may have put some workers at greater risk of exploitation.

During the reporting period, the NCCHT launched Twitter accounts in both Arabic and English to raise awareness on trafficking crimes and consistently monitored the online traffic each account received throughout the year. In its largest awareness-raising campaign ever, the NCCHT and HRC jointly launched a week-long #UnitedAgainstTrafficking campaign in conjunction with World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, 2020. The HRC published and disseminated an educational video describing trafficking in persons to the general public and activated the hashtag #UnitedAgainstTrafficking_KSA through the HRC’s English and Arabic social media accounts. Numerous social media influencers and high-level government officials amplified the campaign through their own accounts. The PPO, Border Guard, and Passport Authorities published videos related to the campaign, and numerous other government bodies and officials amplified the message, including Saudi embassies overseas. In addition to social media, the campaign was featured on traditional media as well as through art exhibits from local artists. The government also sent text messages to 40 million mobile phones to raise awareness of the dangers posed by trafficking and the need for all to combat the crime. In an effort to raise awareness on the Labor Reform Initiative and associated reforms to the sponsorship system, the government published videos and infographics in multiple languages and informational service guides to ensure targeted groups and the public received adequate information on the reforms. Additionally, to socialize the reforms with labor-source countries, companies and recruitment agencies, and other stakeholders, the government hosted informational workshops in various regions, including Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Eastern province, which were attended by at least 8,000 companies and recruiting agencies, and held awareness and informational meetings at the Saudi Chamber of Commerce in Mecca, Taif, and Medina. Finally, the government held two workshops in collaboration with more than 30 embassies of labor-source countries on leveraging services offered through the new reforms, such as applications for residency permits or transfer requests for workers to be requested through Abshir and Qiwa, as noted above. Additionally, MHRSD officials launched a program during the reporting period to send labor attachés to key labor-source countries to enhance coordination on suspected trafficking cases and ensure workers from labor-source countries were adequately informed of their rights before arriving in Saudi Arabia. The government reported the first Saudi representative arrived in Philippines in September 2020, with six additional attachés planned for Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.

Officials operated a 24-hour call center that received calls in nine major labor-source country languages: Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, English, Hindi, Indonesian, Malay, Tagalog, and Urdu. The call center received approximately 280 calls per day on average. The MHRSD complaint hotline number was also included in pamphlets received by all expatriate workers who entered the Kingdom during the year. The government reported it identified 374 potential trafficking cases via its hotline and referred 14 of those cases to the MOI for further investigation during the reporting period. The MOI’s crime reporting app, Koolna (“All of Us”), added a feature that allowed users to report trafficking crimes as a standalone option in November 2020. In March 2020, the HRC began piloting a multilingual call center that received calls, texts, and Whatsapp messages and operated 24 hours and seven days a week, equipped with a specific trafficking option and staffed with operators trained on identifying potential trafficking cases. The call center could receive calls in English and Arabic; the government reported that additional languages would be added in 2021. Additionally, the NCCHT established a reception and management group for trafficking-related complaints, and the committee reported receiving an unknown number of cases through an email address during 2020. The government reported that once a case was received, the group coordinated with the HRC and other agencies to refer the case for further processing. Some workers and labor-source country officials reported impracticalities and technical difficulties getting through to operators using this phone line, citing poorly trained and under-resourced staff.

The government sought to eliminate vulnerabilities in labor recruitment through its deployment of labor inspectors and HRC officials—400 of whom specialized in trafficking crimes—who conducted 843,419 field visits to monitor the application of employment and recruitment laws. The government reported 17 potential trafficking cases were identified during these inspections and referred to the MOI for further investigation. During the reporting period, diplomatic representatives from several countries reported an improvement in Saudi government oversight over labor recruitment and the proper implementation of labor contracts. Although authorities instructed labor inspectors to ascertain, through field inspections and an understanding that withholding employees’ passports, residency permit, or personal/family insurance cards was indicative of trafficking, among other investigative steps to safeguard employees against the crime, the government did not report investigating or referring for criminal prosecution any passport retention crimes. The government circulated a questionnaire for labor inspectors to complete for situations where they suspected a trafficking crime; inspectors sent the forms to the MHRSD’s anti-trafficking department. The HRC Secretariat reported receiving 102 general complaints from workers during the reporting period; nine of those complaints were for passport confiscation, which the HRC referred to the MHRSD, which then referred the complaints to the MOI and PPO for further investigation. The MHRSD reported processing 670 complaints filed through its Domestic Labor Dispute Committee and Trafficking Hotline Program and referred an unknown number of suspected trafficking cases to the MOI and PPO for further investigation. In addition, the MHRSD, in collaboration with the MOJ, launched a remote amicable resolution initiative to ensure workers and employers could complete procedures while maintaining health and safety precautions due to the pandemic; 17,000 workers benefitted from this remote option. The government had several bilateral labor agreements with primary labor-source countries, including Ethiopia and Indonesia, which set minimum wage standards and regulated protections and benefits for laborers, such as work hours, mandatory time off, and overarching work conditions. The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government provided anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel.

As reported over the past five years, human traffickers exploit domestic and foreign victims in Saudi Arabia. Adults— primarily from South and Southeast Asia and East Africa—voluntarily migrate to Saudi Arabia to work in a variety of sectors, including construction, agriculture, and domestic service. Many of these low-skilled laborers are employed in substandard conditions that heighten their risk of forced labor. Some traffickers or unscrupulous labor brokers illegally recruit migrants to work in Saudi Arabia and subsequently force them to work in domestic servitude. Undocumented entry across the Kingdom’s southwestern border serves as a key gateway for vulnerable Yemeni, Ethiopian, and Somali workers, in particular. The Kingdom’s migrant laborer population continued to be the largest group at risk of human trafficking, particularly female domestic workers due to their isolation inside private residences and vulnerability to employer abuse. The pandemic further increased the vulnerability of trafficking among domestic workers, as regional and nationwide curfews created obstacles to reach assistance from police stations, hospitals, or NGOs. Labor- source countries also reported increased work hours and complaints of abuse among domestic workers. The government reported efforts to address migrant workers vulnerability exacerbated by the pandemic, such as job-loss or delayed or non-payment of wages. According to the General Authority for Statistics, there are approximately 13.1 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia; the largest populations during the reporting period were from Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Philippines, Sudan, and Yemen. In previous years, the government prosecuted some foreign citizens who may have been subjected to trafficking or related indicators and sentenced them to death in cases involving murder; however, there were no instances during this reporting period. Non-payment or late payment of wages remain the prominent complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom; this concern was further exacerbated during the reporting period by the pandemic, as the unemployment rate among foreign workers increased significantly and heightened this group’s vulnerability to trafficking. Instances of employers withholding workers’ passports also remains a significant problem. Trafficking perpetrators include businesses of all sizes, private families, recruitment agencies in both Saudi Arabia and labor-source countries, gangs, and organized criminal elements, to include third-country nationals. Chinese nationals working in Saudi Arabia may have been forced to work on projects managed by state-owned enterprises, and Cuban nationals working in Saudi Arabia may have been forced to work by the Cuban government.

Due to Saudi Arabia’s requirement, under its sponsorship system, for foreign workers to obtain permission for an exit visa from their employers to be able to legally depart the country, some laborers are forced to work beyond their contract term because their Saudi employers refuse to grant exit permission or pay the exit fee required by Saudi law. In 2019, The government took initial steps to reform this system and reduce worker liability; however, during the reporting period, in a purported move to provide workers greater freedom, the government announced the Labor Reform Initiative, implemented in March 2021, which provides private sector workers the ability to change employers, obtain exit and re-entry visas, and obtain exit visas at the end of their contract or after one year, without the previous employer’s permission. However, this initiative does not benefit domestic workers, continuing to place this vulnerable group at higher risk of trafficking. Although most migrant workers sign contracts delineating their rights, some report work conditions substantially differ from those outlined in their contracts. Other workers never see their work contracts, heightening their risk of forced labor and debt-based coercion. Additionally, some migrant workers voluntarily enter into illegal arrangements where they seek freelance work while concurrently paying a Saudi national to sponsor their initial residency permit, thereby becoming vulnerable to extortion and debt-based coercion by their sponsors. Some migrants from Yemen and the Horn of Africa who enter Saudi Arabia illegally via the Yemeni border— involuntarily or through consented smuggling— may be trafficking victims. Previous reports alleged some Saudi citizens engaged in sex tourism abroad, where they engaged in temporary or seasonal nonbinding “marriages,” which included payment for short-term sexual access to children and adults whom the purchaser then abandoned. In Saudi Arabia, begging by women and children remains a problem and a significant vulnerability to forced labor with reported upticks in forced begging during the holy month of Ramadan and the Muslim pilgrimages of Hajj and Umrah. The child beggar population is composed primarily of unaccompanied migrant children, most heavily from Yemen and Ethiopia, but approximately five percent are Saudi national children of unknown parents. Traffickers compel some of these women and children to work as part of organized begging rings.

As the leader of a multi-nation coalition that commenced military operations against Houthi rebel forces in Yemen in 2015, Saudi Arabia paid, materially supported, trained, and commanded Sudan’s Rapid Support Force (RSF). Media alleged in a previous reporting period that Sudanese officers associated with RSF took bribes from families to permit children to serve as combatants in Yemen. Saudi Arabian officers allegedly trained and exercised tactical control over some RSF units. Past reporting claimed that in some instances Saudi Arabia funded Yemeni militias that hired children in combatant roles, and that the Saudi Arabian government had provided salaries, uniforms, weapons, and training to Sudanese combatants (which included children aged 14-17 years old) in Yemen.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future