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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 with the previous reporting period, considering the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on its anti-trafficking capacity; therefore Saudi Arabia remained on Tier 2. These efforts included drafting and approving a 2021-2023 National Action Plan (NAP) in coordination with international organizations and actively revising and updating National Referral Mechanism (NRM) guidelines and victim assistance policies following assessments of trafficking trends and lessons learned from a high-profile case involving domestic workers. The government continued to utilize existing mechanisms to refer cases of labor violations exhibiting trafficking indicators for criminal investigation and prosecution, and it supported the establishment of an NGO to specialize in combating trafficking. It also continued to implement its most recent visa sponsorship system reforms, first implemented in March 2021, and worked to address employers’ retaliatory actions that could prevent workers’ from exercising their rights under the reforms. However, the government did not meet the minimum standards in several key areas. Domestic workers remained excluded from labor law protections and the most recent sponsorship reforms, which perpetuated the high risk of this population to forced labor. The government also identified and referred to care significantly fewer trafficking victims and did not consistently screen vulnerable populations for trafficking indicators, which may have resulted in the penalization of some victims for unlawful acts traffickers compelled them to commit, such as immigration or “prostitution” violations, and the deportation of other unidentified victims, some to countries where they faced persecution. Finally, authorities did not consistently seek significant sentences, with prison terms of one year or more, for all convicted traffickers, especially Saudi Arabian nationals; this undercut efforts to hold traffickers accountable, weakened deterrence, and increased potential security and safety concerns.

PRIORITIZED RECOMMENDATIONS:

  • Provide protections to domestic workers that are equal to those private sector workers receive under the labor law and recent labor reforms to ensure domestic workers’ freedom to change jobs or obtain an exit visa without employer consent.
  • Undertake serious efforts to prevent penalization of trafficking victims by proactively screening for trafficking among those arrested for immigration violations or commercial sex crimes or those who flee abusive employers and face countercharges and deportation.
  • Regularly use and train officials on the NRM to ensure victims among vulnerable populations, including domestic workers, undocumented foreign workers, deportees, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Cuban overseas workers, including medical professionals and persons in commercial sex, receive proper care and are not wrongfully penalized.
  • Ensure border guards and police are adequately trained to proactively identify potential victims and continue to improve screening protocols, specifically at detention and deportation centers.
  • Ensure alternatives to deportation for vulnerable migrants to countries where they might face retribution or hardship.
  • Continue to increase efforts to prosecute, convict, and sentence all convicted traffickers to significant prison terms under the anti-trafficking law.
  • Support establishment of NGO-administered specialized trafficking shelter to ensure victims of all types of trafficking receive adequate care.
  • Pursue criminal investigations against all officials allegedly complicit in trafficking crimes, including foreign diplomats posted in Saudi Arabia.
  • Amend the anti-trafficking law to remove sentencing provisions that allow fines in lieu of imprisonment for sex trafficking offenses.
  • Expand implementation of electronic contracts so that workers can utilize the new labor reforms and include or develop similar initiatives for domestic workers.
  • 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.
  • Institute regular trainings for government officials on identifying cases of both labor and sex trafficking and differentiating between forced labor and labor-related crimes.

PROSECUTION

The government maintained 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 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. During the previous 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 Public Prosecutors Office (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. In 2021, the committee completed a review of seven suggested amendments to the law, which included penalties that combined imprisonment and fines for convicted traffickers and criminalization of personal document confiscation, such as passports. The amendments remained under review by the Council of Ministers at the close of the reporting period.

For the first time, the government reported comprehensive data on its law enforcement efforts, suggesting increased interagency coordination, compared even with recent years where the government newly reported disaggregated data. During the reporting period, the government investigated 346 potential trafficking cases, involving 377 alleged traffickers. Of the 377 individuals investigated, 18 were for sex trafficking, 162 were for forced labor, and 197 were for forced begging and “slavery-like practices;” this was compared with 775 cases in 2020 and 320 cases in 2019. The government prosecuted 90 individuals in 64 cases, compared with the prosecution of 127 individuals in 52 cases during the previous reporting period. Of the 90 individuals prosecuted, 58 were prosecuted for forced labor crimes, 26 for forced begging and “slavery-like practices,” and six for sex trafficking. Of those prosecuted, courts convicted 64 traffickers under the 2009 law, compared with the conviction of 62 traffickers in 2020 and 46 traffickers in 2019. Courts acquitted 38 traffickers in 15 cases, compared with an unknown number of traffickers in 22 cases in 2020. Of the 64 traffickers convicted, 30 were for forced labor, 19 were for sex trafficking, 13 were for forced begging and two were for “slavery-like practices.” Of the three forced labor cases that remained in the prosecution stage at the close of the previous reporting period, one trafficker was convicted for forced labor crimes in one case, while two individuals involved in two cases were acquitted. Judges sentenced most convicted traffickers to terms of imprisonment ranging from 50 days to 10 years (with 53 percent receiving one year or more), plus fines, travel bans, and confiscation of personal assets used to facilitate each crime; however, one foreign trafficker was solely sentenced a fine of 10,000 Saudi Arabian riyal (SAR) ($2,670). While the government did not report the nationality of each trafficker, of those reported as foreign nationals, most (68 percent) received imprisonment of one year or more. Judges sentenced most Saudi nationals (10) to penalties ranging from fines to eight months’ imprisonment, while one Saudi national received imprisonment of two years and two months. Such lenient sentences undercut efforts to hold traffickers accountable, weakened deterrence, and increased potential security and safety concerns for victims. 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, including through inaction, remained significant concerns, inhibiting law enforcement action during the year. During the year, a U.S-based NGO reported at least 28 Vietnamese domestic workers had been subjected to conditions of forced labor by Vietnamese recruiters and labor export companies, Saudi Arabian employers, and Vietnamese embassy officials in Riyadh, including a Vietnamese labor attaché. Once the victims had been admitted to a shelter in the Kingdom, the Vietnamese labor attaché allegedly removed at least four victims from the shelter and sold them to another employer; victims were reportedly told by the labor attaché they would be repatriated to Vietnam but instead were forced to work for a new employer. Although Saudi authorities intervened and referred the victims to government shelters for care, the Government of Saudi Arabia did not report formally investigating or charging the Vietnamese labor attaché for crimes or requesting he be dismissed from his post; at the close of the reporting period, the labor attaché remained at his post at the Vietnamese embassy in Riyadh.

The government continued using electronic communications—first implemented in 2020 in response to the pandemic through its Najiz platform—to investigate, prosecute, and convict criminal cases, including cases of trafficking, and deliver memoranda, court documents, and judgments digitally. The MOJ was able to receive written pleadings, hold virtual hearings, and issue judgments through this platform. It also continued to hold remote trials in courts and prisons across the Kingdom; it held more than two million remote trials during the reporting period, including 30 trafficking cases. Some government officials continued to misclassify trafficking cases as administrative immigration or labor violations without routinely undertaking criminal investigations or prosecutions against traffickers. The PPO maintained 17 trafficking-specific, operational investigative sub-units within 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 24 anti-trafficking trainings, some in close partnership with two international organizations and others conducted solely by MHRSD and MOI; the trainings reached more than 3,500 private and public sector representatives, civil society representatives, and diplomats from labor-source embassies in the Kingdom. The programs covered topics such as victim identification and referral, specifically for labor inspectors and police; trauma- informed victim protection and assistance; victim-centered interviewing techniques; financial and electronic investigations for trafficking cases; inspection procedures; evidence collection; and criminal investigative procedures during trial for trafficking crimes, specifically for judges. Trainings also focused on the PPO’s role in identifying and interviewing victims in trafficking cases and combating trafficking on online platforms.

PROTECTION

The government demonstrated overall uneven efforts to protect trafficking victims. During the reporting period, the government identified 1,175 potential victims and referred 185 to government shelters for care, a decrease compared with its identification and referrals of 1,255 trafficking victims to government-run shelters in 2020. The government did not report whether the other 990 potential victims it identified during 2021 received any services. NGOs and international organizations identified and referred 105 potential victims to care. Of the 1,175 potential victims identified by the government, 505 were for forced labor, 54 for sex trafficking, and 616 for forced begging and “slavery-like practices.” Of the 105 potential victims identified and referred to care by NGOs and international organizations, all were female foreign nationals, including 43 victims of forced labor, 60 victims of forced begging and “slavery-like practices,” and two victims of sex trafficking. The victims were nationals of Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Burma, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Syria, Uganda, Vietnam, and Yemen.

The government continued to utilize its NRM, first launched in March 2020, to identify potential victims and refer them to care. Following the dissemination of the hard-copy NRM to front-line officials, government agencies, NGOs, civil society, and other stakeholders in 2020, the government developed an electronic version of the NRM to better coordinate agencies and track and input data on identification and referrals in real-time. However, due to the pandemic, the electronic NRM had not yet been launched. In 2021, the government actively updated and amended NRM guidelines based on lessons learned from a high-profile case involving 28 Vietnamese domestic workers who were identified as potential trafficking victims by an NGO and unable to leave their employers’ residences to seek assistance. The government located the potential victims and referred them to care at government shelters, and in a change from previous policy, the National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking (NCCHT) convinced the Ministry of Health (MOH) and Red Crescent Authority to treat all potential trafficking victims (including the 28 domestic workers) as emergency cases to enable victims to receive priority medical treatment. The NCCHT also worked with the Saudi Bar Association to provide Pro bono legal services to the victims and secured access to the shelter for the victims’ attorneys to discuss the criminal and civil cases; the government reported that all but one of the 28 potential victims provided statements to the PPO and signed legal representation agreements so that criminal or civil cases could continue in their absence once they were repatriated. In addition, the HRC incorporated feedback from other stakeholders and updated the NRM’s identification and referral section to add additional detail on the alleged perpetrator and developed a comprehensive initial screening form that included all required information in one document for first responders. The government also established a new procedure within the NRM requiring police to allow potential victims to spend at least three days at the shelter before a statement could be taken to begin a formal criminal investigation.

MHRSD operated shelters across the country for vulnerable populations and abuse victims, and it reported the government allocated approximately 25 million SAR ($6.67 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 173 victims it referred to care 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, the 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. The government did not have shelters to accommodate male victims or females from other employment sectors. In 2020, the government reported plans to gradually shift shelter responsibilities to NGOs and open a dedicated trafficking shelter for all potential victims of trafficking in coordination with an NGO, but it did not report further progress on this plan in 2021. During the reporting period, the government supported the establishment of an NGO intended to specialize in combating trafficking. One of its main objectives was to provide a dedicated shelter for all trafficking victims; however, construction on the shelter had not begun at the close of the reporting period, so it was unable to provide services to victims during the year.Migrant workers continued to document and assert they were subjected to unpaid wages, passport retention, physical or sexual abuse, or substandard working conditions, many of which were trafficking indicators. In June 2021, international NGOs and media sources reported increasing numbers of immigration raids and arrests of both undocumented and documented Ethiopian migrants by Saudi officials; the Ethiopian government obtained the release of approximately 700 documented migrants following the raids. During the two-week crackdown by Saudi police, an NGO reported more than 30,000 undocumented migrants were deported; a significant portion were Tigrayan and at heightened risk for trafficking upon their deportation. Reasons for deportations by the government included alleged violations of work, residence, and entry rules. Although the government reported it screened all migrants in detention centers prior to their departure for trafficking indicators through forms developed by MOI, observers stated the large number of migrants deported in a short time frame suggested authorities did not consistently and systematically screen individuals for trafficking indicators and, therefore, they likely deported some unidentified victims. In January 2022, media sources and rights groups reported that following detention in the Kingdom and subsequent deportation, those that had returned to Ethiopia—specifically Tigrayans— were being ethnically profiled and sent to internment camps across Ethiopia, where abuse, forced labor, and forced disappearances had been reported. In an effort to increase capacity to screen for potential trafficking victims, the PPO continued to direct 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. During the previous reporting period, the 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; through Circular No. 4535, the government established screening teams comprised of staff from the agencies on the subcommittee in every region of the country where detention centers existed to screen the files of all detainees to ensure potential victims were identified promptly. In 2021, the NCCHT’s subcommittee reported further updating that screening mechanism for undocumented migrants at detention centers to better specify the trafficking indicators officials should be looking for while screening. Furthermore, the government, in coordination with an international organization, developed guidelines for working with interpreters when screening vulnerable populations for trafficking, which established requirements to ensure interpreters were unbiased and adequately trained; the HRC also developed an interpreter confidentiality agreement to protect potential victims during identification and referral procedures. The government continued to instruct 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 continued to report 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 may have not routinely screened 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 also did not consider certain populations’ vulnerability to forced labor if they were deported; NGOs reported four ethnic Uyghur Muslims, including a child, remained in detention without charge or trial in Saudi Arabia and were facing immediate deportation to the PRC, where they would be vulnerable to arbitrary detention, harassment, and forced labor.

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. The government reported it also provided legal alternatives to the removal of foreign victims of trafficking to countries where they might face retribution or hardship. During the reporting period, one potential victim requested asylum, and following discussions with two international organizations, the victim chose to be relocated to a third country. In addition, the government, along with other labor-source embassies, NGOs, and international organizations, repatriated 75 individuals to their countries of origin, including the 28 Vietnamese domestic workers. In previous years, diplomatic representatives from labor-source countries reported trafficking victims were not permitted to seek employment while residing in government-run shelters. In 2020, the MHRSD implemented a policy issued under Circular No. 65551, granting work permits and temporary residence to potential trafficking victims so they could work, if they so chose, while their labor dispute or criminal case was adjudicated; this included potential victims whose work permits had expired. The government developed this policy after soliciting input from potential trafficking victims and stated an individual could receive this benefit regardless of whether they resided in the shelter. 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 2021, the government amended existing policy to allow all potential trafficking victims who desired to proceed with a legal case pursuant to the NRM but also wanted to voluntarily return to their country of origin, to be assigned a Pro bono attorney to their case; the MOJ extended notary services during the year to facilitate the assignment of a lawyer as a proxy for potential victims. The law entitled trafficking victims to legal assistance, security protection, translation services, and the right to immediate repatriation or continued residence in Saudi Arabia until resolution of the case, in addition to medical and psychological care, shelter, and rehabilitation. The government provided victims legal services in 21 cases, all involving Vietnamese nationals, during the year. In 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 covering 20 languages, handled approximately 800 cases each month and, during the reporting period, provided services in 23 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 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. If victims sought to obtain restitution from defendants in criminal cases, victims often experienced delays in receiving it. In 2021, the government reported it worked with an international organization to develop a more effective process to ensure victims receive restitution in criminal cases but did not report outcomes of these efforts at the close of the reporting period.

PREVENTION

The government demonstrated increased efforts to prevent trafficking, although domestic workers remained excluded from the most recent sponsorship reforms, implemented in March 2021, which continued to render this population vulnerable to conditions of forced labor. The government developed a new 2021-2023 NAP in coordination with two international organizations, and in August 2021, the government finalized and adopted the NAP; the plan set priorities within four pillars: prevention, protection and assistance, prosecution, and partnership. The NCCHT met 10 times during the reporting period; it completed a review of an MHRSD study on labor recruitment regulations and practices; prepared a study and recommendations to ensure trafficking victims were exempt from fees, fines, or other sanctions; and updated the screening mechanism for undocumented migrants at detention centers, among other activities. The government also approved a National Policy to Prevent Child Labor and a corresponding NAP that included efforts to create a database to track child labor prevalence in the Kingdom with the support of an international organization, adopting a list of types of work prohibited for those younger than 18 years of age, improving social work and social protection mechanisms by building capacity of specialists in the field, promoting quality educational opportunities for all children, and raising awareness of child labor. In November 2021, the Kingdom hosted the third annual Governmental Forum against Trafficking in Persons in the Middle East, which focused on efforts of participating governments on international and national coordination in anti-trafficking efforts during the pandemic.

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, complete and electronically sign contracts, and request a visa. The system was 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 served as a way to authenticate contracts for domestic workers in their home countries. 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, which impeded efforts to track reported victims of abuse and trafficking. The application was also only available in English and Arabic, and therefore of limited use to potential domestic workers who did not speak, read, or understand such languages; in addition, an international organization noted that in cases where language barriers were present, a foreign domestic worker was unlikely to access the system and instead relied on recruitment agencies in their home country to provide and interpret the recruitment process. MHRSD reportedly fully implemented a program called Weddi (“friendly” in Arabic), which was an alternative dispute resolution mechanism whereby a worker could electronically submit a labor 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.

The government continued to make efforts to prevent forced labor through its Single Electronic Contract and the Wage Protection System (WPS), both implemented through the Mudad electronic platform. In November 2020, MHRSD instituted the Single Electronic Contract, which made inclusion of information such as contract data, type of work, salary, duration of contract, working hours, weekends, and annual leave mandatory for all private sector companies. The initiative obligated companies to sign contracts with their employees enabling MHRSD to electronically account for, authenticate, and monitor all employment contracts in the private sector; each contract was verified by both the employer and employee and filed through the Mudad electronic platform. The platform also provided employees access to their contract and ensured MHSRD could impose sanctions on establishments that contravened the terms contained therein; the contract on file could also be used in a potential labor dispute. Representatives from labor-source countries reported the e-contract 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 2.9 million ratified expatriate contracts existed within the Mudad system, out of a total of 6.8 million expatriate employee contracts in the Kingdom; however, the government did not report the number of violations recorded against employers for not having electronic contracts on file during the year. The government’s WPS continued to require employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer via a Saudi bank, thereby permitting the government to track disbursements and non- or delayed payment of wages. In December 2020, the government extended the WPS and required 100 percent of private sector companies to register, including those with just one employee. The government 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. For any employer or firm who failed to maintain at least 80 percent compliance on a monthly basis or failed to submit monthly WPS data, the government could impose penalties, including suspension of government services and recruitment privileges. The government reported a 2021 compliance rate of 72.5 percent for companies with 30 or more workers and a 25 percent compliance rate for companies with 11-29 workers The WPS was not available for domestic workers; however, the government continued to mandate employers of domestic workers issue prepaid payroll or salary cards as soon as the worker arrived in the Kingdom. During the year, the government reported it was considering how to mandate electronic payments for domestic workers but did not report new efforts to do so.

In March 2021, as part of the Labor Reform Initiative (LRI), implemented through Ministerial Resolution No. 51848/1442, the government mandated 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 therefore may have reduced the risk of forced labor for seven million private sector workers in the Kingdom. Workers could use electronic applications to automate the process for transferring employment, notify an employer of an employee’s departure and re-entry, and receive a final exit visa. Between March 2021 and December 2021, the government reported 147,878 foreign workers changed employers without the consent of their current employer and 1,107,747 foreign workers obtained final exit permits without employer consent. Several NGOs continued to express concern these reforms did not include the 3.7 million domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia, a group highly vulnerable to trafficking and other abuse. The government reported it was considering ways to ensure domestic workers would receive similar protections in the near future but did not report any action to include this population within the reforms. NGOs also reported concerns the visa sponsorship system would 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—as a worker still submitted a request to MHRSD for an exit permit, and the ministry notified the employer electronically of the worker’s request. The employer, subsequently, had 10 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. During the reporting period, labor-source embassy representatives raised concerns that although the LRI had reduced the number of complaints from their citizens regarding labor abuses, some employers filed absconding charges as a retaliatory measure against their employees to prevent them from changing employers or obtaining a final exit visa. MHRSD reported it was studying a proposal to modify the employee-employer contractual relationship to address employers pursuing retaliatory actions to prevent their employees from exercising their rights under the reforms; however, MHRSD did not report taking action on the proposal by the close of the reporting period. The Council of Ministers’ Decision 166 prohibited withholding workers’ passports as a violation punishable by fines, but the government did not report if it issued any such fines during the reporting period.

The labor law does not encompass domestic work; 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 gaps in the law left domestic workers vulnerable to passport confiscation or being charged recruitment fees. 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 experienced non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workloads, and severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Authorities only sought authorization to enter a home if there was overwhelming evidence of a crime, which may have left some unidentified victims at risk of exploitation and without protection, especially if a domestic worker could not leave their employer’s home to report abuse. However, during the reporting year, in the case involving 28 Vietnamese domestic workers identified as potential trafficking victims, PPO representatives issued search warrants for the suspected residences earlier in the investigative process, which allowed police to question the potential victims and refer them to shelter for care more quickly. Domestic workers could change employers with their sponsor’s permission at any time 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. In December 2019, the government removed the requirement for employer approval to receive a final exit visa for domestic workers whose sponsors failed to pay required fees or renew a worker’s status or were absent. In practice, however, international NGOs reported in some cases domestic workers who experienced such circumstances were not able to change employers or obtain exit permits. In one example, when a domestic worker attempted to contact police to change sponsors after she experienced non-payment of wages, extremely long working hours, and physical abuse, the police located her and transferred her to a detention center.

During the reporting period, the government continued to raise awareness of trafficking, targeting employers; migrant workers, including domestic workers; labor-source country embassies; and the general public. The NCCHT continued to use its Twitter accounts in both Arabic and English to raise awareness on trafficking. The HRC also continued to make awareness materials accessible in English and Arabic through its website and Twitter accounts and, during the reporting period, met with representatives from labor-source embassies to cooperate in the translation and dissemination of trafficking-related materials into other languages. In conjunction with World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, 2021, the HRC launched a week-long social media campaign that included statements from the NCCHT, PPO, and MOI to raise awareness of trafficking; simultaneously, MHRSD conducted a two-week awareness campaign focused on indicators of the crime and utilized videos, infographics, and media appearances by ministry representatives on television and radio. In August 2021, MHRSD conducted a month-long awareness campaign on trafficking indicators and worker’s rights, which included billboards and signs, in both Arabic and English, in airports and along major highways throughout the country. Additionally, also in August, the MHRSD conducted a social media campaign to raise awareness of the rights of domestic workers. The HRC collaborated with the Saudi Telecom Company to send text messages to the public to raise awareness of the anti-trafficking law and its provisions and penalties imposed on perpetrators. In 2022, MHRSD conducted one additional campaign in Arabic and English that targeted embassies of labor-source countries, focusing on trafficking indicators, workers’ rights, and methods to report labor violations. Lastly, in February 2022, a sermon at the Grand Mosque condemned human trafficking as a violation of Islamic values and asserted Islamic law protected human dignity and banned forced labor; the sermon was broadcast internationally and called on the public to report suspected trafficking cases. In the previous reporting period, MHRSD officials launched a program 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. In September 2020, the first Saudi representative arrived in the Philippines, and in March 2021, the second Saudi representative arrived in Egypt; five additional attachés for Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka had not reported to their respective countries by the close of the reporting period.

MHRSD officials operated a 24-hour call center that could receive calls in six major labor-source country languages: Arabic, English, Filipino, French, Hindi, and Indonesian. The call center received approximately 280 calls per day on average. The MHRSD hotline was included in pamphlets given to all foreign workers who entered the Kingdom during the year. The MOI’s crime reporting app, Koolna (“All of Us”), continued to have a feature that allowed users to report trafficking crimes as a standalone option. The HRC continued to operate a separate center to receive calls, texts, and WhatsApp messages; it was staffed with operators trained on identifying potential trafficking cases and could receive calls in English and Arabic. The NCCHT continued to allow individuals to submit information on potential trafficking crimes through its website but did not report if it received such information during the year. The government regularly shared all hotline numbers on social media platforms; furthermore, all hotline operators had standard checklists to screen calls for trafficking indicators, and if a potential case was identified, operators referred the case to the applicable points of contact per the NRM. The government identified 207 potential trafficking cases via its hotlines, including 81 cases from the HRC’s call center and 126 from the MHRSD call center; it referred all 207 cases to MOI for further investigation. Some workers and labor-source country officials continued to report impracticalities and technical difficulties getting through to call center operators, citing poorly trained and under-resourced staff.

The government deployed labor inspectors and HRC officials—400 of whom specialized in trafficking crimes—to conduct 1,321,963 labor inspections to monitor the application of employment and recruitment laws; 92,296 inspections were conducted in response to worker complaints and resulted in the identification of 179,844 violations. The government identified 28 potential trafficking cases during these inspections and referred them to MOI for further investigation, compared with 17 potential trafficking cases referred in 2020 from inspections. Diplomatic representatives from several countries continued to report improvements in Saudi government oversight of labor recruitment and the proper implementation of labor contracts. The government continued to provide a questionnaire for labor inspectors to complete for situations where they suspected a trafficking crime; inspectors sent completed forms following an inspection to MHRSD’s anti-trafficking department to be referred for criminal investigation. The HRC Secretariat reported receiving 271 general complaints from workers during the reporting period; 218 of those complaints were referred to MHRSD, which then referred the complaints to MOI and PPO for further investigation. MHRSD reported processing 24,136 complaints filed through its Domestic Labor Dispute Committee and Trafficking Hotline Program but did not report if it referred any of these complaints to MOI or PPO for further investigation. The government had several bilateral labor agreements with labor-source countries, including Ethiopia and Indonesia, which set minimum wage standards and regulated protections and benefits for migrant workers, such as hours, mandatory time off, and overarching 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.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

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 workers 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 service. 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 worker 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 the related 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 due to the pandemic. Non-payment or late payment of wages remain the prominent complaint from foreign workers in the Kingdom; this concern was further exacerbated during 2020 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.

According to the General Authority for Statistics, there are approximately 9.6 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia; the largest populations during the reporting period were from Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sudan, and Yemen. In 2021, reports of racial and religious discrimination against African migrants— specifically domestic workers—increased. NGOs and media sources reported increasing concerns about harassment and discrimination among Christian African migrant workers in the Kingdom, rendering them vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and trafficking. Furthermore, a recent media report noted an increasing number of Kenyan domestic workers in the Kingdom who died during their time working in the country; in 2019, 883 cases of Kenyans in distress in the Kingdom were reported, and in 2020, 1,035 cases were reported; rights groups suggest the increase in reports was due to increasing abuse and exploitation of workers. In January 2022, media sources and rights groups reported that following harsh conditions in detention in the Kingdom and subsequent deportation, Ethiopian returnees, specifically Tigrayans, were being ethnically profiled and sent to internment camps across Ethiopia, where abuse, forced labor and forced disappearances have been reported. In July 2021, rights groups reported Saudi Arabian employers began to terminate or not renew contracts of Yemeni professionals in the country following a MHRSD policy change that required businesses to limit the percentage of their workers from certain nationalities, including Yemen. Workers must find another employer to act as a sponsor to avoid leaving the country or risk detainment and deportation and increased vulnerability to trafficking if found to be residing illegally. PRC nationals employed in Saudi Arabia at worksites affiliated with the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative are vulnerable to conditions of forced labor, including debt bondage, restriction of movement, passport confiscation, excessive overtime, lack of adequate healthcare, and being sold to other employers for which they did not have signed contracts. Separately, NGOs reported the government deported at least five Uyghur Muslims, some while performing religious pilgrimage, back to PRC between 2017 and 2019, where they were vulnerable to arbitrary detention, harassment, and forced labor; during the reporting period, several Uyghur Muslims faced imminent deportation to the same conditions. Cuban nationals working in Saudi Arabia may have been forced to work by the Cuban government. While the Saudi government reported more than 200 Cuban medical professionals present in Saudi Arabia operate under contracts between the worker and the Saudi MOH, in 2021, one Cuban doctor working in Saudi Arabia alleged 70 percent of the salary earned by Cubans employed on medical missions—or roughly $2,000 per month—is taken by the Cuban government. Furthermore, an NGO reported that while the Kingdom paid Cuban workers a salary, workers are forced to deliver between 75 and 90 percent of their salary to the Cuban government. Additionally, an NGO reported Cuban workers employed in Saudi Arabia were vulnerable to other abuses, including sexual harassment, forced enrollment into the medical mission program, surveillance, exploitation, restriction of movement, and passport confiscation.

Some migrant workers 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. Domestic workers lack protections under the labor law and other initiatives, continuing to place this group, which makes up 30 percent of migrant workers in the Kingdom, 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 is prevalent 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, primarily from Yemen and Ethiopia, but approximately 5 percent are Saudi national children. 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 Forces (RSF). Media alleged in a previous reporting period that families bribed Sudanese officers associated with RSF to unlawfully recruit and use children to serve as combatants in Yemen, but there were no similar allegations during the current reporting period. Saudi Arabian officers 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 ages 14 to 17 years old) in Yemen, but there were no similar allegations during the current reporting period. During the current reporting period, the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen reportedly established a “Child Protection Unit” that worked with the UN to provide care to Houthi-recruited child soldiers. Since 2016, the Saudi-funded King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center facilitated programs to rehabilitate child soldiers in Yemen.

U.S. Department of State

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