Still from video discussed in this article.
By Sidahmed Tfeil and Madeleine Bair
The relationship between employers and foreign staff in Saudi Arabia is fraught with allegations of abuse and exploitation, but rarely does the world get to peek into the reality. In late October, a video that emerged on several websites opened the curtain onto what life may be like for many of the country’s estimated 9 million immigrant laborers. The footage, apparently taken in a private residence, depicts a man dressed in traditional Saudi clothing physically assaulting a man who wears an orange jumpsuit and appears to have a swollen eye. The abuser accuses the worker of having spoken to his wife, while he flogs him with a whip, pulls his hair, and kicks him. The filmer appears to take part in the abuse as well, spitting on the victim and hurling insults his way, while the victim pleads for the assault to stop.
Human Rights Violations
The video corroborates a well-documented pattern of physical abuse of foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, which is one reason it caused such a stir. The National Society for Human Rights, a government-funded organization, responded to the video immediately, stating that such abuse is punishable by law. But rarely are perpetrators punished, because migrant workers depend on their employers for legal status and thus are afraid to report abusive conditions. Human Rights Watch, however, has documented labor abuse ranging from non-payment of wages, sexual abuse, food deprivation, and physical confinement. Domestic workers are more vulnerable than others, as they are excluded from a 2005 labor law, denying them, in the words of HRW, “protections afforded to other workers such as a day off once a week, limits on working hours, and access to labor courts.” Three years ago, the beheading of a young Sri Lankan domestic worker accused of murdering her employer’s child drew attention to the large number of foreign maids on death row and living in “slave-like conditions.”
Challenges to Verification
There is no reason yet to believe the video above is inauthentic. However, because it was recorded in a private residence and by a perpetrator who likely wants to remain anonymous, it is difficult to confirm where or when it was taken. No one yet has come forward to report the case or identify any of the individuals in the video, and because of that, one Saudi government official has questioned its authenticity. But as human rights groups have pointed out, because of a system that leaves migrant workers legally dependent on their employer, victims are unlikely to report their abuse.
Despite the challenges to verify this video, the abuse it documents is corroborated by a growing body of online video exposing abuse of immigrant employees. Over the past five years, similar videos have emerged, often drawing media attention to the issue for a short time. The Human Rights Channel compiled several of those videos in this YouTube playlist. Many of them have been copied and uploaded to YouTube or other video sites several times, but these are the earliest versions we could find of each video. While most videos depict one man abusing another, this video appears to show several immigrants rounded up and held on the ground with their arms bound by a group of Saudi civilians. The video circulated early this year after the government began a campaign to crackdown on undocumented workers and their employees.