Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 November 2017, 17:20 GMT

2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Saudi Arabia

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 8 June 2011
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2011 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Saudi Arabia, 8 June 2011, available at: [accessed 23 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 25,700,000
Capital: Riyadh
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 182

Migrant workers who protest against their exploitation risk being expelled from the country. Several cases of torture of women domestic workers caused international outrage. Trade union rights, when they exist, are severely restricted.


The Labour Code does not grant workers the right to create unions, bargain collectively or strike, and anyone who tries to form a union can be dismissed, imprisoned or, in the case of migrant workers, deported. Workers are only allowed to form workers' committees in workplaces where more than 100 workers are employed, and only one committee can be formed in each qualifying enterprise. Foreign workers are not allowed to serve on workers' committees. The role of the workers' committees is limited to suggesting recommendations on working conditions, health and safety standards, and productivity.

The government must approve the statutes and membership of the workers' committees, and the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs as well as the company management have the right to send a representative to the committee meetings. The minutes of the meetings must also be submitted to management and then passed on to the Minister. Finally, public demonstrations of a political nature are prohibited, and the Ministry of Labour can dissolve a workers' committee should it violate regulations or threaten public security.


Background: Political parties are still banned in this country governed by the Al Saud royal family which does not tolerate any opposition. Inequality in the distribution of wealth, high levels of youth unemployment, the arbitrary application of the law and the close government links with the United States are amongst the issues which cause significant resentment among the population.

Women domestic workers seriously abused: The 1.5 million women domestic workers are not covered by the labour law adopted in 2005. The embassies of the Asian countries where these women workers come from receive thousands of complaints from women domestic workers who are forced to work between 15 and 20 hours per day, seven days a week, sometimes without pay. Women domestic workers are frequently deprived of their freedom and food and are victims of sexual and psychological abuse and beaten by their employers.

Several cases of extreme violence against women domestic workers caused international outrage. In August, Lahadapurage Daneris Ariyawathie, a 49 year old Sri-Lankan woman who had arrived in Saudi Arabia in March, was repatriated after being tortured by her employers who had driven nails into her arms, legs and forehead because she had complained about her long working hours. She was operated on in Sri Lanka. At the beginning of November, Sumiati Binti Salan Mustapa, a 23 year old Indonesian woman, was admitted to hospital in Medina after working for four months for a family in the city. She was suffering from scissor incisions to her face, burns and a broken finger. She admitted having been tortured by her employers from the day that she started work. Also in November, the body of another Indonesian worker, Kikim Komalasari was discovered near Abha. The body showed signs of ill treatment. Following the reporting of these cases in the international media and the waves of protests that they caused in Sri Lanka and Indonesia, these migrant women's employers were arrested.

Exploitation of migrant workers: Approximately 8.3 million migrants are legally employed in Saudi Arabia. They make up 90 to 95% of the private sector workforce. Many are victims of many different types of exploitation in conditions akin to slavery.

The kafala system (a sponsorship system) links the worker's work permit with the employer's goodwill. A migrant cannot change employer or leave the country without the written consent of their original employer or guarantor. The system facilitates abuses such as the confiscation of passports by employers, forced labour, non-payment of wages etc. This sponsorship and the slowness of legal proceedings mean that a migrant who is in conflict with his employer is at an impasse: he cannot continue to work nor can he return home. This was the case in 2010 in Jadawel International, a company who owed the migrant workers, mostly Nepalese and Indian over six months' salary. Jadawel is part of MBI Al Jaber whose President is one of the richest men in the world, Sheikh Mohammed bin Issa Al Jaber.

Saudi Arabian airlines export its anti-trade union attitude: Saudi Arabian Airlines who bans trade unions for its Saudi Arabian staff, also tried to fight against the creation of a trade union amongst its Moroccan employees. In January, the company threatened to dismiss the workers if they refused to sign a petition demanding the dissolution of a trade union set up in June 2009.

Strike repressions: Despite the strike ban, the number of illegal strikes by migrant workers increased in 2010, frequently as a result of non-payment of salaries. In May, 30 Nepalese workers employed as cleaners in the King Abdulaziz international airport were expelled from the country after they took strike action in February over the non-payment of salaries and substandard accommodation. In October, 16 Chinese workers were arrested for participating in a strike involving at least 100 Chinese migrants employed by a light train construction project. They were warned that they would be expelled. The strike demands included a salary increase and improved working and living conditions.

Copyright notice: © ITUC-CSI-IGB 2010

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