The execution of a Filipina domestic worker in January is the latest in a long line of executions carried out by the Saudi Arabian government against domestic migrant workers mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia. The execution of the thirty-nine year-old Filipina maid, whose name is not revealed for the family’s privacy, comes only a few months after the government executed another maid, Tuti Tursilawati of Indonesia, this past October. Ms. Tuti was executed seven years after being convicted of murdering her employer. Migrant Care, a migrant worker’s rights group, says she was defending herself from sexual assault. Ms. Tuti was the fourth Indonesia migrant worker to be executed in Saudi Arabia since 2015, and there are many others waiting on death row. Saudi Arabia has faced repeated criticisms for systemic violations of due process in its criminal justice system and frequent use of capital punishment; in 2018, fifty percent of those executed were foreign nationals.
Concern about Saudi Arabia’s mistreatment of domestic migrant workers has increased steadily over the past decade. In response to dangerous labor conditions, the Indonesian government banned domestic workers traveling to Middle Eastern countries between 2011 and 2013 and, after Saudi Arabia executed two Indonesian domestic workers in 2015, Indonesia increased the ban to twenty-one countries. The Philippines has saved several Filipino migrant workers from executions by paying “blood money” to the Saudi families of those allegedly killed; however, in the case of the Filipina worker executed this year, the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council decided that “blood money” was not allowed to be paid. There are at least one million Filipino and around 1.5 million Indonesian migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, primarily holding positions in domestic or construction services. Saudi Arabia is among the top five executioners in the world, punishing capital crimes with beheading or even “crucifixion.”
Saudi Arabia is violating its duty to follow international customary law, as articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, prohibiting abusive and prejudiced treatment of migrant workers within its territory. Articles Thirteen and Twenty-three of the Declaration provide that all persons have the rights to freedom of movement across borders and the right to free choice of employment in “favourable conditions” and “without any discrimination,” respectively. Migrant workers also enjoy protections from violence, threats, arbitrary detention or arrest, and “measures of collective expulsion” under Articles Sixteen and Twenty-two of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families (ICRMW). Although the Saudi government has taken no action regarding the ICRMW, Saudi Arabia has committed to the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Notwithstanding the government’s reservations over CEDAW Article 11(2) on marriage or maternity, Saudi Arabia has still committed to the elimination of discrimination against women in the work place and the job market. Saudi Arabia has also acceded to International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which includes the obligation to guarantee individuals rights to “equality before the law” and freedom from ethnic discrimination in regard to their fundamental rights to employment rights; these rights include “just and favourable conditions of work.” Saudi Arabia is bound to uphold international human rights standards under customary law and relevant provisions of its international commitments.
Domestic migrant workers in Saudi Arabia endure inequality under the law from the moment they enter the country. For months or years before any allegations or arrests are made, many migrant workers under the kafala (“sponsorship”) system are trapped in contracts with abusive employers. Workers are prohibited from changing jobs or even leaving the country without the approval of their sponsor; foreign workers trying to return home or find work elsewhere must obtain exit visas, which can only be requested by the sponsors on the workers’ behalf. Exit visas also require high financial thresholds, including the settling of all debts and fines, and the transfer or closure of all vehicles, cell phones, Saudi Arabian bank accounts, and lines of credits. The use of the death penalty against vulnerable populations is egregiously contrary to international law, and the international community must condemn Saudi Arabia’s conduct.