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Inside the Underground Efforts to Liberate Saudi Arabia's Domestic Workers

VICE News spoke to some of the individuals and organizations working to help abused domestic workers escape Saudi Arabia. Somalia has just announced an agreement to send 50,000 women there each year.
Photo by Francis R Malasig/EPA

By day Karl Anderson works in administration and runs a record label in California, by night he could be seen as a real-life superhero, using social media to identify and then help rescue domestic workers trapped in abusive situations in Saudi Arabia.

Since setting up a Facebook page two years ago, Anderson has led a double life, regularly receiving desperate messages and phone calls from workers in the kingdom who send photos of burned and bruised limbs, or stories of sexual assault and rape, along with pleas for help.


He told VICE News that in total he has aided somewhere between 125 and 150 women with getting home — six in January 2016 alone.

Anderson's work is necessitated by the ongoing trade in humans that takes place between wealthy Gulf states — where families seek housekeepers, drivers, and other home workers — and the desire of poorer countries in Asia and Africa to tackle rampant unemployment and receive a notable income from remittances.

However, bilateral trade agreements — which negotiate minimum wages and protections for the migrant workers — have often backfired, with embassies forced to rescue women and men who have been aggressively abused and made work day after day in inhuman conditions.

Despite the controversy over such arrangements, war-torn Somalia will now become the next country to begin acting as a supplier, announcing in February that it intends to send 50,000 workers to Saudi Arabia each year under a new plan awaiting approval from authorities in both countries.

"This is one of the ways the Somali government is creating opportunities for the thousands of skilled and semi-skilled professionals in the country," said Osman Ibrahim, deputy minister of Youth, Sports, and Labor. Ibrahim said they wouldn't accept violations and would open centers where domestic workers could go if they wanted to report abuses.

VICE News contacted the Somalian government for an interview but received no response.


In recent years, Indonesia, Ethiopia, and Nepal have brought in some form of ban on domestic workers traveling to Saudi Arabia for employment, while the Philippines has a ban in place with the UAE.

The recent Ugandan negotiations, however, saw one of the fastest U-turns. In July 2015, Uganda announced it had entered a bilateral arrangement with the Gulf kingdom to export as many as a million people to work as domestic workers in a bid to tackle unemployment.

University graduates employed as housekeepers would be paid a minimum monthly salary of $200, according to the Ugandan government. Then in January, the East African country banned domestic workers from traveling to Saudi Arabia after a recording went viral on social media. The women in it claimed to be imprisoned in Saudi Arabia and said they had been mistreated.

Indonesia has also forbidden domestic workers from moving to the kingdom. In 2014, the country paid $1.8 million to spare the execution of a housekeeper. In October 2015, India's foreign ministry lashed out after an Indian domestic worker reportedly had her right hand cut off by her employer. In December, a Sri Lankan domestic worker was given a last-minute reprieve after she was sentenced to being stoned to death for an adultery conviction.

* * *

Agencies recruit women in their home countries while prospective employers in Saudi Arabia use the agency office there, while also being given the chance to choose the nationality, religion, and language of the worker they're hoping to hire.


Once these women and men move to Saudi Arabia for employment they operate under the kafala contract system, meaning that a migrant worker is tied to their employer, who is responsible for their visa and legal status. "It's a slave-owner mentality," Anderson said, angrily.

Meanwhile, the agencies are making about $5,000 per contract for every girl they sell, according to Anderson.

Anderson set up his Facebook page, titled "Filipino Domestic Worker Abuse In Saudi Arabia," after a woman he knew traveled to Saudi Arabia and experienced horrific conditions.

"She was locked in a house working 20 hours a day, starved to the point of malnutrition," he said. "She had no idea where she was. It turned out she was a victim of human trafficking — [the agency] said they had to process the paperwork quickly, got her a ticket in someone else's name… She was not being fed — given two slices of bread a day and a cup of coffee."

Anderson said when that he tried to get assistance for her he realized that few of the large and obvious NGOs or human rights organizations were actually involved in casework, and there was little they were willing to do on the ground.

However, though he helped the initial woman to escape, Anderson said, he still had no idea what he was doing or how widespread a problem this was.

"Filipinos are big on Facebook," he noted. As Anderson's name spread as a faceless yet conscientious helper, he began receiving more and more messages and appeals. "One day I'm having coffee at Starbucks and it's [Abdulatif] Zapanta calling from prison saying he's going to be beheaded," he told VICE News. Zapanta — a Filipino national convicted of murdering his landlord — was executed in December.


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However, those who contact Anderson are still the minority: he estimates that 30 percent of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia don't have internet access, or any other means to complain about the situation they've found themselves in. "There are a huge segment of those who are being abused and have no access to the phone and we'll never hear from."

He said he has learned to tell how serious a situation is and evaluate whether those he speaks to are telling the truth.

"You start to know very quickly if they're real or not because you start seeing photographic evidence, copies of their contracts."

Besides that, he can get them to send him their location on Facebook messenger — an address they may not know themselves. "I usually have their GPS coordinates and their actual street address. You can tell [where they are] within one or two houses."

* * *

Anderson's first move when someone contacts him is to gather information. He uses a questionnaire asking where they are from, where they are now, which agency they used, whether they're married, and how he can reach their families. He also needs to know whether they're being abused, and what's their passport number.

After that, he'll contact the relevant embassy with a report of abuse and a letter saying that person wants to be removed. He'll have their family file a complaint, after which government officials should follow up with their family.


"Usually the embassy will call the agency and will demand to see their citizen. The agency will then call the employer and tries to force them to bring [the worker] in [to the agency]." An agency representative will then bring them to the embassy. "I always try to instruct everyone to do everything the legal way. If you start running away you open up a whole new world of problems. Runaways are automatically fugitives."

Filipino activists stage a demonstration in Makati City condemning the growing numbers of migrant workers being sentence to death by beheading in Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Francis R Malasig/EPA)

In rare cases, according to Anderson, an embassy might plan an escape and meet the worker outside the residence they have been living in.

However, this isn't the biggest hurdle: Anderson said the hardest part is extricating them out of their contract.

"A worker cannot leave their job because that would make them a fugitive and they would face arrest. They can't leave the country," Anderson explained. "When I say they own you they literally own you. I have a woman who officially had an accident in the bathroom and died. I personally don't believe that happened. It took almost two months to get the owner to release the body because the body doesn't belong to the family anymore, it belongs to the employer."

He knows women who have been beaten by multiple men until they confessed to stealing things they hadn't stolen. If they speak out, they risk being prosecuted and accused of crimes they didn't commit.

"If you make the mistake of filing criminal charges against your family forget it, you'll never go home." He spoke sadly of one girl, Candice, who was beaten by her employer before he threw scalding hot water on her, burning 40 percent of the skin off her body. After she tried to file criminal charges against her employer he countersued for defamation charges. Now she may face prison time.


Without any real repercussions for employers, abuse is a never-ending problem, Anderson said. In each case where a woman leaves, an employer will immediately pick up another foreign worker to do the job — who will likely also face mistreatment.

Meanwhile, the escapee is stigmatized. "If you're sold [by an agency] a second time you'll be worth less second time around — if you've been returned by a family you're considered as having problems."

For those who run away, there is also another set of dangers.

Thousands of escaped workers remain in limbo, trapped inside the country, with various shelters in Saudi Arabia located beside embassies and elsewhere holding between 150 and 3,000 former domestics.

Other runaways are staying in major cities, Anderson said, and will find illegal work as cleaners. However, they can't move freely: eventually they'll be stopped by police and arrested. They can also be preyed on by locals. "Saudi men will threaten to turn in runaways unless they have sex with them," Anderson said.

* * *

Rothna Begum from Human Rights Watch told VICE News she hadn't seen the new Somalian agreement, but said for the Saudi authorities "their biggest interest is in [workers'] health. When they recruit from various countries they are interested in making sure the migrants that are coming are healthy and disease-free, which is why they're saying it's okay to recruit from Somalia because they've now instituted some health centers where they are able to verify that they have gone through a medical check-up before applying."


Meanwhile, bans in other countries are proving ineffective, Begum said. "We know when you have a ban people will still end up going." Sometimes workers will enter Saudi through another country. "Often it doesn't require a huge amount to get around the rules because places like Uganda and Kenya don't have a proper regulatory system for domestic workers."

Begum said that on a macro level it was important that a home government is aware who's making the journey and make sure the migrants have adequate information about what might be expected of them and who they can turn to if things turn nasty.

Sadly, the deal a home country negotiates for their workers is also be a key factor in influencing how they will be treated. "The cheaper the worker the more they tend to be abused… There's a level of racial discrimination happening here." She said governments "should be instituting at the highest level of standards because otherwise their workers will be treated worse."

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Another group working on the ground is Migrante International, which also focuses on Filipino workers. Deputy Secretary General Michel Capuire told VICE News that in 2015 Migrante International dealt with 600 cases from all over the world.

Capuire said they will facilitate in aiding in migrants' repatriation by pushing the Philippines government to fulfil their mandate, "stressing the rights of Filipino migrant workers and [government] assurances that they will be protected wherever they are," as well as working with cases through their chapters in Saudi Arabia — though the laws there are quite limiting.


When those seeking domestic work ask for recommendations of an agency that might protect them abroad, Capuire explained: "We actually advise them not to go there. However, the real challenge is at home, rather than abroad.

"We have to push for reforms in the government… because we have no work here, we have no land, we have no rights, no social service, [and that's] what pushes the Filipino migrant workers to go out of the country. The struggle should be the fight for those kind of rights. The fight for decent work with decent pay, for real genuine land reform," he said.

This is made harder by the fact that remittances from workers abroad make up about 10 percent of the GDP of the Philippines. "Without the remittances we would be bankrupt, just like Greece," Capuire said.

* * *

Anderson has never been to Saudi Arabia. "I deal with people from here. I try to stay away because my website comes under hacking and attack and I've been told I'm considered a person of interest to the Saudi government. If I was there I'd probably be in prison."

He's also never gone to the Philippines to visit any of the people he's helped, though he said he keeps in touch with many of the people he's helped, and has even had babies named after him.

"When they get home I make sure they get settled — retrained or education — so I have different people in different situations all over."

Anderson said he spends between 40 and 50 hours a week speaking to domestic workers online.

"Sometimes I'd be on the phone for an hour convincing someone not to commit suicide. And sadly if there wasn't someone to help them for many it would be a good option."

"I wasn't looking for this," he continued. "Sometimes people ask 'were you looking for some humanitarian cause?' I've always been one of those people who if I run into something will help but I certainly didn't go looking for this."

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd