On the September 3 flight that brought the Vietnamese football team home from the Saudi capital Riyadh, there were also women domestic workers who had been stuck for months in a deportation center. One of them was Lang Thi Thu from Con Cuong, Nghe An Province.
Thu had gone to Saudi Arabia in 2017 on a two-year contract. However, after the contract expired, she continued to work for her employer to earn enough money to build a house for her family. During her six years as a domestic worker, she had no days off and had to work from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m.
Thu says: “I asked my employer to let me go home, I wanted a break to go home since my limbs had become numb; I could not feel them any more.”
But after many unsuccessful requests, she decided to run away and complain to the police.
However, under the abusive Kafala sponsorship system that governs migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, people like Thu do not have the right to quit or change jobs, except in certain special cases, or even leave the country.
The victim thus became the culprit, and Thu was sent to a deportation center earlier this year. Her passport, held by her employer, was deemed “lost.”
With abusive employers holding their passports, some domestic workers in Saudi Arabia have had to flee like Thu to save themselves. But then they face the risk of being stuck in deportation centers because they have no money to return home.
Since Vietnam closed its borders because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of its nationals stuck in Saudi Arabia has increased.
Most of the women returning from the Sakan center belonged to a group of 1,500 workers who went to Saudi Arabia to work in 2018. Most of them worked as domestic workers under two-year contracts. When the contract expired in the midst of the global pandemic, they were forced to stay with the employer and continue working.
Linh (name changed) is one of them. After her contract ended in October 2020, she could not return to her country, and was forced to continue working for 19 hours a day. One day during the 2021 Lunar New Year holidays she was tired, and asked her employer for a day off. Her employer promptly locked her out of the house. For four days she was alone in an upstairs storage room, with no food and only drinking water from the bathroom.
According to the International Labor Organization, the Kafala system’s near-complete restriction on workers’ ability to quit work “creates some risks of human rights abuses and labor exploitation.”
Moreover, the country’s labor laws do not apply to domestic workers, leaving them lacking basic labor protection mechanisms such as a ceiling on working hours.
Thu and Linh are not isolated cases. On the rescue flight on September 3, there were also Dinh Thi Ca in Binh Dinh, who was beaten by her employer until she became blind in one eye; Dinh Thi Nhung of Dong Nai who had to go through four employers who forced her to work and refused to let her go to the doctor even though she had menorrhagia and Ly Thi Non in Dien Bien, who was starved by her employer and denied two months’ salary.
Mistreatment and abuse of domestic workers in Saudi Arabia is not limited to Vietnamese nationals. The international media has repeatedly reported on similar cases that happened to workers from the Philippines and Indonesia.
In 2015 an irate Indonesian government banned its workers from working in 21 countries in the Middle East using the Kafala system though this has not prevented human trafficking rings from sending people to the region to work.
The case of Vietnamese domestic workers being abused by their employers is not new either.
In 2017 lawyer Tran Thu Nam provided free legal help to enable a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia in similar circumstances to return home.
Afterward he received innumerable messages seeking help from workers and their families, including “videos of [people] crying, pictures of beatings, pictures of life in the refugee camp, so much suffering.
“I don’t have the strength to support them because I’m not a humanitarian organization,” but he recalls the event was “traumatic as hell.”
In 2007 the Vietnamese government established the Overseas Employment Support Fund managed by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, partly to help distressed workers return home from abroad.
However, a ministry's report to the National Assembly in 2020 said the support money for workers is still too low.
“The support for workers who have suffered accidents and have to return home before the contract ends has remained at VND5 million ($219.47) a person since 2007, while the consumer price index has risen by over 40 percent, and so the significance of the support has greatly reduced,” it said.
Moreover, “the nature of cases for which the fund offers support is still limited.
“Many situations and types of risks faced by workers before leaving and during the time they work abroad have not been mentioned (such as war, economic recession, Covid-19 pandemic), and so employees and businesses are not supported by the fund.”
The fund also does not support workers who are abused or exploited by their employers. Gender equality and discrimination against migrant women “have not been paid enough attention to, which limits the protection of women workers abroad.”
The ministry cited the example of the Philippines, which has support centers/addresses for women experiencing sexual harassment, sexual abuse, abuse, and discrimination in countries where its women work.
This year the labor ministry has drafted amendments to the fund, which increases the amount made available to workers returning home ahead of time to VND10-20 million.
However, the approval process is very difficult in terms of documents to be furnished.
“Employees sign many documents but they do not get to keep them and there is no contract,” lawyer Nam says.
“There are cases where a company does not have a license but still sends workers to work underground. When it leads to consequences (such as workers suffering from abuse by employers), it is very difficult to remedy them.”
Linh threw away the labor contract she signed with the agency that sent her to Saudi Arabia after changing jobs. Non, the Dien Bien woman stuck at the deportation center, cannot even remember the name of the company and cannot read or speak Vietnamese well.
“I don’t know anything,” is her constant refrain.
There are more than 450 agencies licensed to send people to work overseas, but less than a quarter of them are regularly ranked or monitored by authorities.
The agencies have the role of recruiting, training and supporting workers before they go to work as domestic workers in places like Saudi Arabia, and a legal obligation to protect the basic rights of the workers.
But as Khuat Thu Hong, director of the Institute of Social and Development Studies (ISDS), said at a workshop on safe and equitable migration held in July by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UN Women and the ILO, “They seem to just want to hire people, but do not pay attention to whether the employees understand the terms of the contract, understand their rights, obligations and responsibilities or not.”
Linh refuses to disclose the name of the agent who sent her to Saudi Arabia since she fears then she will not be given priority in returning home.
She is still working in the capital Riyadh after changing employers for a second time in August.
“The new owner is alright, but I get little sleep.”
She had expected to return on the September 3 flight, but the seats were prioritized for more urgent cases such as those stuck at the deportation center.
“I feel very unhappy. Every time there is a flight they say it is my time to go home. But in the end it's not.”
*This story was produced with support from the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development's Media Fellowship.
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