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Maid to Order: Saudi Arabia’s dark underbelly

Filipinos have it hard. Their diligent attitude and universally attractive set of English skills can only get them so far in their developing home country. In pursuit of a better life for both themselves and their families, at least 1,000 Filipinos every day successfully apply for Saudi Arabian visas (Arab News, 2016), to seek pastures new in the Middle East. On the surface, it seems perfectly reasonable and mutually beneficial; Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) receive an astronomical rise in their salaries, which they can then send a cut back home via remittances, and the Saudis have a much-needed supply of labour to help maintain their relatively lavish lifestyle.

Yet, things on the surface are often far removed from the reality. Indeed, for the lives of a concerning percentage of OFWs in Saudi Arabia, the flight from Manila to Riyadh may be their last. One example of mistreatment is the case of Fatma (not her real name) in 2013. The 23-year-old household service worker was the victim of severe scalding and physical disfigurement after having boiling water thrown over her face and body, a punishment for being slow at making coffee. After several hours, Fatma was eventually taken to hospital, and later taken under the wing of the Philippine Embassy after garnering worldwide publicity (Molloy, 2014).

Regrettably, Fatma’s story is all too commonplace. 70% of OFWs in Saudi Arabia, or approximately 700,000, have officially reported physical and psychological abuse by their employers (, 2012). To understand how and why this problem exists, we have to look at the Middle East’s method by which national governments monitor migrant labourers: the kafala system. Under kafala, all unskilled OFWs only receive visas subject to having an ‘in-country sponsor’, often their employer, who has complete control over if and when they can leave their job or the country, if ever. As one may suspect, this can lead to many instances of withholding both passports and wages, one’s fundamental means to travel freely and survive. A report by the International Labour Organisation estimates that nearly $8bn in wages are deliberately withheld by Saudi employers of OFWs (International Labour Organisation, 2014). Should an OFW flee their employer, they immediately fall under the title of an ‘absconding worker’, which is grounds for imprisonment in Saudi Arabia.

The fortunes of OFWs in Saudi Arabia are unlikely to see any radical improvements while still beholden to the repressive kafala system. Opportunities to escape abuse at the hands of an employer, who now has de facto ownership of both one’s documents and money, are seldom achievable. The unfortunate truth is that many Filipinos at home frequently hear stories like Fatma’s throughout national media. The choice to leave their families for an uncertain future in Saudi Arabia is a calculated risk. A calculated risk that they should not have to face in the first place.

Edward Antonio Sell, first-year PPE student at the University of York


Arab News. (2016). Saudi Arabia second largest country to hire Filipino workers. [online] Available at: [Accessed 28 Feb. 2018]. (2012). SAUDI ARABIA - PHILIPPINES Saudi Arabia, 70% of Filipino domestic workers suffer physical and psychological violence. [online] Available at:,-70-of-Filipino-domestic-workers-suffer-physical-and-psychological-violence-24260.html [Accessed 28 Feb. 2018].

International Labour Organization (2014). Profits and Poverty: The Economics of Forced Labour. [online] International Labour Office (ILO), p.13. Available at: [Accessed 28 Feb. 2018].

Molloy, A. (2014). Saudi Arabia employer 'pours boiling water' on Filipino woman. [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 28 Feb. 2018].

#SaudiArabia #Filipino #Workerexploitation

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