Why Saudi princesses keep slaves

A Saudi princess living in Irvine was charged Wednesday with human trafficking after a Kenyan woman who worked in her home fled and contacted the police. Orange County prosecutors allege that Meshael Alayban forced the woman to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for only $220 a month, despite initial promises of an eight-hour day and higher wages. Alayban kept the domestic worker’s passport and documents so she was unable to leave.

It’s an ugly, troubling story, but it’s a familiar one in Saudi Arabia. According to the U.S. Department of State’s “Trafficking in Persons Report” for 2012:

Men and women from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, and many other countries voluntarily travel to Saudi Arabia as domestic servants or other low-skilled laborers, but some subsequently face conditions indicative of involuntary servitude, including nonpayment of wages, long working hours without rest, deprivation of food, threats, physical or sexual abuse, and restrictions on movement such as the withholding of passports or confinement to the workplace. Although many migrant workers sign contracts delineating their rights, some report work conditions that are substantially different from those described in the contract. Other migrant workers never see a contract at all, leaving them especially vulnerable to forced labor, including debt bondage.

Human Rights Watch made similar points in a 2008 report.


Approximately 1.5 million women domestic workers, primarily from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines, work in Saudi Arabia. These workers, viewed at home as “modern-day heroes” for the foreign exchange they earn, receive less protection in Saudi Arabia than other categories of workers, exposing them to egregious abuses with little or no hope of redress. Domestic workers comprise less than a quarter of the eight million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, but embassies from the labor sending countries report that abuses against domestic workers account for the vast majority of the complaints they receive.

While many domestic workers enjoy decent work conditions, others endure a range of abuses including non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.

This is hardly the first time a Saudi national has been accused of similar activities in the United States. In May, for instance, Fox News reported that federal officials were investigating reports of human trafficking at the “upscale Virginia home” of a Saudi military attache after two Filipino women claimed the attache “confiscated their passports and made them work long hours without pay.”


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