How Vietnam’s labour export system fails to protect women workers in Saudi Arabia

The plight of Vietnamese women who are recruited to work as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia has been exposed by various sources, revealing a system of exploitation, abuse and slavery that violates their human rights. The Vietnamese government has been accused of neglecting its responsibility to ensure the welfare and safety of these workers, who are trapped under the Kafala visa sponsorship system that gives their employers complete control over their lives.

The Kafala system is a common practice in the Gulf states that regulates the employment of foreign guest-workers. Under this system, the workers are tied to their original sponsors, who can transfer them to other households, deport them or withhold their passports without their consent. The workers have no legal recourse or protection from the authorities, and are often subjected to physical, sexual and psychological abuse, as well as non-payment of wages, long working hours and lack of food and medical care.

In 2014, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia signed a bilateral labour agreement (BLA) that allowed the sending of Vietnamese women to work as domestic workers for Saudi families. The agreement was supposed to provide some safeguards and benefits for the workers, such as a minimum wage, a weekly rest day, health insurance and dispute resolution mechanisms. However, the agreement has been widely criticized for being ineffective and insufficient, as it does not address the fundamental problems of the Kafala system and the power imbalance between the workers and their employers.

The death of H Xuân Siu and other tragic cases

One of the most shocking cases that revealed the extent of the abuse and exploitation faced by Vietnamese women workers in Saudi Arabia was the death of H Xuân Siu, an ethnic minority Jarai from DakLak, Vietnam, who died of heart failure in November 2021 at the age of 18. She was recruited by VINACO, a Vietnamese recruitment company, when she was only 16, and her age was falsified to make her eligible to work in Saudi Arabia. She suffered repeated physical beatings by her female employer, which caused her to lose consciousness several times. She pleaded for help from the Vietnamese Embassy and the recruitment company, but no one came to her rescue. Her family also requested to bring her body home, but VINACO refused unless they accepted the incorrect age on her passport. She was eventually buried in Saudi Arabia, leaving her family devastated.

H Xuân Siu was not the only victim of the system. There have been many other reports of Vietnamese women workers who died, disappeared, committed suicide or escaped from their abusive employers in Saudi Arabia. Some of them contracted COVID-19 and were denied proper treatment or repatriation. Some of them finished their two-year contracts but were not allowed to return home due to the lockdowns and travel restrictions. Some of them were trafficked, sold or forced into prostitution by their employers or recruitment agents. Some of them were underage, illiterate or from ethnic minorities, making them more vulnerable and isolated.

The role of the Vietnamese government and the media

The Vietnamese government has been accused of failing to take long-overdue steps to help the workers know and claim their rights, and to hold the recruitment companies and the Saudi authorities accountable for the violations of the BLA and the international human rights standards. The government has also been silent and secretive about the renewal of the BLA in 2019, which is due to expire in 2024, without any public consultation or evaluation of its impact and effectiveness.

The Vietnamese media, on the other hand, has played an important role in exposing the abuses and grievances of the workers and their families, and in raising public awareness and pressure on the government to take action. However, the media’s freedom to report on these issues has been limited and threatened by the government’s censorship and repression, especially after Vietnam was downgraded to Tier 3, the lowest possible ranking, in the US Department of State’s 2022 Trafficking-In-Persons (TIP) report, which cited the labour export to Saudi Arabia as one of the reasons.

The need for reform and solidarity

The situation of Vietnamese women workers in Saudi Arabia is a stark example of the structural violence and injustice that is embedded in the global system of labour migration and gendered and unfree labour. It calls for urgent and comprehensive reform and solidarity from various actors and stakeholders, including the Vietnamese and Saudi governments, the recruitment companies, the civil society organizations, the media, the international community and the public. The reform should aim to end the Kafala system and replace it with a fair and transparent system that respects the rights and dignity of the workers, and to ensure the effective implementation and monitoring of the BLA and other relevant laws and agreements. The solidarity should aim to support and empower the workers and their families, and to advocate and campaign for their rights and interests.

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