Hundreds of Mauritanian women trafficked to Saudi Arabia trapped in ‘slavery’

by Rori Donaghy and Linah Alsaafin, Middle East Eye, September 30, 2015. Local
activists said Mauritanian women are being subjected to sexual harassment and
physical abuse while working in Saudi Arabia

A file photo
shows a group of Mauritanian women in the capital Nouakchott (EPA)
More than
900 Mauritanian women have been trafficked to Saudi Arabia in 2015, where they
are trapped working in jobs they did not sign up for, a local activist has
told Middle East Eye.
The women
believed they were going to be employed as nurses or teachers, but on arrival
in Saudi Arabia they were forced to work as domestic workers in homes across
the kingdom, Elmehdi Ould Lemrabott, who is based in Mauritania’s capital
Nouakchott, told MEE.

“Some of
these women who objected were subjected to rape attempts, sexual harassment,
physical abuse and starvation – as well as being confined to tiny rooms,”
Lemrabott said.
Saudi Arabia
began letting workers from Mauritania into the country at the beginning of
2015. Riyadh’s Ministry of Labour advertised jobs specified for men (drivers,
waiters and domestic workers) and jobs specified for women (nurses, primary
schoolteachers and domestic workers).
opportunity attracted a high number of applications due to Mauritania’s high
unemployment rate – currently above 30 percent – and widespread poverty, which
is experienced by more than 40 percent of the North African country’s nearly
four million people.
A black
market quickly sprang up to take advantage of local interest in Saudi-based jobs,
according to Lemrabott, which the government did not pick up on.
“A group of
people opened secret employment offices not in accordance with the law and away
from the sight of authorities,” Lemrabott said. “Women are being trafficked one
by one secretly so the authorities do not take notice.”
Before the
women travel to Saudi Arabia, they sign contracts that promise them a salary of
1,200 Saudi riyals per month ($320), more than double the average national wage
in Mauritania. The contract includes a stipulation that the employee must repay
their travel costs once in Saudi Arabia.
“This allows
the manager of the employment office the right to receive the employee’s salary
for the first few months of their employment until the money is repaid,”
Lemrabott told MEE.
The salary
is often much lower than the one originally promised, Lemrabott added, as on
arrival the women have their identity documents seized and contracts “replaced
with one that effectively turns them into slaves in the households they work
MEE spoke to
one woman who was trafficked to Saudi Arabia, but after a brief phone call she
said that she was too scared of the repercussions to be quoted in the
Many of the
women have desperately spoken out about their suffering, primarily to a new
campaign group set up in the Mauritanian capital called the Popular Initiative
against the Violation of the Haratin Women Workers’ Rights in Saudi Arabia.
Initiative, of which Lemrabott is a member, says the workers in Saudi Arabia
claim that they have been forced to work 18 hours a day with no breaks and are
not granted time off at weekends or paid overtime. Others have accused their
Saudi employers of physical abuse and sexual harassment, including attempted
initiative is named after the Haratin ethnic group, which comprises 40 percent
of Mauritania’s population. Many Haratins are descended from slaves – a
practice abolished in 1981 and only criminalised in 2007 by Mauritania – but
poor access to education has led to reports some have
returned to their former masters out of necessity and been returned to
slave-like conditions.
For the
Haratin women who have sought a better life in Saudi Arabia, but been thrown
into allegedly abusive conditions, they have fallen off the radar for
Mauritanian authorities.
The workers
are not registered with employment offices in Saudi Arabia, which means
Nouakchott is not aware of their presence in the kingdom.
“This is due
to the fact that the process is done individually and illegally by anonymous
offices [on the Mauritanian black market],” Lemrabott said.
Out of the
nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, almost a third are undocumented.
In 2013, the Saudi government embarked on a two-year long deportation campaign in
which as many as half a million undocumented migrant workers out of nearly
three million were kicked out of the country. 
migrant workers constituting over half the workforce in Saudi Arabia, they
remain vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by their employers and are not
protected by labour laws.
Many of
these workers suffer from excessive working hours, wages withheld for months or
years on end, food deprivation, and severe psychological, physical and sexual
When, or if,
Mauritanian authorities try to confront alleged abuses of their citizens in
Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch has warned it may be a significant challenge
for such a poor country.
“It is
cheaper for Saudi Arabia to import labour from countries such as Mauritania,
who are poor and do not have the resources with which to protect trafficked
citizens,” said Adam Coogle, Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
with somewhere like the Philippines, we have seen the government successfully
negotiate minimum salaries and improved working conditions for their citizens
who are working in Saudi Arabia.”
numerous reports of Filipino workers being abused in Saudi Arabia, authorities
in the southeast Asian country moved to demand Riyadh
uphold a minimum wage of $400 per month and safeguard living standards
including a weekly day off and the right for workers to keep possession of
their passport.
Saudi authorities banned all Filipino workers for one year, they eventually
ceded to the demands.
For now, the
newly established initiative to protect Haratin workers is calling on
Mauritanian authorities to intervene and have the women trapped in Saudi Arabia
returned home. A demonstration was recently held in front of the Saudi embassy
in Nouakchott, but Lemrabott said the response was negative.
“It was
suppressed violently by riot police, and a number of activists from within the
initiative were arrested,” he said. “And the authorities have not responded to
any of the demands.”
government is turning a blind eye to the issue,” he added, saying more protests
are being planned for the future.
Local trade
unions – including the General Confederation of Workers of Mauritania and the
Najda Organisation for Slavery – are also trying to pressure authorities into
shutting down illegal traffickers. The unions have also called for an official
process to be established protecting people who want to work in Saudi Arabia.
International Trade Union Confederation, which receives daily reports on
trafficking from their Mauritanian counterparts, has called on Nouakchott to
confront the issue immediately.
needs to act immediately to free the women who have been trafficked to Saudi
Arabia and trapped in domestic slavery there, and to stop the traffickers and
bring them to justice,” Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, said in a statement.
The Saudi
and Mauritanian embassies in London did not respond to requests for comment at
the time of publication.