Hoa Binh, Vietnam – Pham Thi Dao lives in an abandoned house with her seven-year-old daughter Hong Anh, off the beaten track from the central town of Hoa Binh province, southwest of Hanoi.
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“I worked from 5am until 1am in the morning, and was allowed to eat once at 1pm,” Dao told Al Jazeera of her experience in the port city of Yanbu. “It was the same every day – a slice of lamb and a plate of plain rice. After nearly two months, I was like a mad person.”
According to statistics from Vietnam’s labour ministry, there are currently 20,000 Vietnamese workers in the kingdom, with nearly 7,000 working as domestic staff for Saudi families.
In 2014, the two countries signed a five-year labour pact that paved the way for more Vietnamese citizens to work in the Gulf country.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s biggest importers of domestic workers.
We didn't ask for much, just no starvation, no beatings, and three meals per day. If we had that, we would not have begged for rescue.
The number of Vietnamese labourers is relatively small compared with Filipinos, Indonesians and Sri Lankans, but the community reports mistreatment.
Some who escaped have recounted slave-like working and living conditions.
“I understand that as [domestic] workers we need to get used to difficult working conditions,” said Dao, who is vocal on social media about her experience. “We didn’t ask for much, just no starvation, no beatings, and three meals per day. If we had that, we would not have begged for rescue.”
Trinh Thi Linh, from the northern Ha Nam province, works for a family in Riyadh.
Prior to taking this job, the 30-year-old had never travelled outside Vietnam and knew little about Saudi Arabia.
“I was promised a salary of $388 a month, without paying any fees for the recruitment process,” Linh told Al Jazeera by phone. “I was very excited about the idea. Our family is quite poor, and a month’s salary [as a domestic worker] is more than what we earn for two crops.”
I didn't even have sanitary pads and was forced to wash their feet and give them massages. At one point, she would throw out the leftover food rather than let me have it.
Linh said she has met other Vietnamese women in Saudi Arabia. The youngest is 28, the oldest 47. They are mostly farmers from Vietnam’s rural areas, many from the country’s ethnic minorities.
“As soon as I arrived at the airport in Riyadh, they (employees from a Saudi company providing domestic workers) pushed me into a room with more than a hundred of others,” she said. “When my employer picked me up later, he took my passport and employment contract. Most women I’ve talked to here experience the same thing.”
Like Dao, she said she was given one meal a day and worked 18-hour shifts.
Another domestic worker, who requested anonymity, showed Al Jazeera her contract stipulating a nine-hour break – a standard given the contracts are composed by Vietnam’s labour ministry.
When Linh asked to be moved to another family – a workers’ right according to their contracts – staff at the Vietnamese broker company shouted at her and tried to intimidate her.
She went on a hunger strike for three days until her employer agreed to take her back to the Saudi company.
“My employer told me he’d paid a lot of money to bring me home – around $6,100 – so he wanted me to stay, but I couldn’t stand living there,” Linh said. “After a week, they did return me to the [Saudi] broker.”
But her second employer was much worse.
A female family member rummaged through Linh’s suitcases without her permission on the first day, locked her in a room and confiscated her passport.
“She put all of my suitcases in a locked storage room, she did not let me use my phone and did not let me cook my own food. I didn’t even have sanitary pads and was forced to wash their feet and give them massages. At one point, she would throw out the leftover food rather than let me have it.
“After three months, I went from 74kg to 53kg. I was frustrated, panicked, frequently suffering from insomnia, and the only thing I could do was to cry.”
Saudi’s labour ministry had not responded to Al Jazeera’s request for an interview, sent more than a month ago, by the time of publishing. The Saudi embassy in Hanoi said it was unable to comment.
It becomes very difficult for the workers to prove that they are maltreated, overworked, beaten or even sexually assaulted. The execution of the law after all still favours the Saudi employers.
Nguyen Thi Mai Thuy, national project coordinator for the ASEAN Triangle programme at Vietnam’s International Labour Office (ILO), said the domestic work environment limits external communication.
“What happens inside [the home] remains inside. It becomes very difficult for the workers to prove that they are maltreated, overworked, beaten or even sexually assaulted.
“The execution of the law after all still favours the Saudi employers – the sponsors – rather than the workers themselves.”
Domestic workers enter Saudi Arabia under the sponsorship, or kafala, system which prohibits them from changing jobs or leaving the country without their sponsor’s approval.
The UAE, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar and Lebanon also tie workers’ visa status to their employers, making them vulnerable and dependent on host families.
In these countries, workers who attempt to escape from an abusive employer have been punished for “absconding”, with imprisonment, fines and deportations.
Vietnamese domestic workers are usually recruited by a Vietnamese broker company. That company then prepares these women linguistically and professionally before supplying them to Saudi recruitment agencies.
The Vietnamese company is liable for their rights.
This multilayered system means workers are vulnerable to abuse at every turn, said Thuy, the ILO coordinator.
There is no easy way out of the ordeal.
Leaving an employment contract carries a hefty fine, plus the price of a ticket back to Vietnam, if the worker is unable to prove abuse at the hands of their employers.
The cost of quitting is usually between $2,500 and $3,500.
Bui Van Sang’s partner, Tuyet, works in Riyadh.
He said she is being beaten and starved.
The Vietnamese broker company asked him for $2,155 for her return, but refused to put anything in writing, he claimed.
Her phone has been taken away and Sang is only able to contact her every two to three weeks, “when her employer feels like [allowing her]”.
By the time he had raised the $2,155, the Vietnamese broker company demanded double the payment, he said.
He travelled 1,500km from his southern Vietnamese home province of Tay Ninh to the capital, Hanoi, to beg the broker, but was turned away.
“I just want her to come back,” Sang said. “We never expected it to be this hard – for her to leave the home, her children and relatives here. If you consider the salary – $388 for 18 to 20 hours of work, it is much less than what she was paid here in Vietnam as a domestic helper.”
There are no independent organisations in either Saudi Arabia or Vietnam which ensure the safety of domestic workers.
In the past few years, reports of abuse have prompted Saudi authorities to suggest amendments to existing labour regulations, but rights groups say they fall short.
Workers and their relatives have to rely entirely on the Vietnamese broker companies for support.
Linh, the domestic helper in Riyadh, said when she contacted the Vietnamese company that brought her there, they told her the employment contract is only valid in Vietnam, not in Saudi Arabia.
“They [the Vietnamese companies] are supposed to protect our rights, but all they do is yell at us,” Linh said by phone. “Now I just want to leave the country. If I go to the police, at least they’d bring me to the detention centre, and I’d be deported and allowed to leave.”
She recently livestreamed a video detailing the treatment that she and many fellow Vietnamese domestic helpers face while working in Saudi Arabia.
The video has been viewed 113,000 times.
“Many women I know here just want the same thing – they just want to leave,” she said. “But they are afraid, threatened, and don’t even dare to speak out.”