Workers in Saudi Arabia claim exploitation by labor supply and recruitment agencies while working for Amazon

Estimated read time 8 min read

A | a-+=

Momtaj Mansur, like many others, came to Saudi Arabia in September 2021 with hopes of working for Amazon to support his family in Nepal but ended up living in deplorable conditions, burdened by debt, and exploited by labor supply firms and recruiting agencies.

Over 50 current and former workers shared similar stories of being deceived into paying illegal recruitment fees and working for labor supply companies instead of Amazon, as revealed in an international investigation involving NBC News, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism, and The Guardian.

Several workers, including Mansur, spoke openly about their experiences, while others remained anonymous due to concerns about future employment. Journalists verified their accounts using various forms of documentation.

After being informed of the findings, Amazon acknowledged labor violations and pledged corrective actions, including compensating workers who had paid recruitment fees. John Felton, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, expressed deep concern over the treatment of contract workers in Saudi Arabia and emphasized the importance of their willingness to report their experiences. While the company specifically mentioned recruiting fees and substandard housing as violations, it did not provide additional details or discuss other labor violations.

Amazon relies on labor supply company Abdullah Fahad Al-Mutairi Co. in Saudi Arabia, with 49 out of 54 interviewed workers hired through Al-Mutairi. Amazon initially considered suspending the company but instead opted to collaborate with them to implement significant operational changes. Al-Mutairi, however, did not respond to requests for comment.

Al-Mutairi obtains workers through recruitment agencies in Nepal and elsewhere. Momtaj Mansur, an example, worked at Amazon’s Riyadh warehouse as a “picker” but was abruptly let go in May 2022, left without work, wages, or sufficient food. Mansur pleaded with Al-Mutairi to let him return to Nepal but was told he needed to pay over $1,300 as an exit fee, causing his family to take out a 36% interest loan, sinking them deeper into debt.

Twenty workers disclosed that labor supply companies insisted they pay hefty exit fees, often equivalent to several months’ wages, if they wished to return to Nepal. Mansur, now back in Nepal, remains resentful of the firms responsible for his suffering in Saudi Arabia, questioning why he ended up there.

Amazon informed NBC News that Mansur had a positive work record and would be welcome to return to the company. Interviews with workers revealed practices considered indicators of potential labor trafficking under U.S. law and U.N. standards, including abusive working and living conditions, restricted movement, and false information about the employer’s identity. According to U.N. standards, recruitment fees should be covered by the employer, not the worker.

Some workers reported grievances to Amazon regarding low or unpaid wages, substandard housing, and the challenges of warehouse work. Amazon pledged to enhance oversight of its labor suppliers and prevent future violations of its standards. They plan to implement stricter controls for all vendors, offer enhanced training on labor rights standards, with a focus on recruitment, wages, and deception, and are committed to upholding their established supply chain standards and global human rights principles.

Amazon entered the Saudi Arabian market in 2017 through the acquisition of and employed workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Nepal. In 2023, the company reported a workforce of nearly 1,500 permanent and seasonal employees in Saudi Arabia.

Nepal has been a significant source of foreign laborers working overseas, contributing substantially to the country’s economy through remittances. However, many Nepali workers have heard of adverse working and living conditions from family and friends abroad.

A survey published in the British medical journal BMJ in 2017 revealed that most Nepali men working abroad experienced exploitation throughout the migration process, with half reporting deceptive recruitment practices.

Momtaj Mansur, like many others, sought direct employment rather than working for a labor supply company. When approached by Rove International, a recruiting firm based in Kathmandu, for a job at Amazon, Mansur did research to ensure better conditions. Despite being repeatedly assured of direct employment by Amazon, he was shocked when told he had to pay a recruiting fee of over $2,300, significantly higher than the Nepali government’s capped fee of less than $85 for workers going to Saudi Arabia. Six other Nepali workers confirmed similar high recruiting fees charged by Rove International.

Nepali workers going to Saudi Arabia face particular vulnerability due to Nepal’s government’s inability to enforce policies against high recruiting fees. This issue has been acknowledged by Nepal’s parliament, its Supreme Court, and the U.S. State Department.

Additionally, these workers are at risk due to the kafala system, which is a complex set of labor and immigration laws in some Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. This system grants employers substantial control over the employment and immigration status of migrant workers, causing many foreign workers to fear punishment if they attempt to leave their employer.

In September 2021, Mansur traveled from his home in southern Nepal to Kathmandu and took his first-ever flight to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He believed he was met by Amazon officials upon arrival, but soon realized he had a green ID badge, unlike the blue badges worn by direct Amazon employees. He discovered he was working for Al-Mutairi, a labor supply provider, not Amazon.

Records show that the Department of Foreign Employment in Nepal issued work permits in September 2021 to Mansur and 36 other Nepali workers, with their labor contracts channeled through Rove International to Al-Mutairi.

Rove International’s managing director, Heera Lal Shah, claimed the company followed all government procedures, but did not address allegations in detail. Of the 54 Nepali workers interviewed, 48 stated that recruiters had deceived them, falsely assuring them of direct employment with Amazon.

These workers reported receiving lower salaries than those directly employed by Amazon, despite working longer and harder. Mansur expressed his dissatisfaction with the situation, saying they worked more but earned much less.

Inside Amazon’s distribution centers, the work pace is intense with pickers and packers constantly on the move. Managers use closed-circuit cameras to monitor workers, and Nepali workers reported that Amazon supervisors would often push them to hurry by shouting “Yalla! Yalla!” (Arabic for “hurry”) while stalking them through the aisles.

During a typical shift, workers like Mansur covered extensive distances, sometimes up to 9 miles, leading to extreme fatigue and physical discomfort. Over 20 workers who were still employed at Amazon warehouses in Saudi Arabia during the summer shared their concerns but requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation. Their experiences mirrored those of Mansur and former workers, with one describing Amazon as making people work like cattle, dashing their dreams of earning money and achieving their aspirations.

During peak periods, supervisors even monitored restroom breaks, often reprimanding workers for taking too much time away from their duties. This created a climate where workers felt pressured not to take breaks, even when work demands were high, leading to long wait times to use restroom facilities.

Amazon workers in Saudi Arabia live in housing provided by Al-Mutairi, which is often described as cramped and squalid, with issues such as cockroach infestations, briny water supply causing rashes, and bed bug-infested mattresses. Air conditioners, crucial in the desert climate, frequently didn’t work.

Workers found it challenging to live with up to eight people in small rooms with insufficient space for personal belongings. While some were able to persuade Amazon to address housing problems, improvements were often short-lived, and Al-Mutairi reportedly threatened workers who complained.

Al-Mutairi was also strict about granting time off for family emergencies in Nepal. Workers had two options: pay a substantial upfront fine or convince co-workers to sign a “guarantor” contract agreeing to pay a fine on their behalf if they didn’t return to Saudi Arabia to fulfill their labor contract. This policy led to instances where workers missed significant life events, like births and funerals, due to the company’s refusal to grant leave without hefty penalties. Many workers shared their anguish about the sacrifices and losses they endured while working in Saudi Arabia.

In May 2022, Mansur received a message telling him not to go to work, and he discovered that he had been laid off along with other Nepali workers. Job security for these laborers in Saudi Arabia is almost nonexistent, leading to constant fear of termination.

Once laid off, workers face a new ordeal. They lose the housing reserved for Amazon workers and are placed in poorer accommodations for the unemployed. They receive no wages or money for food, often waiting for weeks or months for Al-Mutairi to find them another job.

During this period, many workers struggle to feed themselves, resorting to eating just once a day or borrowing money from former colleagues. Some even consider working illegally in construction or restaurants, despite the risk of detention.

The combination of loneliness, hunger, and stress has pushed some laid-off workers to dark thoughts, with some contemplating suicide. While Saudi Arabia announced labor reforms in 2021, these protections have not been widely implemented or enforced, leaving migrant workers vulnerable.

Mansur, burdened by unpaid loans, feels guilty about the financial strain on his family and the potential loss of their land. Nevertheless, he remains determined to find an employer that offers fair wages and decent treatment, although he is unwilling to return to Saudi Arabia.

(Source: Pramod Acharya | Andrew Lehren | Michael Hudson | Anna Schecter | Hoda Osman | NBC News | International Consortium of Investigative Journalists | Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism | The Guardian)

You May Also Like