Accessibility links

Breaking News

Tajik Woman Details Alleged Abuse At Hands Of Saudi Employers

Shamsia Asanalishoeva says physical abuse at the hands of her employers led her to seek help, first from local police and then Tajik diplomats.
Shamsia Asanalishoeva says physical abuse at the hands of her employers led her to seek help, first from local police and then Tajik diplomats.

Shamsia Asanalishoeva left Tajikistan in the hope of better income and economic opportunities far from home, in Saudi Arabia.

A year later, the 46-year-old is anxious to return home after being rescued from the physical abuse she says she suffered while working as an undocumented employee in a family home on the Persian Gulf state's western coast.

Asanalishoeva, who is now safely in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, acknowledges that she overstayed her tourist visa. The former telejournalist found a job as a domestic worker through a Saudi employment agency in 2016 and was working without the proper documentation.

Asanalishoeva says she took a job as a house cleaner for a Saudi family in the port city of Jeddah, and received a monthly salary of 1,500 riyals (about $400). But she says she soon realized her job was to be a full-time "servant, nanny, and cook."

"They tell you that you're being hired for cleaning only, but...they make you do everything: look after children, all the housework and cooking," she says. "It's like a living hell."

Eventually, she says, physical abuse at the hands of her employers led her to seek help, first from local police and now from Tajik diplomatic missions.

She recently sent RFE/RL photographs that show what appear to be bruises on her face, neck, arms, and legs. In a video interview with RFE/RL's Tajik Service, Asanalishoeva says she was regularly beaten by the Saudi family.

RFE/RL cannot independently confirm her claims, but the Tajik Foreign Ministry says representatives of the country's embassy in Riyadh did establish that Asanalishoeva "had been living and working in difficult conditions" and faced "hostile treatment" by her employers.

"I wanted to leave but the family demanded that I first reimburse the $2,000 they said they had paid to the employment agency," Asanalishoeva says.

One day in May, after having suffered a beating earlier in the month, Asanalishoeva says she called police.

Unable to speak Arabic, Asanalishoeva says she had to call police some 30 times, "asking them to find someone who speaks English."

Asanalishoeva says that police did arrive eventually, and took her to the office of the employment agency. "I asked the officers to take me to the hospital to get a doctor's assessment of my injuries, but they didn't take me there," Asanalishoeva says.

Despite living in Jeddah for several months, Asanalishoeva had little knowledge of the city because she says she wasn't allowed to venture out on her own. "I didn't know the address I was living at, and police tracked down my location through the phone number I called them," she says.

Well aware of her "illegal" status in Saudi Arabia, Asanalishoeva says she does not intend to pursue legal action against the family over the alleged abuse and irregular payments.

Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry said on May 31 that Asanalishoeva had been transferred to the country's embassy in Riyadh, where Tajik diplomats were working to prepare documents to send her back home.

The embassy has obtained Asanalishoeva's passport from the employment agency, the ministry said.

"I regret coming here," Asanalishoeva says, but blames her decision on the shortage of jobs and low salaries in Tajikistan.

Widespread unemployment at home has forced some 1 million Tajiks -- out of a population of some 8 million -- to look for jobs abroad. Many are engaged in seasonal work in Russia, and contribute to Tajikistan's economy by sending remittances to family.

Saudi Arabia is a relatively new labor migration destination for Tajiks and there are no official estimates about the number of Tajik nationals currently working in the kingdom.

Tajikistan does not have a bilateral agreement on job quotas with Saudi authorities, Tajik officials say.

"Most Tajik labor migrants in Saudi Arabia have gone there through private agencies and they often face many problems," says Tolib Sharifov, a high-ranking official at the Employment and Migration Ministry.

Tajikistan in 2008 rejected an offer by Saudi employment agencies to provide work visas and employment opportunities for 300 male drivers as well as 200 positions for domestic workers to Tajik women under 25. Tajikistan's then-employment minister, Shukurjon Zuhurov, turned down the offer, criticizing the age requirement by the Saudi agencies.

Tajik prosecutors are currently investigating two Tajik employment agencies allegedly involved in sending workers to Gulf states, where Tajik authorities believe labor migrants often face exploitation.

Saudi Arabia and several other Gulf Arab countries have long been criticized for failing to protect foreign workers' rights amid widespread reports of abuse.

In 2015, a Saudi employer allegedly cut off the hand of an Indian domestic worker, according to Human Rights Watch, which has also documented cases in which workers were burned with a hot iron and boiling water, sexually assaulted, and beaten.

Shamsia Asanalishoeva says she wants her story to serve as a warning to other Tajik women.

Written by Farangis Najibullah, with reporting by RFE/RL's Tajik Service correspondent Tohir Safarov
  • 16x9 Image

    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.