Momtaj Mansur wanted to go home to his mom and his brother and the pastures of Nepal’s southern plains. He felt like a prisoner, he says, in a roach-infested bunkhouse in Saudi Arabia, out of work, hungry and deep in debt.
The 23-year-old had come to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, in 2021 to work for one of the world’s biggest companies: Amazon.
Instead of his dream job, he says, he found low pay and misery. Amazon managers berated him, he says, for being too slow as he hustled across a vast two-story warehouse, grabbing iPhones and other items ordered by customers across the Arabian peninsula.
Then in May 2022, he says, he and many of his Nepali co-workers were abruptly let go from their jobs at the Amazon warehouse. They were 2,400 miles from home with no wages and little food.
Mansur says he pleaded with the Saudi labor supply company that held their employment contracts and had placed them in what amounted to temporary positions at Amazon: if there was no more work, let them return to Nepal.
The Saudi firm, he says, demanded he make a terrible choice. He could stay in a place that, for him, was “like a hell”. Or he could push his family back in Nepal deeper into destitution by paying a $1,300 exit fee, a penalty for leaving before his contract was done.
“Either kill us or send us home, but don’t give us so much pain.”
In a written reply to questions for this story, Amazon acknowledged that some workers at its Saudi facilities had been mistreated.
“Providing safe, healthy and fair working conditions is a requirement of doing business with Amazon in every country where we operate, and we are deeply concerned that some of our contract workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia … were not treated with the standards we set forth, and the dignity and respect they deserve,” the statement said. “We appreciate their willingness to come forward and report their experience.”
Amazon said it will make sure that workers who paid recruiting fees get their money back.
The company added that it was “implementing stronger controls” to “ensure similar incidents do not occur and to raise overall standards for workers in the region”. This includes “providing enhanced trainings for our third-party vendors on labor rights standards with a specific focus on recruitment, wages, and deception”.
Potential labor trafficking under the guise of gainful employment
This story was produced by the Guardian US, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), NBC News and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism as part of Trafficking Inc, a joint reporting effort that has been examining human trafficking and labor exploitation in Asia, the United States, Africa and the Middle East.
In interviews, workers provided similar descriptions of unfair practices by Amazon and labor agents involved in their employment. To support their accounts, they provided photos, videos and hundreds of documents, including passports, job contracts, plane tickets, arrival documents, Amazon ID badges, paystubs, work permits, medical records and screenshots of internal chat messages. Several former workers spoke on the record, but current workers and some former workers, fearing retaliation, asked that their names not be used.
The interviews describe practices that are considered markers for potential labor trafficking under US law and UN standards, including subjecting workers to abusive working and living conditions, restricting their movement, and making false promises about wages, working conditions and the identity of the employer. UN standards also say private recruiting agencies should never charge workers any fees or costs; it should be up to the employer to pay the recruiting firms.
The practices described by the warehouse workers also appear to violate Amazon’s labor policies. In a 2022 statement, Amazon said its standards “recognize domestic and foreign migrant workers’ unique vulnerability” and “make clear that workers may not be charged recruitment fees at any point in the recruitment process”.
The human rights group Amnesty International confirmed to the Guardian and other media partners that it has conducted its own investigation into the treatment of Nepali workers at Amazon’s Saudi operations. Amnesty said it collaborated with another nongovernmental organization to interview 22 workers who report being subjected to abusive practices, including being forced to pay large recruiting fees and being deceived about the terms of their employment.
Ella Knight, a London-based labor rights researcher for Amnesty, says the group informed Amazon in June about these issues and followed up with fuller details of its findings in August. Knight says it’s likely that both Amnesty’s investigation and the news outlets’ separate investigation contributed to Amazon’s decision to publicly pledge to put stronger controls in place and make sure workers are repaid for their recruiting fees.
Some of the Nepali laborers say they don’t want to put all the blame on Amazon. If they didn’t have labor supply companies standing between them and a real job at the global company, they say, their situation might have been tenable. One current worker says he’d like Jeff Bezos, the company’s founder and executive chairman, to know that he’s suffering under the present arrangement, but that he’s “ready to go anywhere to work at Amazon if it’s a direct hiring”.
Bezos, the world’s third richest person, vowed in 2021 to make Amazon the “Earth’s best employer”.
A former worker has a different message for Bezos: “You are in this position because of our work. You would not have been in that position without the efforts of laborers and helpers from Nepal, the Philippines, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and others. But you are ignoring workers’ concerns.”
Several workers say that Amazon officials were aware of many of the problems they faced in Saudi Arabia. They say workers complained to Amazon warehouse managers or human resources agents about low or missing wages, poor housing conditions and the strains of warehouse work.
“They know everything about our situations and sufferings,” says Amiri Yadav, who worked at Amazon distribution centers in Saudi Arabia from 2021 to 2023.
Amazon said in its statement that “our supply chain audit process and our own investigation surfaced violations of our standards” in Saudi Arabia, prompting it to take action to deal with the complaints. The company added that it has “a wide variety of ways that workers at our sites can report issues with how they are treated, including a confidential 24-hour hotline.”
Poor Nepalis hope to work at one of the world’s largest brands
Amazon made a big move into Saudi Arabia in 2017, buying the Middle Eastern online retail giant Souq.com. It later rebranded Souq.com’s Saudi operations as Amazon.sa and boosted its labor force by bringing in workers from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Amazon currently employs nearly 1,500 permanent and seasonal workers in Saudi Arabia.
As one of Asia’s poorest countries, Nepal has long been a major source of transnational workers. In a 2010-2011 census, more than half of Nepali households reported receiving money from family members working outside the country. In 2021, overseas remittances back home accounted for nearly a quarter of Nepal’s gross domestic product.
Mansur felt an obligation to go overseas. His family subsisted on about $300 a month in income along with rice, wheat and grass peas grown on a fifth of an acre of land they shared with his uncles’ families.
Many Nepali workers have heard horror stories about poor working and living conditions from family members and neighbors who have gone overseas. They know to watch out for certain countries and employers and to seek direct employment, rather than working for a labor supply company. But immigration and labor policies around the world are often so stacked against them that they end up being exploited. In a survey published in 2017 in the prestigious British medical journal BMJ, most Nepali men who have worked outside the country indicated they “experienced exploitation at all stages of the migration process”. Half reported being targets of deceptive recruiting practices.
“Everyone gets trapped in foreign employment. No matter how smart you are, you’re deceived in the end.”
A Nepali laborer working at an Amazon warehouse in Saudi Arabia
“I signed the document without reading it because I was scared,” he says.
A few days later, Mansur realized that the men who met him at the airport probably weren’t Amazon officials. He’d started working at an Amazon distribution center in Riyadh, and noticed that his green ID badge differed from the blue badges worn by many other workers. The workers with blue badges were employed directly by Amazon, a Pakistani co-worker explained. Those wearing green badges weren’t Amazon employees after all. They were temporary workers.
Mansur’s actual employer, it turned out, was Abdullah Fahad Al-Mutairi Co – a Saudi labor supply firm that profits from selling labor to Amazon and other major companies. Records show Nepal’s department of foreign employment issued work permits in September 2021 to Mansur and 36 other Nepalis whose labor contracts were being channeled to Al-Mutairi by Rove International, the Nepali recruiting firm.
Forty-nine of the 54 Nepali workers interviewed for this story say they worked for Al-Mutairi. Several say they realized this just before they left Nepal and continued on because they’d already shelled out money for recruiting fees. But 42 say they didn’t know the truth until after they’d landed in Saudi Arabia – and, in most cases, after they’d taken out loans to pay big recruiting fees. They knew there was little chance of getting those fees back, so they had to stay in Saudi Arabia – working for an employer they didn’t want to work for to pay off the loans that made it possible for them to get jobs they no longer wanted.
To make matters worse, workers say, the labor supply company didn’t provide equal pay. Nepali laborers generally earned about $350 a month working the day shift at Amazon warehouses, according to interviews with workers and paystubs and employment contracts obtained by the ICIJ. In contrast, several Nepali workers say, colleagues who had similar jobs but were direct employees of Amazon earned roughly $800 to $1,300 a month.
“What the fuck?” Mansur says. “We worked more and harder, but the salary we received was much less.”
Al-Mutairi did not respond to requests for comment.
In its statement, Amazon said that since it learned about the violations of its standards, it has worked closely with the Saudi firm “to align on a compliance plan, which they’ve agreed to, that addresses those violations and complies with our standards. This includes ensuring their employees are repaid for any unpaid wages or worker-paid recruitment fees, are provided clean and safe accommodations, and that the vendor is committed to ensuring ongoing protections for workers.”
A dream job becomes a nightmare
Amazon’s warehouses in Saudi Arabia are massive. Its newest distribution center, opened in Riyadh in May, spans 390,000 sq feet across five floors, with a capacity of 2.7m cubic feet. It can hold more than 9m items – enough, Amazon says, to fill 30 Olympic-size swimming pools.
Inside Amazon’s distribution centers, the pace is fierce. Pickers roam the floors, grabbing items and handing them off to packers, who stand for hours at a time. Workers say managers keep watch on pickers through closed-circuit cameras and pickers’ scanners, which list them as “idle” if they’re not scanning items rapidly enough. Nepali workers report that senior-level Amazon staffers stalk them up and down the aisles of the warehouse, yelling, “Yalla! Yalla!” – an Arabic exclamation meaning “hurry up”.
Over a normal shift, Mansur says, he and other pickers covered as many as nine miles across warehouse floors. “I would feel extremely weak. My legs would hurt,” he says. “When I returned home, I would feel like I was being pierced with needles or walking barefoot on stones. My whole body would ache.”
During rush periods – such as sales or holidays – supervisors monitored restroom activity, sometimes admonishing them, workers say, for taking too much time away from the warehouse floor.
“They wanted us not to take breaks when there was a high work demand,” says Surendra Kumar Lama, who worked at an Amazon warehouse in Saudi Arabia from 2021 until the end of 2022. “They would stand near restrooms and water stations because workers are afraid of them. Many times, I waited half an hour or an hour to go to the restroom because they were there.”
After long days at Amazon’s warehouses, workers come home to living accommodations provided by Al-Mutairi. Many say the housing units are cramped and squalid, with cockroaches scuttling across the floor and a limited and salty water supply that led to rashes and hair loss. Often, workers say, six to eight men sleep and eat packed together in one room arrayed with bunk beds.
“How can eight people stay together in a small room?” Mansur says. “There was no space to put personal belongings. We would keep those on our beds.”
In some cases, workers successfully lobbied Amazon officials to prod Al-Mutairi to address the housing problems. But improvements often didn’t last, and the lack of clean water continues to be a problem, workers say. When they reported the water issue to Amazon, says one former worker, “Al-Mutairi threatened us: ‘Who complained about this? We will make him jobless!’”
The labor supply company also makes things difficult, workers say, when they try to get time off to attend funerals, births and other family events back home in Nepal. In such cases, 23 current and former workers say, Al-Mutairi gives a worker two choices. He can pay a large fine upfront. Or he can persuade co-workers to sign a “guarantor” contract agreeing to pay a fine on his behalf if he doesn’t return to Saudi Arabia to complete his contract.
One former worker says he missed the birth of his son and his father’s funeral because Al-Mutairi wouldn’t let him go home. Even after he showed the firm his father’s death certificate, he says, the company said he could go only if he paid a $1,600 penalty – more than four months’ salary. He couldn’t afford it, and he couldn’t find a co-worker willing to sign as his guarantor, he says.
“I couldn’t be with my dad when he died. I couldn’t hold my son when he came into this world. I didn’t achieve anything, but I lost many things.”
Former Amazon worker in Saudi Arabia