Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia face routine human rights abuses that in some cases amount to slavery, with employers often escaping any punishment, according to a new report. Abuses include months or years of unpaid wages, forced confinement and physical and sexual violence, while some workers suffer imprisonment or lashings for spurious charges of theft, adultery, or “witchcraft”, says Human Rights Watch.

Saudi households employ an estimated 1.5 million domestic workers, mostly from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Nepal. Thousands of complaints of abuse are made every year.

“In the best cases, migrant women in Saudi Arabia enjoy good working conditions and kind employers, and in the worst they’re treated like virtual slaves. Most fall somewhere in between,” said Nisha Varia, senior researcher in HRW’s Women’s Rights Division. “The Saudi government should extend labour law protection to domestic workers and reform the visa sponsorship system so that women desperate to earn money for their families don’t have to gamble with their lives.”

Excessive workloads and unpaid wages, for periods ranging from a few months to 10 years, are among the most common complaints. The Saudi labour law excludes domestic workers, denying them rights guaranteed to other workers, such as a weekly rest day and overtime pay. Many domestic workers must work 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

A restrictive sponsorship system ties workers’ visas to their employers, which means employers can prevent workers changing jobs or leaving the country. Employers often take away passports and lock workers in the home, increasing their isolation and risk of psychological, physical and sexual abuse. After interviewing 86 foreign domestic workers, HRW concluded that 36 faced abuses that amounted to forced labour, trafficking, or slavery-like conditions.

Poor investigations and criminal proceedings that often last for years mean that abusive employers are rarely punished. For example, after three years of proceedings, a Riyadh court dropped charges against the employer of Nour Miyati, despite the employer’s confession and medical evidence. Miyati, an Indonesian domestic worker, had her fingers and toes amputated as a result of being starved and beaten daily by her employers.

Haima G, a Filipina, said her employer called her into his bedroom soon after she had arrived and told her she had been “bought” for 10,000 riyals (£1,350). “The employer raped me many times. I told everything to madam. The whole family, madam, the employer, they didn’t want me to go. They locked the doors and gates,” she told HRW.

Rather than seeing their abusers brought to justice, domestic workers are more likely to face counter-accusations of witchcraft, theft, or adultery, said the report. And in such cases, domestic workers often face severe delays in getting access to interpreters, legal aid, or consular assistance, or are denied help.

Witchcraft and moral crimes such as being in the presence of unrelated men are punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment and 60 to 490 lashes, so many women decide not to seek justice.