This story was reported in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and The Guardian.
Momtaj Mansur flew to Saudi Arabia in September 2021, excited to work at one of the world’s biggest companies, Amazon. He was promised a well-paying job and planned to use the money to help his family back in Nepal.
Less than a year later, he said he was living in a crowded room with seven other men, jammed with bunk beds infested with bed bugs. The water was often salty and undrinkable. His hopes were shattered, and he was deep in debt.
Momtaj Mansur is one of more than 50 current and former workers who said they were misled and exploited by firms that supply labor to Amazon in Saudi Arabia and by their network of recruiting agencies in Nepal.
All the workers said they had to pay fees to recruiters to get hired, ranging from the equivalent of $830 to $2,040, even though fees that large are illegal, according to the Nepali government. To pay those fees, many workers needed to take out loans at high interest rates. They also all said they were duped by recruiters into working for labor supply companies rather than directly for Amazon.
The workers were interviewed as part of an international reporting collaboration with NBC News, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalism, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism and The Guardian.
Click here to read the ICIJ’s version of this story.
About a dozen workers like Mansur agreed to speak on the record. Others, fearful that speaking out would hurt their chances for other employment, were interviewed with the agreement that their names would not be published. To substantiate their accounts, the journalists reviewed photographs, emails, receipts, messages and other documentation from their time working at Amazon.
After being presented with the findings, Amazon told NBC News it had conducted its own investigation and found labor violations. The company promised measures to fix the problems, including compensating workers who paid recruiting fees to the companies supplying labor.
“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,” John Felton, Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide operations, said in a written statement.
“We appreciate their willingness to come forward and report their experience,” Felton wrote. “Our supply chain audit process and our own investigation surfaced violations of our standards.”
In particular, the company cited recruiting fees and squalid housing among the violations it found, but declined to offer more details or discuss other labor violations.
A key player for Amazon is a labor supply company that gets workers from other countries — the Saudi-based Abdullah Fahad Al-Mutairi Co. Amazon is among several large corporations that has contracted Al-Mutairi, which has billed itself as “a leading provider of human resource solutions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” Forty-nine of the 54 workers interviewed were hired through Al-Mutairi.
Amazon said it considered “suspending” the company “when these allegations came to light.” Instead, it decided to work with Al-Mutairi to make “significant changes to their operations.”
Al-Mutairi did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
To get workers, Al-Mutairi has worked with recruiting companies in Nepal and elsewhere to attract laborers.
Momtaj Mansur in Nepal was one of them.
When he came to Saudi Arabia, he worked at Amazon’s vast two-story warehouse called RUH 6, in the capital city, Riyadh. He spent his nights as a “picker,” hustling up and down aisles grabbing iPhones, packs of Red Bull and other items ordered by Amazon’s customers across the Arabian Peninsula. He recalled that Amazon managers berated him for being slow, even as he exceeded company targets to pick 70 to 80 items an hour from shelves and boxes.
Then things got worse. In May 2022, Mansur said, he was among a group of workers who were let go without warning or explanation — without work, wages or enough food.
Mansur said he pleaded with Al-Mutairi: If there was no more work at Amazon, let them return to Nepal.
“I told them: Either kill us or send us home, but don’t give us so much pain.”
He said the labor supply firm told him that the only way he could return home was to pay the company an exit fee of more than $1,300 as a penalty for leaving before the end of his two-year contract. It was an enormous sum for his family, which subsisted on about $300 a month, along with rice, wheat and peas grown on a fifth of an acre shared with relatives.
The labor firm was “heartless,” Mansur said. “How could I pay that amount? By selling our house or my kidney?”
In the end, his family sunk itself even deeper in debt by taking out a loan — at 36% interest — to pay the exit fee.