Saudi Arabia removes key restrictions on migrant workers, but reforms aren't abolition of kafala system

Reforms will allow foreign workers the right to change jobs by transferring their sponsorship from one employer to another, leave and re-enter the country and secure final exit visas without the employers' consent

FP Staff November 06, 2020 09:44:54 IST
Saudi Arabia removes key restrictions on migrant workers, but reforms aren't abolition of kafala system

File image of migrants in a city in Saudi Arabia. AP

Saudi Arabia announced reforms under the Labour Reform Initiative that will affect around 10 million foreign workers in the kingdom, where employment conditions have been known to be notoriously abusive and exploitative.

The Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development said the reforms will allow low-paid and vulnerable foreign workers the right to change jobs by transferring their sponsorship from one employer to another, leave and re-enter the country and secure final exit visas without the consent of their employer.

The reforms, which will come into effect in March next year, will remove some elements of the kafala sponsorship system that ties foreign workers' legal status to their employer, Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum told The Associated Press. Migrant workers will also be able to apply directly for government services and their contracts with their employers will be documented digitally.

Under the seven-decade-old kafala system, workers had little power to escape abuse as employers controlled exit from the country and ability to change jobs. Reports have often claimed that employers often seize the workers; passports, force them to work excessive hours and deny them wages, leading to thousands of employees fleeing and becoming undocumented.

Deputy Minister of Saudi Human Resources Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain said the reforms are envisioned as a part of a broader plan known as Vision 2030 spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and are aimed in making the Saudi labour market more attractive.

The plan seeks to expand the kingdom’s private sector and diversify the economy currently dependent on its oil reserves, and will allow workers to apply directly for services via an e-government portal, instead of a mandatory employers' approval. The ministry also aims to certify the contracts of all foreign workers by the end of the first quarter of 2021.

Reforms exclude domestic workers, not full abolition of kafala

Qatar, slated to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, had recently introduced similar reforms to its labour laws. The changes in Saudi Arabia, however, won’t be applicable for 3.7 million domestic workers, who are most prone to abuse, according to Al Jazeera.

Despite the three changes in labour laws, the existing legal framework will still require employers to sponsor workers for the latter to be able to enter the kingdom and still have control over their residency status. Thus, the kafala system is likely to persist as long as visas are tied to a sponsor.

Apart from not addressing the issue of dismal conditions in detentions centres for foreign workers, the reforms also do not specify if employers can report workers for absconding, a move used as a punitive measure against workers who claim abusive conditions. Begum said if an employer reports a worker for absconding or is able to cancel a worker's visa before that person can request a transfer of employment, they can become undocumented in the country and then liable to arrest and deportation.

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