Saudi Arabia Says It Will Improve Conditions for Foreign Laborers

Plan says workers can leave country, change jobs without employer’s consent but leaves intact contentious sponsorship program.

A worker fills a vehicle with petrol at a gas station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 16, 2020. (photo credit: AHMED YOSRI/ REUTERS)
A worker fills a vehicle with petrol at a gas station in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 16, 2020.
(photo credit: AHMED YOSRI/ REUTERS)
Saudi Arabia has decided to give foreign workers more rights amid a push to make the kingdom more attractive to international business and after the rival Gulf Arab country of Qatar made similar changes.
As of March 2021, foreign laborers in Saudi Arabia will no longer be required to ask their employers for permission to switch jobs or leave the country, the kingdom announced on Wednesday. In the Saudi system of employee sponsorship, or kefala, an international worker’s legal standing is dependent on the employer. 
“The Saudi authorities’ announcement that they will allow migrant workers to transfer [to other] jobs and [also] leave the country without employer consent is significant, and if implemented, could improve conditions for migrant workers,” Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told The Media Line. “Human Rights Watch has documented how employers have abused such power,”  she said.
The change came amid rumors last week that Saudi Arabia was going to eliminate the kefala system. However, these reforms do not go that far.
Varsha Koduvayur, senior research analyst at the Washington DC-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told The Media Line: “Saudi Arabia’s kefala reforms are a positive step in the right direction, but don’t totally solve the problem: It is not an abolition” of the system. 
“That could still leave workers open to exploitation and abuse,” she said.
Begum agreed. “Employers still retain some power over migrant workers’ legal status. Migrant workers still need an employer to act as their sponsor to enter the country and to issue and renew their residency. Employers can still cancel their residency at any time, leaving workers dependent on their employers,” she said.   
These changes are part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 to make the kingdom more enticing for international businesses. Saudi Arabia’s human-rights record and treatment of women have deterred some companies from entering into contracts there.
“Saudi Arabia’s kefala system has long been seen as problematic, and rights activists have been calling for … reform for a long time. … This concern has been exacerbated throughout the Gulf as expat workers found themselves locked down due to the coronavirus,” Koduvayur said.
Saudi Arabia’s reforms follow those of Qatar, a rival member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
At the end of August, Qatar announced one of the most aggressive reforms in the region, raising the minimum wage for foreign laborers and allowing them to change jobs without permission.
“In terms of timing, I think it’s quite interesting Saudi Arabia announced this now given that Qatar announced labor reforms earlier this year, in light of the ongoing geopolitical competition between these two countries,” Koduvayur said.
She said that the fine print of these reforms remained to be seen.
The “Saudi reforms are very similar to Qatar’s; however, we know very little about how the Saudi authorities will actually implement these changes, as we are yet to see details.” 
Neither country is as generous as the United Arab Emirates when it comes to foreigners changing jobs. The UAE grants foreign laborers a one-month grace period between leaving one job and finding another.
In Qatar, migrant workers must find new jobs while still working in the position they wish to leave. For some employees, such as domestic workers who have limited freedom to leave the house, this condition makes it nearly impossible to find a new employer. 
The Saudi reforms do not apply to household workers.
“This reform does not yet apply to some workers such as the more than one million migrant domestic workers who are some of the most vulnerable workers in the country,” Begum said.
“Human Rights Watch has documented domestic workers who said their employers confiscated their passports, forced them to work long, excessive hours without rest or days off, denied them their wages or contact with the outside world, confined them to their employers’ homes, and some said they were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.”
Some reforms that have already been implemented have their shortcomings.
Saudi Arabia has a law saying that companies violating labor laws will no longer receive employment permits and their employees are allowed to change to another employer, Begum said.
“This system isn’t working very well. It’s still reliant on a worker making a complaint and whether or not the complaint is accepted by the government, which would then also have to approve their transfer to a new job.”
The kefala system must be dismantled in order to stop the mistreatment of foreign workers, Begum said.
“Saudi authorities should fully abolish all remaining elements including by ensuring that all migrant workers are not dependent on any single employer or company to enter, reside and leave the country.”
“The authorities should also seek to allow hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers in Saudi Arabia, many of whom became undocumented through no fault of their own, to be able to regularize their status including by finding new employers,” she added.