Saudi Arabia to revise labor legal guidelines

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – Saudi Arabia on Wednesday announced reforms aimed at removing some key restrictions that keep millions of poorly paid and vulnerable migrant workers attached to their employers in conditions marked by abuse and exploitation.

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development said the reforms would give foreign workers the right to change jobs by transferring sponsorship from one employer to another, leaving and re-entering the country, and obtaining permanent exit visas without their employer’s consent securing has long been necessary.

Deputy Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthnain said the new so-called “Labor Relation Initiative” is expected to come into force in March 2021, potentially affecting around a third of the total population of Saudi Arabia or around 10 million foreign workers in the kingdom.

Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum said the information provided so far shows that the Saudi authorities are removing some elements of the “kafala” sponsorship system that exists in several Gulf Arab states, which affects the legal status of foreign workers with their employer connects.

Qatar, which is preparing to host the next FIFA World Cup in 2022, recently made similar changes to its labor laws.

Begum described the three amendments to Saudi law as “significant steps to improve the working conditions of migrant workers” but warned that this does not appear to be a complete abolition of the kafala system.

“Migrant workers still need an employer to sponsor them to come into the country, and employers may still have control over their residency status,” said Begum, whose work focuses on migrant rights, domestic workers and women’s rights in the Middle East.

Under the restrictive Kafala system in Saudi Arabia, workers had little power to evade abuse as their employers controlled their exit from the country and their ability to change jobs. Begum recently wrote about how many employers exploited this control by taking work passes, forcing them to work excessive hours, and denying them wages. This has resulted in hundreds of thousands of workers fleeing their employers and running out of papers.

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