Saudi Arabia to remove key restrictions on migrant laborers

In this Jan. 24, 2020 file photo, workers play cards during their holiday in the Old City of Jiddah, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia on Wednesday announced reforms that will abolish some key restrictions tying millions of low-paid and vulnerable migrant workers to their employers in conditions that have been rife with abuse and exploitation.

The Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development said the 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 consent of their employer, which had long been required.

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

Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum said the information provided thus far shows Saudi authorities are removing some elements of the “kafala” sponsorship system in place across multiple Gulf Arab states that ties foreign workers’ legal status to their employer.

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

Begum described the three changes to the Saudi law as “significant steps that could improve migrant workers’ conditions,” but cautioned it does not appear to be a full abolition of the kafala system.

“Migrant workers still need an employer to sponsor them to come to 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 Saudi Arabia’s restrictive kafala system, workers had little power to escape abuse because 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 workers’ passports, forcing them to work excessive hours and denying them wages. This has led to hundreds of thousands of workers fleeing their employers and becoming undocumented.

The reforms are part of a broader plan known as Vision 2030 spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to make the kingdom more attractive to foreign investors, expand the private sector and diversify the kingdom’s oil-dependent economy.