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Saudi King Pardons Migrants, But This Is Not Enough.

On May 1, 2013

Saudi’s King Abdullah recently announced an amnesty for 141 imprisoned Indonesian workers. Abdullah cited the success of his surgery as the impetus for his "merciful" actions. The repatriation of these workers, many of whom may not have had access to fair judicial proceedings, is undeniably favorable.. However, the framework in which they were pardoned reflects the lack of legal protections and rights for migrant workers. Labor and immigration policies should not be rendered dependent on "benevolence," but rather on the formal rule of law.

Migrant workers should not be forced to rely on the states or their employer's particular disposition or mood - they should be incorporated under the same labor and legal codes that governs national workers. Currently, most migrant workers are marginalized under discriminatory labor laws which inherently undervalue their work. For example, the paucity in legal protections for domestic workers perpetuates denigrative attitudes of their labor, which is often conceived as merely an extension of "unproductive" female activities.

Such episodic "acts of kindness" work as propaganda, to boost the public image of states that systematically deny and violate migrant rights. They are then cited to circumvent very much needed labor reforms, including restructuring of the sponsorship system. The sponsorship system entrenches migrant workers' dependency on employers, rendering them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.

Such ad-hoc practices fail to guarantee migrants the inalienable rights enshrined in international and regional conventions. With regard to imprisoned migrants, this includes the right to a fair trial, the right to a translator, and the right to accessible legal services. Even more generally, the state transgresses on migrant worker rights by failing to enact or implement protective legislation. Though sporadic pardons and related acts may occasion positive, one-off outcomes, they are no substitute for the legal formalization of migrant rights.