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(Update) Surprising Flexibility in Saudi's Long Awaited Amnesty

On May 25, 2013

Update: The Ministry of Labor recently released brochures explaining the legalization process. The guidelines, targeted at both employers and workers, are available in several languages:

  • Arabic (العربية)
  • English
  • Hindi (हिंदी)
  • Indonesian
  • Malayalam (മലയാളം)
  • Tagalog
  • Turkish (Türk)
  • Urdu (اردو)

    [Source: Saudi Gazette]

    Prior to May 10, only migrants who violated sponsorship laws could correct their status without penalty. Alongside sending-countries, Migrant Rights urged Saudi to extend a full amnesty to all undocumented migrant workers, including those on expired visas.

    The grace period announced last week includes a number of provisions that allow migrant workers to correct their status or pursue repatriation. According to the Ministry of Labor:

  • The grace period expires July 3
  • The amnesty applies to migrants who violated residency or labor laws before April 6, 2013
  • The amnesty does NOT apply to migrants who entered the country illegally
  • There are no penalties or fines for workers wishing to leave the country or for workers correcting their status
  • Workers will not be banned from returning to the kingdom, though they may be fingerprinted before exit
  • Absconded (runaway) workers can be legalized by changing their sponsorship, even if they have been marked as "huroob" by their employer. Changes in sponsorship can be made through the labour offices. Consent of the previous employer is not required, but a 3 month travel restriction may be imposed on employees who transfer without such approval, as per the new sponsor’s discretion
  • Absconded domestic workers may transfer their sponsorship without the consent of their previous employer. However, legal domestic workers may transfer to the private sector only if their current sponsor agrees
  • Transfers can be obtained even if the original sponsor retains the employee’s personal documents. Fees for transferral are waived during the grace period
  • Workers, including domestic workers, may change their profession without paying fees
  • Workers who overstayed Hajj or Umrah visas from July 3, 2008 or earlier can become legal if they find work and register their new sponsorship at the labour office
  • Migrants may still be responsible for fees relating to exit visa processing and tickets home, depending on the embassy
  • For Employers:

  • Businesses in any Nitaqat zone may correct the residency status of expat employees
  • Employee statuses can be corrected online. The nearest labor office holds passwords for businesses
  • Professions restricted to Saudi’s only are: “human resources senior manager, personnel affairs manager, workers’ affairs manager, employees’ relations manager, employees’ affairs specialist, employees’ affairs clerk, clerk, receptionist, hotel receptionist, patient desk receptionists, cashier, security guard, expeditor, key maker, customs clearance clerk, female workers in women’s accessory shops.”
  • Businesses established after April 6, 2013 will not be allowed to transfer sponsorship of workers who otherwise meet the conditions of the grace period
  • Employers must keep business licenses and employees’ residency permits up-to-date. Failure to do so will permit employees to transfer sponsorship to another employer without consent. This regulation will remain after the grace period ends
  • Employers may request more information from 920001173.
  • After July 3, both employers and undocumented workers may face imprisonment and fines.

    The Nepali mission has already started to process the return of illegal migrants. They are receiving applications from workers who no longer have their passport. Migrants can receive travel documents from the embassy without charge. Approximately 70,000 Nepalis are expected to pursue amnesty.

    The Philippines government may already be seeking to extend the grace period in order to complete the repatriation of all workers. The embassy estimates 20,000 undocumented Filipinos will pursue amnesty.

    An estimated 10,000 undocumented Sri Lankans will also benefit from the amnesty. The Sri Lankan embassy has requested Sri Lankans register with the Saudi Immigration And Emigration Department to obtain an exit visa.

    Bangladeshi officials estimate anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000 expats may take advantage of the amnesty.

    Amnesty programs are not perfect; for example, they generally fail to correct cases in which migrant workers became illegal because of employer misconduct (though by permitting undocumented workers to become legalized without the personal documents or the consent of former employers, Saudi’s grace period is much more agreeable to this point). Additionally, information regarding the programs are not alway uniformly implemented either by host country offices or sending embassies. Awareness of the programs may not always reach workers in remote areas, particularly domestic workers who may be confined in their sponsor’s homes as well as herders in remote locations.

    However, general amnesties can help migrants who want to return home or transfer sponsorship, but cannot risk prolonged detainment or financial penalties. They especially comprise a positive alternative to the raids which remain ongoing in neighboring Gulf states, in particular Kuwait and the UAE. Kuwait has indicated it is considering an a similar amnesty scheme for undocumented workers and may even extend visas to some workers. Migrant Rights urges all Gulf states to adopt similar mechanisms to facilitate the safe legalization and repatriation of undocumented migrant workers. Such schemes represent significant progress in aligning the rights of migrants with international standards that proscribe mass detainment and deportation.