Recent laws in Saudi reinforce migrant workers’ vulnerability

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Jul 31 2016

The ongoing stream of laws and regulations drafted and implemented by Saudi’s labor and interior ministries reflect the entanglement of migration and domestic politics. The overall effect of these laws, and of the accompanying government narrative, reinforces the marginalization of migrant workers and immerses them in a society ever more hostile to their presence. Officials, and often the text of laws themselves, reference “Saudization”, or the replacement of expatriate workers with citizens, to justify their often aggressive tactics. Seemingly ‘positive’ reforms are implemented only alongside tightened controls, such as restrictions on migrants’ mobility effectively licences the exploitation of their labor. Yet, as is similarly apparent across Europe and the United States today, the state narrative on migration distorts the needs of the labor market and fans xenophobia for political ends. Scapegoating migrants for crime rates, unemployment rates, and general economic woes is of course, a time-worn strategy. But while discriminatory policies may diffuse political and economic discontent from the state for the time being, the effect on Saudi’s own economy is likely to prove detrimental in the long-term.

Self-serving fines

Earlier this year, the labor ministry announced fines and regulations “to improve the status of workers’ rights.” Yet, most of these fines served the interest of the state rather than the safety and welfare of workers. Theoretically, employers should be fined between US$500-1000 for violations including the confiscation of passports, overworking employees, denying them access to contracts, risking their lives, or for falsely reporting workers as absconded. Yet, the state, rather than the endangered or harmed worker, collects the fine. Further, the absence of significant enforcement mechanisms makes it difficult to actually hold employers accountable. And while fines levied against an employer could service as evidence of misconduct necessary for a migrant worker bring charges against the employer in court, most workers do not have the means or know-how to file suit against abusive employers.

Last month, the Ministry of Interior made a statement “warning” migrants against overstaying their visas.  Migrants who overstay their visa or abscond (leave their employment without employer’s permission) face up to a 50,000 riyal fine and six months in jail, with virtually no means of challenging the punishment. The ministry’s promise of fines, imprisonment, and deportation are not new, but the periodically renewed fervor of deportations and the accompanying media spotlight endeavor to impress upon migrants their impermanence and subordination, in order to secure their docility and submission to the status quo. Notably, many of those who abscond or overstay their visas do so because of trafficking-like conditions or employer misconduct, of which the state is well aware and yet fails to reliably regulate or penalize. Migrants thus are prosecuted by their mere existence in the labour migration system that Saudi so strongly protects.

Since May, there has been talk of a Shoura council suggestion to limit the amount of money that expats can remit. Though still unconfirmed,  Shoura members appear enthusiastic about the proposal; they claim that limiting remittances will “keep the money inside” and “encourage migrants to invest in the country.” This logic is at odds with the fact that Saudi makes it impossible for migrants to own anything, to start a business, or for many, to even sponsor their own families. Further,  restrictions on migrants’ mobility – the family-designated areas and shops they are prevented from entering – limits the opportunity for migrants to even spend their salaries. The call to limit expat remittances contracts Saudi’s efforts to prevent migrants, particularly low-income, from fully participating or establishing any kind of roots in society. And it is especially egregious given that migrants depend on these remittances to repay recruitment debts from the industry that Saudi only perfunctorily regulates, and given the prevalence of illegal wage deductions that the state, again, often fails to prosecute.

The Kingdom also exploits the “Wage Protection System” that requires companies to deposit salaries into their employees’ bank accounts in order to ensure timely, full payment of salaries.  Though migrants certainly may benefit from the system, it works primarily to support banks and further exact control over migrants’ finances and how they use their salaries; migrants can be questioned for any excess money, and their legal status can result in the termination of their accounts. The mechanics of the Wage Protection System in Qatar works similarly, and has forced both lower and higher income migrants into a debt trap.

Other rumoured policy proposals include a 6% tax on expats’ remittances, as well as higher visa renewal fees. Though officials denied these reports, the Labor minister’s latest statement on 10 July held that “he does not exclude the possibility of raising the fees in order to reduce the competition between migrants and citizens.” Saudi last raised visa renewal fees in 2012, from SR100 to SR2400. These fees do not apply to domestic workers, non-Saudi children of Saudi mothers, and projects that hire nine workers and less. Renewal fees are (theoretically) borne by the employer, and act as an effective tax on foreign labor. Their impact, however, is complicated; especially for low-income, low-income positions that do not attract national workers, higher renewal fees are unlikely to deter employers from hiring migrant workers. Rather, they are likely to encourage employers to deduct visa fees from workers’ salaries, recruit migrants under the books, or to allow visas to expire, forcing workers into an undocumented status and putting them at risk of prosecution.

In sum, even labor reforms with seemingly positive consequences for migrant workers often work to serve state’s interests, rather than to protect migrants’ rights; And while Saudi expands its surveillance and ultimate authority over migrant’s income and mobility, law enforcement disappears in the face of the daily violations migrants endure.

Though Saudi’s approach to migration is not out of step with current global attitudes, as an unfounded fear of migration has gripped bureaucracies around the world, the status of migrants in the kingdom is substantially more precarious than elsewhere in the world, with little cognizance of human rights and no recourse for those who wish to challenge it. These latest reforms only consolidate the structural vulnerability of workers in the sponsorship system and inspire little hope that reliable enforcement mechanisms for existing laws intended to protect migrants’ rights will ever be implemented.

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