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Musaned's promises and deliveries

Will an online clean-up change realities on the ground?

On September 18, 2019
In the first part of this series, we explored how the Musaned platform works. In this second and concluding instalment, we assess how Musaned measures up against its promised objectives.

Saudi employers’ complaints about the high costs, delays, and difficulties involved in recruiting migrant domestic workers have been a steady subject in local media for years; calls to reduce costs and check fraudulent agency practices were supposedly answered in 2014 with the establishment of Musaned, an electronic platform that regulates the recruitment of domestic workers. Saudi’s Ministry of Labour and Social Development asserts that the platform protects “the rights of all parties in a way that guarantees justice and transparency.”

Though Musaned is now the only legal channel for recruiting domestic workers and has registered more than 600,000 employers and 605 Saudi recruitment agencies since its launch, the system has not yet achieved its slated aim of rights protection: employers and agencies continue to express frustration with recruitment, while workers have yet to meaningfully benefit from the system.  Gaps in the platform, whose design does not consider workers’ interests, and in the overall regulatory context in which it exists preclude Musaned from fulfilling its intended objectives.

Yet, Saudi authorities, as well as some origin-country governments sending workers to the Kingdom, point to Musaned as evidence that recruitment has been cleaned up, and that workers are well-protected. The system now facilitates recruitment for the largest migrant domestic worker population in the region, but its actual impact on recruitment and on workers is unclear..  

A system for whom?

A technical review of the Musaned system design indicates that the primary purpose is to regularise and digitise the contractual relationships between employers and recruiters. From this primary outcome, alongside some minor reforms to domestic worker regulations, follows the many promises of the system’s impact: greater transparency in the recruitment process, lower recruitment costs, faster recruitment, more satisfied employers, guaranteed rights for workers – a win for every stakeholder. 

The Saudi government has a vested interest in cleaning up recruitment for several reasons. The country needs to demonstrate it is working to protect workers’ rights in light of several deployment bans from origin countries, which have led to domestic worker shortages. Saudi needs to placate employers’ demands for readily available, accessible, affordable domestic labour because they have become dependent on them: the government provides few public care services, leaving childcare and elderly care up to individual households, and because the ban on females driving required households to employ male migrant workers as drivers, who fall under the domestic workers visa.  Live-in, on-demand domestic work has become an expectation and measure of a citizen’s quality of life, even for those in the lower-income bracket.

Reducing Irregular Recruitment & Exploitative Practices

Domestic worker recruitment to Saudi Arabia can only be conducted via Musaned.  Though visas can still be issued in Saudi labour offices, the placement of workers and payment of fees can only be done through the platform, by registered Saudi recruitment agents and their partners in origin countries. In theory, the Musaned system provides no space for irregular recruiters to infiltrate.  But given the size and density of both KSA and the countries of origin, an end-to-end electronic recruitment system is an almost impossible endeavour that Musaned does not attempt, contrary to some of its publicity. Musaned is a Saudi initiative concerned with the last legs of the recruitment relay – it does not, and practically cannot, reach as far back as the middlemen, brokers, and other stakeholders that migrant workers and employers encounter before they reach registered agencies in their own countries. 

Country of origin governments have access to the Musaned platform, but do not have actual influence on its procedures. Countries sending workers to Saudi must comply with Musaned’s procedures, even if they do not strictly match their own national regulations. 

Some countries have started to address these gaps through their own initiatives, such as India’s e-migrate system and the Ethiopian Migrants Data Management System. 

“We have no control over Musaned, we have no input and control in what goes in the system, so there is a degree of uncertainty because it’s run by the government of Saudi at the end. They can decide to proceed or not. So, for that, we are simultaneously developing our own system to track our citizens abroad,” says Emmanuel Muhanguzi, the Principle Labour Officer of Uganda’s Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development.  

Furthermore, Musaned does not cover cleaning company workers, who often work in similar conditions as domestic workers and whose demand is increasing in Saudi in part because of the Musaned system. Employers and recruiters told that delays with the system and shortages in domestic workers incentivise the use of cleaning companies, who provide domestic work services on an hourly, weekly, and monthly basis. These workers technically fall under the labour law but are not necessarily better protected by its provisions as they may still work in unregulated, isolated environments. Saudi’s 2013 Rules and Conditions for Recruitment acknowledges that cleaning companies help address domestic worker shortages, but explicitly exclude them from the Musaned system.

Though Musaned only allows access to registered recruitment agencies in Saudi and countries of origin, the system is not failsafe against exploitative agency practices. The promise that Musaned will curb these practices largely relies on the presumption that registered recruitment agencies are more compliant with the law. Research shows this is not necessarily the case, as ‘regular’ agencies often engage in irregular practices or depend on irregular partners, particularly when they face increased regulations and associated economic costs. Reducing the exploitative practices associated with recruitment requires a robust rule of law and accountability, neither of which currently exists in any reliable or meaningful way in Saudi Arabia. 

Improving Documentation and Accountability 

Musaned is said to facilitate greater accountability because the system digitises and tracks all documentation related to the recruitment process – for example, contracts, agency registration, recruitment fees exchanged between agencies and between employers and agencies. 

However, while Musaned enables easier, more reliable access to these records, the database does not provide increased accountability – at least not for migrant workers.  The platform lacks a complaints mechanism for workers, relegating disputes to the existing – and weak – Ministry of Labour and Social Development’s (MLSD) resolution system.   Making these records reliably actionable remains a difficult endeavour and one that workers cannot realistically pursue on their own.  

Appropriate enforcement and penalties are necessary for Musaned to have any real impact on providing workers with access to justice.  While the Saudi government has indicated a willingness to penalise agencies that defraud or violate contracts with employers, it's not yet proved the same commitment to proportionate penalties for employers who violate the rights of workers.

Controlling Recruitment Costs

One of Musaned’s main objectives is that it would control recruitment costs and discourage arbitrary fees charged to employers. Payments to agencies are made through Musaned, and the Labour Ministry has set origin country-specific recruitment fees. Price ceilings are primarily aimed at keeping down costs for employers, but many employers still find the costs very high.  Saudi employers also complain that agencies charge more than they advertise on the portal. Responding to complaints made by the public, Shura Council member Dr. Faisal bin Mansour Al-Fadel called on the Ministry to punish recruitment agencies that do not comply with Musaned fees.

Additionally, price controls are creating discontent amongst local agencies, and digitising payments may only be pushing the real market fees off the platform, and potentially onto the worker.  Some KSA-based agencies complain that the Ministry did not consult them in establishing new regulations and pricing, which they say disadvantage them. Khalid Al-Sulaim, Deputy Chairman of the Recruitment Offices Committee at Riyadh Chamber of Commerce and Industry, argued that the cost of recruiting workers sometimes exceeds the price set by the government: 

"The price set by the Ministry for workers recruited from Sri Lanka is only SR1,560 ($416) when the cost of recruiting workers from Sri Lanka is more than SR3,000 ($800). Recruitment offices are not happy with the Ministry's regulations and a lack of conformity to and compliance with the regulations is harming the interests of both parties, the Kingdom, and the countries exporting labour.” 

Agencies in countries of origin also view the fixed fees as unrealistic. One recruitment agent in Colombo told that “...Musaned wanted to reduce agency fees to $1550, but that is just not possible. This won’t work practically. So we get a document to this effect, but are paid $3500-4500 still.”

It’s unclear how agencies in Saudi and in countries of origin break down the costs of recruitment (including tickets, medical clearance, administrative fees), and therefore difficult to assess the real impact on their profits. However, complaints about the price ceilings – and admissions to payments outside of the Musaned platform – indicate that price controls may not be effective.

Protecting Workers Rights?

The MLSD claims Musaned protects the rights of all parties involved – employer, agent, worker, but domestic workers are the only party who have no direct access to the platform. Musaned previously provided open access to translations of the domestic workers law in nine languages, guidelines for filing labour complaints, complaints forms that could be submitted to Regional Offices of the Ministry of Labour (LOs), and addresses of the nearest LO, but even these minimal features have been removed from the current version of the platform.  The FAQ pages now detail some of the rights and duties of domestic workers as stated in the Domestic Workers law, but only in English and Arabic. 

Whether or not an online portal is the most practical or appropriate intervention for domestic workers to lodge disputes is a question up for debate, but even the system’s indirect benefits to workers are less concrete than publicised.  In theory, workers benefit from the digital trail created by Musaned, providing proof of promised working conditions and wages in case of a dispute. But this information is only accessible by other parties – employers, agencies, and government representatives – and is only actionable with their support. Furthermore, the system itself has no complaints mechanisms, and disputes with agencies or employers remain relegated to the unreliable realm of informal mediation and labour courts. 

“Musaned or not; abuse still happens. The only help Musaned provides is tracing the domestic worker,” says Lydia Bwitte, a programme officer of the Platform for Labour Action in Uganda. A Sri Lankan official echoes this. “Though it is good to streamline contracts online, Musaned does not have a labour dispute system yet.” 

Muhanguzi feels strong bilateral agreements have the potential to partially compensate for the lack of an official complaint mechanism. “Part of the [Uganda] agreement with Saudi is that domestic workers should always have their phones with them, and so far it has been working in many cases. But sometimes employers limit access to the internet for domestic workers or temporarily confiscate their phones.”

The system also has no proactive protective mechanisms for workers, though it is placed to provide some innovative interventions, which we discuss in the recommendations section.

Delays and Technical Issues 

The Musaned system aims to streamline the recruitment process, providing a one-stop-shop to obtain domestic workers visas, review CVs, and make payments to and between agencies.  While the system does simplify employers’ procedures, the recruitment process overall is not necessarily more efficient; Musaned introduces several new procedures and arrangements. Agents say that this new dynamic, alongside an already low labour supply, is slowing recruitment.  One agent told, “since Musaned, the procedures have slowed down as we have to deal with many parties now. Before it was simple, and upon request, we could bring a domestic worker in weeks. There is a lack of supply of domestic workers at the moment, now you can only get domestic workers from cleaning companies.” 

According to the agents we spoke to in both Saudi and countries of origin, there is no comprehensive orientation for Musaned, and misuse of the system can lead to lengthy delays. For example, Muhanguzi said “the delays in the arrival of domestic workers from Uganda mainly occurs because agencies sometimes upload candidates in the Musaned system before finishing the vetting, training and medical procedures.” 

Technical issues also slow down arrivals, with agents complaining that the platform periodically breaks down.  Recruitment offices reported that Musaned had been dysfunctional for the first three months of this year, delaying the issue of up to 200,000 new domestic workers applications. 

Agencies may see a financial gain in reducing government regulation and oversight, and have less appreciation for the value of appropriate safeguards that protect both employers and workers.  However, Musaned does not demonstrably deliver the safeguard value and in fact, may be opening up sectors with potentially less oversight: both employers and agencies report that Musaned’s delays have increased demand for cleaning companies, who essentially provide domestic work services but are not required to go through Musaned’s procedures.   


Recommendations and Conclusion

Because the domestic work sector of the labour market requires regulation, Musaned is an important step. It has the potential for streamlining and cleaning up recruitment processes. But in its current form, the system only puts a skeleton of the existing status quo online. Saudi Arabia hails Musaned as a new paradigm for the rights of domestic workers, though the system provides no actual protective or redressal mechanisms. With thoughtful attention and commitment, the system is well-placed to provide practical interventions that could actually safeguard workers rights, including:

  • Expedite the integration of the wage protection system in Musaned
  • Provide a mechanism for a wellness check between agencies/workers, governments/workers
  • Expand system access to domestic workers and approved users in origin countries to facilitate check-ins with participating workers, recognising the workers as equal actors in the system
  • Provide information on filing complaints and streamline complaints; Musaned already has a mechanism for resolving complaints between agencies which should be expanded to include workers
  • Treat the recruitment agents as for-profit service providers who may be held accountable for any contract breach; at the same time ensuring the relationship between worker and employer is also regulated through Musaned
  • Maintain a list of sponsors/households and monitor their performance against complaints received from workers. This would help weed out employers prone to abuse and exploitation. This would not require any extra information as national ID and addresses of employers is already made available
  • Improve and provide transparent data monitoring and blacklisting of agencies both in Saudi and countries of origin

Even in its most ideal form, Musaned is not a standalone solution to reducing domestic worker exploitation; e-governance is only as a meaningful tool for combating corruption and exploitation if there is a robust legal system behind it. Neither Saudi Arabia’s current legislation (Ministerial Decision No. 310 of 2013 regulating the employment of domestic workers) nor the unified contract comprehensively safeguards workers’ rights, and complaints mechanisms are both weak and inaccessible. Better protections must be enacted and enforced for Musaned to realise its professed purpose.

This article is part of a series of research and analysis on the recruitment of domestic workers and their living and working conditions.