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Muted expectations as migrants await further details on Saudi reforms

Sponsors' control over employees remains for the large part

On November 22, 2020

Over two weeks since Saudi Arabia announced labour law reforms with much fanfare, expectations from those meant to benefit the most remain muted at best. The reforms, which include the right to change jobs after one year and to leave the country without a sponsor’s permission, are slated to come into effect from 14 March 2021.

The reforms apply to 6.7 million migrant workers who fall under the jurisdiction of the labour law. 

They will not apply to the over 3.7 million migrant workers who are not covered by the labour law, including domestic workers, drivers, farmers, gardeners and guards. 

It remains unclear whether the estimated 3.5 to 4.4 million undocumented workers will also benefit from the new laws.

Though several local publications reported that the Kingdom is “abolishing the Kafala system,” the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (MHRSD) has not itself made such a claim, and the few details released so far indicate no such objective. In fact, a video released by the MHRSD indicates that as per unspecified regulations, sponsors will still have the opportunity to object to workers’ exit.

The staggered release of information has created a buzz without providing much clarity. Whether this was intentional or just poor communication strategy is not clear. Several media reports are currently circulating conditions for changing employment which are not actually part of the new reforms but instead established in the 2016 amendments to the labour law. 

Currently, the 6.7 million migrant workers under the jurisdiction of the labour law can only change jobs after one year of employment and with the permission of their employer. They may only change jobs without the permission of their employer in the case of specific violations, such as a salary delay of three months or over, failure of the employer to issue residency documents, and ‘commercial cover-ups’ (“non-Saudis owning businesses or working while hiding behind Saudi names”).

“Even now, many of the ‘rights’ we have take many court visits, that only a few ever get them.”

According to the MHRSD’s guidebook on the new reforms, migrant workers will soon be allowed to change jobs without approval from their current sponsor upon completion of one calendar year of service. To transfer sponsorship, workers are required to submit a transfer request as per the contracted notice period, have a valid contract, and be presented with a job offer by the new employer through the “Qiwa” portal. 

“I’m hoping it is as simple as that,” says Mazhar, a 32-year-old Pakistani safety officer working for a private company in Dammam. “I don’t know the details of the new rules right now and I haven’t looked them up – I think they will be clarified closer to implementation – but I do hope that there are no complicated loopholes and that foreign employees can live without the fear of employers, who can sometimes be very exploitative because of the power they have right now.”

Khan, a 30-something Bangladeshi accountant in Jeddah, says he is concerned about the unforeseen costs that could be involved once the laws are in place.

“This is based on nothing but an assumption but with all these high taxes, expat fees, and the overall increase in the cost of living, I wouldn’t be surprised if these changes are also going to be another form of money-making and only the richer expatriates will have the luxury to enjoy them,” said Khan. “Even now, many of the ‘rights’ we have to take many court visits, that only a few ever get them.”

The Ministry has already indicated that once the reforms come into effect migrant workers will need to bear the costs of Exit-Reentry Visa. Currently, this costs SR200 (USD$53) and is borne by the sponsor, who is the only one with access to the portal. Often, this fee is recouped from workers wages, even though the law does not explicitly permit that. Some contracts mention that the employer will bear the cost of one exit-reentry visa a year, and any more exits would be at the expense of the employee.

Although the ministry has not stated as such, Iyad Ullah, a recruiter hiring for Saudi markets believes that workers who have already lived in Saudi for over a year will automatically be eligible to change employers. He believes that the reforms will primarily benefit expats in higher-skilled professions or managerial roles, but can help with preventing exploitation to ‘an extent’.

“Not only are there not many jobs available to switch to so easily but what is the point if there is never going to be a guarantee that the new employer will pay on time? Do I just keep switching jobs?”

The poor implementation of existing laws signals the potential obstacles to the 2021 reforms. Wage delays and theft are rampant, yet legally leaving abusive workplaces remains an uphill battle. With few penalties enforced on errant employers, there is little incentive for them to comply with the law. According to an MHRSD report released in August 2020, 1.2 million incidents of wage delay are currently registered, and over 153,000 labour cases have been filed in the past three years. 

Asif, who hasn’t been paid since April 2019, believes the reforms will not make any difference to the working conditions of many workers: 

“I haven’t been paid in over a year and a half. I know people who haven’t been paid for much longer than that. This new law doesn’t change much for us,” he says. “Not only are there not many jobs available to switch to so easily but what is the point if there is never going to be a guarantee that the new employer will pay on time? Do I just keep switching jobs?”

An official at the Philippine Consulate in Jeddah, who wishes to not be named, agrees that the reforms do little to address the issue of delayed payments or hold employers accountable.

“I cannot comment in detail because there is a lot that still needs to be clarified about the reforms but as of now, it doesn’t seem to address the lack of accountability of employers,” they said. “Until there is consistent accountability, employers will continue to exploit vulnerable workers and while the freedom to change jobs is a step in the right direction, it doesn’t end there.”

The forthcoming reforms do seem to have stirred hope for a better future in some migrants who have struggled under the rigid labour mobility laws. A restaurant worker who had experienced wage theft and other contract violations this past year told MR that he and his colleagues  “are so happy and the changes would be [so good] for the employees. I think we were just at the right time that we didn’t go home.” 

Meanwhile, the most vulnerable of migrants remain uncertain if the new laws will apply to them at all. Many of the estimated 3.5 - 4.4 million undocumented migrant workers were pushed into irregularity because of the Kafala system, lacking any legal or accessible resource to leave abusive workplaces. Saudi has harsh ‘absconding’ laws, and once an employer reports their workers as missing, the worker automatically becomes ‘illegal’ and subject to arrest and deportation if caught. In the past three years alone, the MHRSD recorded over a million absconding cases. Amnesties are periodically declared which conditionally allow undocumented workers to exit the country without paying fines or to regularise their status with a new job. The last amnesty was in 2017. 

“My iqama expired seven years ago and I have been working irregularly ever since,” says Fatema, a 20-something Sudanese domestic worker, who had left her sponsor’s home.  “It would change my life completely if it becomes possible for me to legalise my residence status. I can currently not exit the country, go to the hospital, or even walk around in public without the fear of getting caught and going to prison and then being deported.”

If the changes are being made with the intention to improve the conditions of foreign workers then why are the most vulnerable of us not eligible,  asks Fatema. “I hope there is a realisation that, if anything, this freedom is most important for those working in these professions.”

Over 3.7 million migrants are definitively excluded from the reforms.  Domestic workers, drivers, farmers, gardeners, and guards will still require permission from their employers to change jobs and leave the country. While these workers may also freely change jobs if their employer fails to pay them or reneges on their obligations, their access to resources is even more limited than other migrant workers. This is particularly true for female migrant domestic workers who are often isolated in their employers' homes. 

With the exclusion of large segments of the migrant population, ongoing limitations on labour mobility, and still muddled information from officials, rights observers have expressed reservation of the Kingdom’s reforms. 

“They have said that it is an abolishment of kafala but it is not – it is just chasing up to reforms in other countries in the region,” says Hiba Zayadin, a Human Rights Watch researcher investigating human rights abuses in the Gulf states. “And the recent announcements also don’t address the major abuses that have been taking place against migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.”

The slew of poorly implemented labour and immigration reforms of recent years – including the Wage Protection System and Domestic Workers Law – serves as a cautionary tale against celebrating mere announcements. While steps towards progress should be welcomed and encouraged, the evidence is of its efficacy is imperative.

(With inputs from Rabiya Jaffrey)