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Saudi labour reforms to come into force

On March 13, 2021

Saudi Arabia’s much-awaited reforms will officially come into force on 14 March 2021. The reforms will – on paper at least – ease some workers’ ability to transfer jobs and no longer require employers' permission to leave the country.  For decades, these restrictions have been used by employers to exploit and abuse migrant workers in the Kingdom.

While this is a step in the right direction, there are few things to keep in mind: 

  • The reforms will only apply to around 6.7 million migrant workers who fall under the jurisdiction of the labour law.  Around 3.6 million domestic workers, farmers, shepherds, home guards, and private drivers – who are already among the most vulnerable and least protected segment of the workforce – are excluded. So are an estimated 3.5 to 4.4 million undocumented workers living in the Kingdom.
  • The initiative does not grant workers complete mobility; workers can only transfer sponsorship without the consent of the sponsor after completing one year of contract or upon the expiry of the work contract. It is important to ensure that mobility procedures are simple and accessible to all workers, as time and time again we’ve seen how similar mobility reforms fail to account for migrant workers’ ability to navigate administrative procedures.
  • The reform does not abolish the exit permit altogether. Workers must still submit a request to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (MHRSD) to exit the Kingdom. The MHRSD will, in turn, notify the employer electronically of their workers’ departure. It is to be seen if/how employers can hinder this process. According to the Saudi Gazette, employers have 10 days to lodge an inquiry when employees submit an Exit-Re-Entry or Final Exit visa application.  According to the MHRSD’s guidelines, migrant workers will be required to pay fees to obtain an Exit-Re-entry visa from the Ministry, which currently costs SR200 (USD$53).
  • It is not uncommon for governments and local media to hail an end to the Kafala system whenever new reforms are introduced. Saudi’s Okaz published an article yesterday with the misleading headline, “March 14. No Kafala, but a contractual relationship.” it is important to remember that the reforms only aim at loosening some tenets of the sponsorship system but it does not completely eliminate it.
  • The notorious absconding laws are still in place. The sponsor’s power to file absconding cases against migrant workers can render them irregular, and automatically exclude them from the benefits of the new labour reforms. 

Observers must be cautious with their praise until it is clear what the reforms will look like in practice. Too often, these reforms are poorly implemented and sometimes even backpedalled. 

For more information, read our previous report on the Saudi reforms here.