Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (MHRSD) has recently signed labour agreements to recruit private sector workers and domestic workers from Sierra Leone and Thailand. The Saudi Federation of Chambers estimates that the country will recruit around 200,000 Thai workers annually.
According to the Saudi Press Agency and Okaz, the two agreements aim to create a legal framework for all procedures required for the “effective employment” of Thai and Sierra Leonean workers in Saudi Arabia, including protecting the rights of both the worker and the employer, regulating the contractual relationship between them, and establishing mechanisms for the agreements’ follow-up and joint implementation.
Similar bilateral agreements have been signed between Saudi Arabia and countries of origin in the past, but have not succeeded in safeguarding the rights of migrant workers. These new agreements have been approved in the wake of steep rise in the costs of recruiting domestic workers, which is largely attributed to the suspension of new recruitment by the Philippines and Indonesia, as well as the slowdown in recruitment from Kenya and Uganda.
In November 2021, Philippines Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello banned new deployment of domestic workers to pressure the Saudi government to better protect the rights of Filipino workers in the Kingdom. Last year, Kenya's Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed a temporary suspension on domestic worker recruitment, citing the severe deterioration in working conditions and suspicious deaths of Kenyan domestic workers in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia's recent labour and immigration reforms explicitly exclude the country’s estimated 3.26 million migrant domestic workers. Domestic workers are regulated by a separate, bare-bones decree, and are among the least protected groups in the country.
Rather than working with origin countries who have imposed bans to address protection gaps, Saudi Arabia is leading a race to the bottom by signing agreements to meet domestic labour demands in the face of dwindling supply.
While Saudi's Musaned system purports to streamline DW recruitment, and does, to a degree, increase transparency in the chain of recruitment, it is not a mechanism for holding abusive or contract-violating employers accountable. The Saudi government must safeguard rights for domestic workers, adequately regulate their working conditions, and include them in the labour law.