Recent labour reforms in Saudi Arabia claim to abolish the Kafala system, but most of its exploitative practices are still in place. The Kafala system is a legal framework that regulates the relationship between foreign employees and employers. It provides kafeels – both individuals and businesses – unmitigated power over those they sponsor.
Private sector businesses receive a quota of migrant worker visas to operate smoothly, and individuals receive a quota of domestic worker visas based on their needs and financial stability. The sponsors (kafeels) offer some of the visa quotas as ‘azad’ (freedom) visas for profit. The workers pay the kafeel a regular fee and cover all visa costs, in exchange for the freedom to work for other employers.
Though an illegal practice, it has created opportunities for thousands of migrants to become self-employed or freelance. The arrangement can be profitable for the sponsor and beneficial for the workers when things are going well.
Even though azad visa holders are documented, because they work irregularly for those other than their kafeels – which is illegal – they have always been vulnerable to detention and deportation. But a growing crackdown on the practice is putting them and their livelihoods at further risk.
In May 2022, the department of Public Security announced that individual employers who allow their employees to work for others or for workers’ own personal benefit will face a maximum fine of SAR100,000 and imprisonment of up to six months. Those individuals will also be banned from recruiting foreigners for up to five years.
In the past few months, however, it has been migrants working and sometimes running entire businesses on “azad visas” who have increasingly faced persecution themselves, with frequent raids against undocumented migrants or any foreign worker otherwise violating residency laws continue to rise.
The General Directorate of Passports has warned that workers must only engage in work for their official sponsors/employers, and not work for themselves or others. Violators will be penalized with a jail time, fines, and deportation. Data on the detention of azad visa holders is not publicly available, but there has been a 400% increase in fines for kafeel violating labour recruitment laws, from SAR 20,000 in 2013 to SAR 100,000 and six-month imprisonment, currently.
Migrants who are ‘free’
Nawaz Khan moved to Mecca in 1998, where he managed to obtain a driving licence and car after a few months of odd jobs. He has now been working as a private driver in Saudi Arabia for nearly three decades.
“I was in my 20s and a lot of people from Pakistan were coming to Saudi Arabia and finding good work opportunities. My cousin was already in Mecca and I thought it would be the biggest blessing to live my life here,” he said. Mecca is not only Islam’s holiest city, it is also the Kingdom’s most diverse city, with hundreds of thousands of residents – who either themselves came to the country for pilgrimage and remained, or are descendants of those who did.
Khan himself didn’t enter Saudi on a pilgrimage visa, though. He had managed to find a kafeel who sponsored his work visa prior to his arrival, and expected to find a salary-paying job until he realised there was a market for on-call drivers.
Khan has worked as a freelance driver for the past 25 years. But though he is self-employed in every sense of the term, he does have a Saudi employer on paper because of legal requirements.
“I have a group of families and I work as a driver for them. Some just need me to pick up their kids from school, some need me to drop their wives to work, some need me to take their elderly parents to their friends’ houses once a week – it is like that.”
Khan says he is very good friends with his kafeel and the arrangement has been working out for both of them for years.
Khan pays his kafeel SAR 2,000 (US$ 533) each month to stay under his sponsorship. This is in addition to visa renewal fees, which vary according to the type of visa but are currently approximately SAR 10,000 (USD$ 2,660) annually.
Among migrants who opt for the azad visa, domestic workers are considered at most risk because of the control their sponsors wield. Though their visas are the most affordable, domestic workers face far more legal restrictions, even though recent reforms purport to ease employer transfer.
On the black market, a domestic worker visa is sold for around SAR 10,000 (US$ 2,660). A “general labour visa, usually the most recommended one, can cost around SAR 14,000 (US$ 3,730. An azad visa for a higher-skilled profession, such as an accountant, can be sold for as high as SAR 20,000 (US$ 5,330).
Another worker on the azad visa says he found out about it on Facebook groups. The visa agents, usually Pakistanis and Indians, work to connect Saudis who are looking to sponsor a visa with those back home that are keen to migrate, he says.
Because the practice is illegal, there is no data on just how many migrants have an azad visa and how much revenue they bring to the country, but it is clear that it has been a prevalent practice for many years – and for at least a handful of migrants, fairly successful.