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Saudi’s new process for transferring domestic workers’ sponsorship is rife with problems

Key issues include high transfer costs and lack of clarity on domestic workers’ consent to the process

On August 5, 2023

Employers in Saudi Arabia can now transfer sponsorship of domestic workers on the "Musaned" platform, according to the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (MHRSD).

An instructional video posted by the Musaned platform’s Twitter handle provides an overview of the transfer process: the current employer enters information about the domestic worker and the prospective employer, and all parties  — the current employer, the domestic worker, and the new employer — agree to the transfer. After the domestic worker agrees to the new contract on Musaned, the Ministry evaluates the eligibility of the new employer to employ the domestic worker before approval.

Once the above steps are completed, the sponsorship transfer is initiated, and the new sponsor pays the transfer costs and any other fees while completing the residency procedures with the relevant authorities. The transfer costs are paid to the old employer.

In the past, this procedure could only be carried out in person at MHRSD's labour offices. With the shift to an electronic process, there may be concerns about the level of regulation and ensuring domestic workers' genuine consent. If only online approval is required, employers can more easily coerce or falsify consent, particularly as they tend to control access to the devices domestic workers would use to access the Musaned portal, and because, contracts do not have to be provided in the workers’ language.

According to the regulations announced by Musaned, the maximum costs employers can charge for transferring domestic workers' services will be capped based on nationality, as follows:

Ethiopia: SAR 10,023 (US$ 2,671)

Burundi: SAR 10,457 (US$ 2,786)

Sierra Leone: SAR 10,488 (US$ 2,795)

Uganda: SAR 12,761 (US$ 3,400)

Kenya: SAR 14,135 (US$ 3,767)

Bangladesh: SAR 16,188 (US$ 4,314)

Sri Lanka: SAR 18,336 (US$ 4,886)

Philippines: SAR 19,270 (US$ 5,135)

Indonesia: SAR 21,535 (US$ 5,739)

Remarkably, these transfer costs are higher than the current cap on actual recruitment fees imposed on agencies. It’s unclear if these costs also include government processing fees.

There is a lack of clarity on a number of components of the process that may expose workers to protection gaps. For example, the video instructions and MHRSD announcement do not indicate if the transfer requires approval from workers’ embassies, which usually require domestic worker contracts to be attested and include specific stipulations, such as a minimum wage. The Philippines government imposes SAR 1500 (US$ 400) as the base salary for Filipino domestic workers in Saudi Arabia. Additionally, since the procedure does not involve recruitment agencies, the point of contact for redress is unclear. Typically, origin countries hold agencies responsible rather than specific employers in cases of worker mistreatment. While the role that recruitment agencies is not always a positive one, they can be held liable by origin countries to a degree, which functions as an important means of redress given the absence of adequate local mechanisms to hold employers accountable.

Saudi Arabia has implemented several reforms in the domestic work sector in recent years, however, the majority were aimed at improving the rights of employers vis-à-vis recruitment agencies, rather than domestic workers.

On paper, domestic workers can change sponsors without the consent of their current employer in cases where the employer violates the domestic work law or mistreats the workers. However, as documented by the US TIP Report 2023, “domestic workers who experienced such circumstances were not able to change employers or obtain exit permits.” has also reported on several cases where workers who attempted to file complaints for contract violation and abuse were either returned to their employers or detained and eventually deported, with employers not being held accountable in any instance. In Stories of Origin series on Kenya, MR spoke to several women who had worked as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia after being “sold” to a broker or other employers. In one case, a domestic worker recalled that when she wanted to leave her abusive workplace, her employer sold to different employers: “They won’t send you back home. They will find another sponsor. My first sponsor found another sponsor and they got a refund. I was treated well in the second house though a very big family. Then madam got pregnant and things got worse. I had to work from 9 am to midnight.” After 11 months she wanted to leave but was ‘sold’ to a broker.

Employers commonly transfer the sponsorship of domestic workers whose services they no longer require to other employers. They levy a fee for this transfer to recover their initial recruitment costs, particularly when they are unable to ‘return’ the domestic worker to the recruitment agency after the probation period ends. Facilitating this process are numerous domestic worker brokers who operate openly on social media platforms, often using commodifying language about “trading servants.”. For instance, one agent's Twitter  account specifies that they charge a commission of SAR 500 for the sponsor and the client, and states that they do not engage with recruitment offices or “marketers”.

In recent years, Saudi Arabia has come under scrutiny for online markets that facilitate the buying and selling of domestic workers. previously highlighted how e-commerce platforms like Haraj and Opensooq hosted advertisements for the transfer or sale of migrant domestic workers. In 2019, the Saudi Human Rights Commission announced that it would monitor websites that breach labour laws and prosecute individuals involved in the "sale, rental, and auction" of domestic workers. As a result, many online listings replaced terms such as "sale" or "auction" with "transfer" or "concession." Nonetheless, the underlying practice largely persists, despite these semantic adjustments.

Rather than leaving the sponsorship transfer process solely to brokers and individual sponsors, Musaned could assume the responsibility of mediating the link between domestic workers and potential employers. This would result in improved regulation and better ensure that the consent and agency of workers is secured. The virtual labour market that the Kingdom has planned for workers under the labour law could also provide domestic workers and employers with greater choice.