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15 Mar 2021

Saudi Arabia: Rights groups say kafala (sponsorship) system reforms fall short on freedom of movement

Saudi Arabia has announced it has introduced new labour reforms to its kafala (sponsorship) system which workers the freedom to change employer and the right to exit the Kingdom without their employer’s permission. The government says the reforms will benefit migrant workers living in the country but rights NGOs have raised concerns that the reforms are insufficient while potentially exploitative elements of the kafala system remain.

“Passage of laws alone will not improve conditions for migrant workers, Saudi Arabia has historically allowed conditions to flourish that lead to the abuse, exploitation, and dehumanization of migrant workers. The pandemic has rapidly worsened conditions for workers, but these new laws simply do not address the root of the problem. We have heard from workers about what they’re experiencing, and we know what needs to be done to enact real change. Our hope is that Saudi Arabia chooses to put some action behind its rhetoric and show the world it’s serious about improving conditions for migrant workers.”
Mustafa Qadri, founder and executive director of Equidem.

With the new changes, migrant workers will be able to switch their jobs upon the expiry of their work contracts without the need for their employer’s approval. They can also transfer jobs during the validity of their contract provided they notify their employers within a set timeframe. While under the sponsorship system, foreign workers are forced to be tied to a sponsor and were unable to change jobs, open a bank account or leave the country on vacation with their employer’s approval.

Rights groups including Migrant Rights.org (MR), have cautiously welcomed these new reforms indicating that they do not adequately protect migrant workers and improve their work conditions. MR states that the new reforms loosen some aspects of the existing sponsorship system but do not completely repeal it; for example, workers must still submit requests to leave the kingdom to the government, although they are not required to obtain employer permission. Moreover, nearly 3.6 million domestic workers, farmers, shepherds, home guards, and private drivers who are already among the most vulnerable are excluded, as the reforms only apply migrant workers who fall under the jurisdiction of the labour law (nearly 6.7 million workers), MR says.

Equidem, a charity dedicated to promoting human rights, has issued a press release warning that the new changes do not provide adequate protection for migrant workers in the kingdom. It calls on the Saudi government, among other things, to allow all workers to exercise their rights to freely change their jobs and exit the country without need for permission, as well as to repeal the crime of absconding and put an end to all racial discrimination against migrant workers.

A Human Rights Watch analysis also finds that the reforms do not go far enough to dismantle the kafala system, as claimed. HRW finds they only partly address two of the five key elements of kafala; it particularly flags that workers against whom an absconding charge has been filed do not benefit from the job reforms. Absconding claims are frequently filed by employers in retaliation against workers.

Saudi Arabia has one of the most abusive versions of the kafala system in the region, and the reforms are limited, problematic, and by no means dismantle the kafala system. Millions of domestic workers and other workers are excluded from these reforms, leaving them entirely at their employers’ mercy.
Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch