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5 Nov 2020

Saudi Arabia: Reforms to allow migrant workers to change jobs & leave country without employer permission receive mixed civil society response

Saudi Arabia has announced its intention to "abolish" the kafala sponsorship system through which migrant workers' are employed. The plans, to come into force in March 2020, include granting migrant workers the right to change jobs and leave the country without first obtaining their employers' permission. Rights groups have long criticised the current arrangement for leaving workers trapped in exploitative conditions. The new employment relationship will reportedly rest on standard contracts that are certified by the government, with the government aiming to certify all migrant workers' contracts by March 2021 - approximately 10 million people.

However, rights groups caution against assuming the labour changes will result in a full abolition of kafala. Rothna Begum of Human Rights Watch highlighted that worker will still need a sponsor to come to the country and employers may also still have control over workers' residency status. Ali Mohamed of Migrant Rights stated that as long as work and residence visas are tied to an individual the kafala system will persist, but welcomed the move to separate the control of a worker from their sponsor.

There are a number of details that need to be clarified before a full assessment of the changes' impacts can be made, including whether employers can report workers for "absconding" - a move often used as a punitive measure against workers who complain about conditions - and whether employers can cancel workers' visas before they request to change employer, leaving them undocumented.

The reforms will not yet apply to the approximately one million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, who suffer some of the most egregious labour rights abuse including physical and sexual abuse, excessive and long working hours, confinement in employers' homes, and passport confiscation.

The Saudi authorities’ announcement that they will allow migrant workers to transfer [to other] jobs and [also] leave the country without employer consent is significant, and if implemented, could improve conditions for migrant workers... Human Rights Watch has documented how employers have abused such power.
Rothna Begum, a senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch
Saudi Arabia’s kefala reforms are a positive step in the right direction, but don’t totally solve the problem: It is not an abolition [of the system] that could still leave workers open to exploitation and abuse.
Varsha Koduvayur, senior research analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies