Riyadh eases 'kafala' system, fewer constraints for migrant workers
The reform is part of the "Vision 2030" plan to improve the labour market and develop the nation. It will apply from March 2021 to all employees in the private sector. It will be possible to change companies without the owner's permission. But some sectors, such as domestic workers, remain excluded.
Riyadh (AsiaNews / Agencies) - Saudi Arabia intends to ease a series of restrictions for migrant workers, provided for within the "kafala" (sponsorship) system, by authorizing the change of sector or company and the possibility of leaving the country without the permission of one’s employer.
The reform, which follows similar steps taken in the past by other Arab nations such as Qatar, will involve at least 10 million foreigners so far under the direct control of their master.
The Riyadh government underlines its intention to "improve and increase efficiency within the workplace". The Ministry of Human Resources explains that the reform will be applied to all expatriates operating in the private sector and will come into effect from March. Among others, migrants will be able to apply directly, and without the help of intermediaries, government services and their contracts with employers will be registered digitally.
"Through this initiative we aim to build an attractive labour market and improve the working environment," Deputy Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain told reporters in Riyadh. These reforms, he continues, are part of the objectives set in the context of the “Vision 2030” program, the plan wanted by the top management to free the Wahhabi monarchy from dependence on oil.
The kafala system - or sponsorship - has trapped over a million foreign workers for years, binding them to their employer and depriving them of all fundamental rights. They are among others Nepalese, Filipinos and Indonesians, and work either in large construction companies or as domestic employees of wealthy Saudis. Once hired, they are deprived of their passport and of all fundamental rights: without the permission of their "sponsor" they cannot resign, leave the country or file a complaint in case of abuse; under penalty of arrest or deportation.
Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told the BBC that the ministry's announcement was "significant and could improve conditions for migrant workers". "However, this is not a full abolition of the kafala system." Begum said it appeared workers would still be required to have an employer act as their sponsor to enter Saudi Arabia, and that employers would retain the power to renew or cancel workers' residency permits at any time. "This can mean that workers can still face abuse and exploitation, as employers hold this power over them," she warned. Many abuses occur among domestic workers that border on slavery.
The Saudi daily Arab News reports that the changes will take effect from March 14, 2021 and will streamline the procedures for obtaining the status of resident worker, which is not tied to a particular employer or contract, by loosening the sponsorship system. The reform should also have "positive effects on the economy, including the development of the local market and with a view to flexibility in the world of work, will increase productivity in the private sector, attracting talents" from abroad.