Good news for domestic workers in Saudi Arabia | Domestic workers labor law in Saudi Arabia



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Saudi Arabia introduced labor reforms in March 2021 that will ease restrictions and allow some migrant workers to change jobs without employer consent under certain narrow circumstances, Human Rights Watch said today.
The reforms, however, do not go far enough to dismantle the abusive kafala (visa sponsorship) system. And they exclude migrant workers not covered by the labor law, including domestic workers and farmers, who are among the least protected and most vulnerable to abuse. They allow migrant workers to request an exit permit without the employer’s permission for the first time but do not abolish the exit permit, which violates human rights.
“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,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Millions of domestic workers and other workers are excluded from these reforms, leaving them entirely at their employers’ mercy.”
Millions of migrant workers fill mostly manual, clerical, and service jobs in Saudi Arabia, constituting more than 80 percent of the private sector workforce. They are governed by an abusive kafala system that gives their employers excessive power over their mobility and legal status in the country. The system underpins migrant workers’ vulnerability to a wide range of abuses, from passport confiscation to delayed wages and forced labor. Despite local media reporting the contrary, the changes do little to dismantle the kafala system, leaving migrant workers at high risk of abuse.
The reforms were first announced in November 2020 as part of the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development’s Labor Reform Initiative, which aims to “enhance the contractual relationship between workers and employers,” help establish an “attractive job market,” and “improve the working environment” in the country.
The reforms, introduced as a ministerial resolution and available through the Absher and Qiwa online platforms, only partly address two of five key elements of the kafala system that can keep migrant workers trapped in abusive situations: the need for employer consent to change or leave jobs and to leave the country. But even these changes are limited, and under international human rights law, everyone has the right to leave any country.
As of March 14, the reforms stipulate that migrant workers who fall under the jurisdiction of Saudi Arabia’s labor law can change jobs without their current employer’s consent after completing one year of their contract or once their contract expires. According to the ministry-issued Labor Reform Initiative (LRI) Services Guidebook, other situations in which a migrant worker can change jobs without conditions include: if the worker’s work permit expires; if the worker is not paid for three consecutive months; and if a labor dispute arises and the employer fails to attend two litigation hearings.

The English-language version of the guidebook appears to be an abbreviated version of the Arabic-language one and omits certain important guidelines.

The Arabic guidebook states that the new employer is responsible for paying any costs involved in the job transfer but does not elaborate on how the ministry plans to ensure that vulnerable migrant workers are not forced to incur those costs themselves. The “Frequently Asked Questions” section says that a migrant worker against whom an “absence from work complaint” had been filed cannot benefit from the job change reforms. The English-language version of the guidebook omits this point.
In Saudi Arabia and all other Gulf states, workers who leave their employer without consent can be charged with “absconding” and face imprisonment and deportation. Human Rights Watch research across the Gulf states has shown that migrant workers risk such penalties even when fleeing exploitation or abuse. Some employers file false absconding cases to sidestep their legal obligations to pay wages or to provide food and accommodation.
Under the ministerial resolution, migrant workers, who previously could not leave and re-enter Saudi Arabia without their employer’s consent, may now submit an online request for an exit and re-entry visa or a final exit visa from the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development. The guidebook states that they must have a valid residency permit, a duly attested employment contract, and a valid passport. The Saudi authorities may deny exit if any debts or fines are outstanding
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