Saudis introduce reforms to make labour market ‘more attractive’

From March 14, expatriates will no longer need their employers’ authorisation to change jobs, travel or leave Saudi Arabia.
Friday 06/11/2020
Foreign labourers work at the construction site of a building in Riyadh. (REUTERS)
Foreign labourers work at the construction site of a building in Riyadh. (REUTERS)

RIYADH – Saudi Arabia said Wednesday it will ease key restrictions on millions of foreign workers, under reforms to its labour policy.

The Saudi human resources and social development ministry said that from March 14, expatriates will no longer need their employers’ authorisation to change jobs, travel or leave Saudi Arabia, which is home to some 10 million foreigners.

“This initiative will improve and increase the efficiency of the work environment,” the ministry said in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

The reforms, if fully implemented, could have a big impact on the Saudi labour market and the lives of blue-collar foreign workers who lack effective recourse against overcrowded housing and exploitative employers.

Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain, deputy minister of Saudi human resources, speaks during the launch of “The Labor Relation Improvement Initiative” at a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 4, 2020. (REUTERS)
Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain, deputy minister of Saudi human resources, speaks during the launch of “The Labor Relation Improvement Initiative” at a news conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 4, 2020. (REUTERS)

The plans aim to make the Saudi labour market more attractive, the deputy minister for human resources said.

“Through this initiative we aim to build an attractive labour market and improve the working environment,” Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain told reporters.

Sattam Alharbi, deputy minister for development of the work environment, said the changes will abolish “runaway” reports against foreign workers who do not report for duty, which effectively makes criminals at risk of being jailed and deported.

“These changes are not small changes — it’s huge,” Alharbi told Bloomberg News in an interview on Wednesday.

“We aim to achieve more inclusion for Saudis, attract talent, improve the working conditions, make Saudi Arabia’s labour market more dynamic and productive.”

However, he said the new regulations will not apply to the country’s 3.7 million domestic workers, a highly vulnerable category of employees who are governed by separate regulations which he said are also under review.

Saudi Arabia, which chairs the Group of 20 major economies (G20) this year, is seeking to boost its private sector, part of an ambitious plan to diversify its oil-dependent economy.

The move will help attract high-skilled workers and help create more jobs for Saudi nationals, Alharbi said in a phone interview, adding that hiring would be based on workers’ efficiency.

Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform plan is a package of economic and social policies designed to free the kingdom from reliance on oil exports.

A problematic system

The kafala system persists even after Saudi media reported in February that the government would “soon” abolish it.

Rothna Begum, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the announced reforms are significant but fall short of completely dismantling the system, with employers still able to cancel workers’ residency at any time.

“This can mean that workers can still face abuse and exploitation as employers hold this power over them,” she said.

The exclusion of migrant domestic workers from the reforms was also problematic given that many are forced to work excessive hours without rest, denied their wages and even subjected to physical and sexual abuse, she said.

Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia say they are often vulnerable to extortion from their sponsors, who can demand a portion of their salaries in order to continue working legally after many arrive heavily indebted from their home countries.

After the disruption that came with the coronavirus pandemic, campaigners say potentially hundreds of thousands of “illegal” workers — many of whom have become undocumented through no fault of their own — remain stranded in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi driver Hussein getting into his car to start the day working for Uber, in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)
Saudi driver Hussein getting into his car to start the day working for Uber, in the capital Riyadh. (AFP)

Activists have asked the kingdom to offer an amnesty to migrant workers who are trapped by their debts and not allowed to work to pay them off — a predicament that risks fuelling the pandemic.

“The Saudi authorities need to fully abolish the kafala system to ensure that all migrant workers are able to enter, reside and leave the country without being dependent on a single employer or sponsor,” Begum said.