Saudi initiative to improve migrant-worker conditions is good first step, but entire sponsorship system should be abolished

London - The initiative by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to improve working conditions for foreign workers is a good first step, says ImpACT International for Human Rights Policies. However, more reform is needed: The entire kafala (sponsorship) system should be abolished.

Until the kafala system is eliminated altogether, millions of low-wage and other vulnerable workers will continue to be subject to abuse and exploitation.

-Maha Hussaini, the Executive Director of ImpACT

Under the kafala system, individuals wishing to work in the kingdom must be sponsored by an employer before entering; these companies then have the power to renew or cancel their residency permits at any time—leaving employees at risk of ongoing exploitation.

Under the recent modifications, which will go into effect in March, foreign workers will no longer be required to obtain employers' consent to leave or change jobs. They also will be allowed to travel outside the kingdom without advance approval and may directly apply for government services.

“These changes are a significant improvement for foreign employees, especially those who work in private homes by cleaning and providing other services,” says Maha Hussaini, the Executive Director of ImpACT. “But they don’t go far enough. Until the kafala system is eliminated altogether, millions of low-wage and other vulnerable workers will continue to be subject to abuse and exploitation. There are many reported cases of employers withholding workers’ passports, forcing them to work long hours and refusing to pay their wages.”

Even with the changes, the kafala system in Saudi Arabia still denies foreign workers the right to file lawsuits against their employers; directly request legal documents, such as residency papers; obtain health insurance without restrictions or bargaining; and stay in the country or change their professions at will.

For example, even with the changes, the kafala system in Saudi Arabia still denies foreign workers the right to file lawsuits against their employers; directly request legal documents, such as residency papers; obtain health insurance without restrictions or bargaining; and stay in the country or change their professions at will.

Another worry is the lack clarity regarding whether the reforms apply to domestic workers. A senior researcher for Human Rights Watch told the UK’s BBC that, “This reform does not apparently apply to migrant domestic workers, who are some of the most vulnerable workers in the country."

The number of expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia is estimated at 13.2 million, which accounts for about 44% of the population, the world's No. 1 oil exporter.

While the Saudi government is appropriately empowered to deport undocumented migrant workers, international humanitarian law requires all governments to treat such individuals with dignity and protect them from inhumane working conditions, ImpACT adds.

 

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