On 14 March, the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, long known for the oppressive treatment of foreign workers, enacted a law awarding more rights to foreign workers. However, more than half of those labourers, or five categories, remain subject to the country’s deeply exploitative kafala (sponsorship) system. That must change.
While those covered by the legal reforms such as retail and construction workers will not have to get their employers’ permission to leave or re-enter the country, five other categories will still have to get their permission. By leaving them out, the Saudi authorities allow the most vulnerable groups to be exploited and controlled by their employers.
It would not be far off to say that Saudi Arabia is run by modern-day slaves. Despite the international human rights regime, the government has honed a system of labour exploitation so entrenched that it pervades every fiber of society. Like elsewhere in the Middle East, migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are governed by the infamous kafala system, which gives employers almost total power over their lives.
Saudi Arabia hosts 13 million foreign workers, the second largest worldwide. They are mainly from Bangladesh, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sudan, and Yemen. A work contract is usually agreed upon but rarely honored.
The new law, if enforced, will bring critical relief, although many details remain sketchy. Those covered by the reforms may transfer sponsorship to another employer when their contract ends without their initial sponsor’s consent, provided they give notice and meet other, undefined “specific measures.” However, five types of workers—estimated at 60 percent of Saudi Arabia’s migrants—are exempted from the reforms: private drivers, guards, housemaids, shepherds and gardeners.
Among the many aspects of daily life for these workers that the kafala system greatly restricts is the ability to earn an income and control one’s earnings by, for instance, opening a bank account or taking out a loan. For example, banks require an official request from the employer, including the nature of the migrant’s work and the purpose of the account. The migrant’s work permit and passport must also be submitted. Once the account is opened, the migrant is issued an ATM card only; personal checks and credit card are not allowed.
Moreover, the kingdom imposes high taxes on foreign workers and their family members. In 2017, Saudi authorities required an annual fee to be paid for each person accompanying a worker, initially set at 100 riyals, then increased gradually. Despite the pandemic, the fee was increased in 2020 by an additional 400 riyals. Now each worker must pay 4,800 Saudi riyals (1,200 USD) annually for each accompanying person—an astronomical amount in light of their low wages.
Other fees must be paid by the employer on behalf of the workers. However, in many cases, the workers have to pay the fees (around 800 Saudi riyals) themselves. As the required fees often exceed their wages, migrant workers are sometimes forced to leave the country (which has been difficult during the pandemic.).
And yet, despite this financial toll, domestic workers and other migrants are often paid only half of what was promised during the pandemic. While the Saudi government advises employers last November to pay a minimum wage of 4,000 riyals a month, it is not applied to migrant workers in practice. Women are particular victims. They are often paid a paltry wage of 1,000 riyals (266 USD) a month or less, making it almost impossible to send much back home after they pay their own expenses. In contrast, male migrants earn a wage of around 1,500 riyals.
Despite the international condemnation of the human rights violations migrant workers face in the kingdom, not enough action has been taken. Meanwhile, although the monarchy has ratified several international conventions on labour, including the Protection of Wages Convention of 2020, implementation has yet to occur.
To alleviate the suffering of millions of vulnerable migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, International human rights organisations, as well as national and local bodies and the countries that send migrants to the kingdom, must come together to demand an end to the systematic abuses they are subjected to. If they do not get to enjoy their right to fair, timely wages, as well as independent bank account, migrants cannot achieve the financial health for which they left their homes.