In a milestone for working expatriates in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia announced several labour reforms for private sector workers. What it means is that expat workers will find themselves with far more flexibility to determine their future and their places of employment than ever before.
In the present system before the changes, a worker who is recruited from overseas falls under the sponsorship of his employer and has to do his bidding. For the most part, the sponsorship or kafala is a mutual agreement of services rendered and income earned. But it also binds the fate of the employee to the specific employer.
This tie that binds had resulted in a number of employer-worker abuses in the past, so much so that the kingdom established special courts to hear grievances and mete out due justice. There were cases of non-payment of dues, of excessive working hours beyond the terms of the contract, unspecified deductions from wages, etc, etc. It left the fate of an expat worker forever tied to his sponsor or kafeel. Woe befalls a worker who is unfortunate enough to land in the hands of an unscrupulous kafeel.
Human rights organisations had decried about how these elements of the kafala system lead to abuse and the exploitation of workers who have little power to complain about or escape abuse when their employer controls their entry and exit from the country, residency, and the ability to change jobs. Some employers exploit this control by taking workers’ passports, forcing them to work excessive hours and deny them wages. The kafala system also has led to hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers, as employers can report workers as missing or huroob. In some cases, it was the workers who escaped abuse, while in others it was the employers who not wanting to pay his workers their dues reported them in as huroob cases.
The sponsorship or kafala system is not unique to Saudi Arabia, which began importing hundreds of thousands of expatriate workers following the oil boom years. Such a practice is not uncommon in the rest of the GCC countries that adopt a similar system of a relationship between an employer and his workers. With several modifications in existing laws, countries such as the UAE have adopted a more linear and agreeable working relationship between all parties.
Last week, the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development announced a series of steps that would ease conditions for expatriate workers. These conditions are to take effect in March 2021. The Ministry at the time of the announcement claimed that these steps were being taken to improve the sponsorship system and allow expatriate workers in the Kingdom to benefit from the new job mobility reforms. Following the completion of the first year of his or her contract, the expat worker is free to determine his or her own future without the consent of his former employer. The huroob clause has also been abolished.
The changes are across the board with one exception. Employees working as domestic or household helpers such as drivers, nannies, cooks, and gardeners are excluded from the new ruling.
Toward a productive future
These are welcome changes in a country that is growing fast and has visions for a very productive future. Many in the marketplace see these latest steps as a means of encouraging private businesses to employ more Saudis and retain their loyalty through benefits and working conditions. With a sizeable Saudi workforce, an employer doesn’t really have to go far to fill in the required vacancies, especially now that he can no longer retain the services of expats at his whim.
Under the existing sponsorship system, some employers used to hire foreigners for low wages and poor working conditions at the expense of Saudi youth who sat by idly waiting for a phone call from an HR department. In a free market, it will allow Saudis to become more competitive and demonstrate their skills that have often been buried under a myriad of labour regulations that had obscured their value. It’s a win-win situation here. And for the expat worker, it couldn’t have come at a better time.
—Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena.