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(Beirut) – The Saudi Labor Ministry’s proposal to abolish the employer-based “sponsorship” system is a positive step for migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said today.  The system fuels human rights abuses against migrants by tying their legal residency in the country to one employer.

The change would transfer sponsorship to newly created recruitment and placement agencies. However, to fully remove the risk of abuses from the system, Saudi Arabia would also need to amend the Residency Law so that a migrant worker no longer would require a sponsor’s consent to change jobs or leave the country, Human Rights Watch said.

“The current sponsorship system makes it easy for employers to intimidate, cheat, and abuse migrant workers,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Reducing the immense control that employers have over migrant workers would be a positive step toward fighting exploitation.”

The ministry based its recommendations on a five-year study it conducted and has announced it will forward them to the Council of Ministers’ expert committee for review. The ministry estimates there are approximately 9 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, primarily from Asia and Africa.

Human Rights Watch has documented dozens of cases in which the sponsorship system trapped migrant workers, in particular domestic workers, in abusive working conditions or prevented their return to their home countries. Many workers said their employers had withheld their salaries, made them work excessive hours, denied them food, locked them in the workplace, confiscated their passports, and in some cases beat, raped, or psychologically abused them.

Migrant workers’ residency permits are currently linked to their employers, who are considered their sponsors, under articles 5, 11, and 44bis of the Saudi Residency Law of 1952 and subsequent amendments. The employer’s consent is required if a migrant worker wants to change jobs or leave the country. The draft regulation would shift sponsorship from employers to about a dozen new, private companies tasked with providing recruitment and employment services for migrant workers.

Human Rights Watch has documented cases in which existing Saudi recruitment agencies have abused migrant workers, however. These abuses include deception about employment contracts, refusal to help workers leave abusive employers, sexual harassment, forced-confinement in recruitment offices, and physical abuse.

The Labor Ministry’s current regulations say that recruitment agencies will lose their operating licenses if they accept any recruitment fees from workers, house women workers, or rent out their services to others. But Human Rights Watch documented cases in which labor agencies violated these provisions yet faced no penalties.

“Handing control over migrant workers to the recruitment industry brings new risks,” Wilcke said. “If a sponsorship system is retained, strong oversight over these new companies will be essential, including a vetting process to disqualify recruitment agents with records of abuse.”

The Labor Ministry proposal specifies that migrant workers would no longer have to obtain their employer’s consent to go on the Hajj, get married, or visit relatives in Saudi Arabia. Such restrictions are not required under current Saudi law, but are often imposed by employers and government offices, Human Rights Watch said.

In October 2000, King Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saudissued Council of Ministers Decree 166 abolishing the sponsorship system in employment relations, while maintaining it for immigration and residency purposes. That decree specifically prohibits confiscating a migrant’s passport, but the practice remains widespread and officially supported, Human Rights Watch said.

The Labor Ministry’s proposal also calls for a new governmental commission to oversee migrant workers’ affairs. The commission would monitor the newly established recruitment companies and ensure compliance with regulations such as the ban on taking migrant workers’ passports. A proposed insurance program would compensate employers for losses incurred because of workers’ actions. It would also cover airfare in case of deportation and six months of a worker’s wages if an employer has failed to pay wages on time.

After its review, the Council of Ministers will submit the proposals to the Shura Council, an appointed body with some legislative functions, which may debate them and make non-binding suggestions for any changes. The draft legislation then goes back to the Council of Ministers for endorsement and adoption.

“This proposal deserves serious consideration from the Council of Ministers and the Shura Council,” Wilcke said. “But Saudi authorities should also review immigration and other regulations to ensure that migrant workers are able to change employers and to leave the country without sponsor consent.”

The proposal does not address other serious protection gaps for migrant workers. The labor law excludes domestic workers from key protections, such as a weekly day of rest and limits to hours of work each day. A draft appendix to the labor law to address domestic workers’ rights was passed by the Shura Council in 2009but has remained stalled pending approval from the cabinet and the king.

Saudi Arabia voted in favor of the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, adopted in June 2011. The ILO Convention establishes the first global standards for the estimated 50 million to 100 million domestic workers worldwide. It requires governments to provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers,to monitor recruitment agencies rigorously, and to provide protection against violence.

“Domestic workers have been at high risk of abuse both because of the current sponsorship system and because they are not covered by the labor law,” Wilcke said. “Saudi authorities should extend labor protections to domestic workers and set up strong safeguards over private recruiters.”

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