UPDATE: On July 2, King Abdullah extended the deadline for migrant workers in the kingdom to regularize their residency and employment status to November 4.
(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia should abolish its migrant worker sponsorship system and allow workers in abusive situations to easily change their jobs. Thousands of migrant workers will be at risk of detention and deportation on July 3, 2013, the deadline for workers to regularize their residency and employment status in the kingdom.
Over nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia – more than half the work force – fill manual, clerical, and service jobs. Many suffer multiple abuses and labor exploitation, sometimes amounting to slavery-like conditions, Human Rights Watch said.
“Saudi Arabia should get serious about regularizing the status of its workers and do away with an abusive labor system that forces migrants into illegal employment,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Migrant workers trapped in miserable job conditions or fleeing abusive situations should be able to change jobs without employer permission or government delay.”
In late March, Saudi authorities carried out unprecedented raids on businesses and set up checkpoints across the country to find and detain workers who did not have required documentation or who were not working for their legal employers. Saudi authorities ended the crackdown in early April, declaring a limited “grace period” for workers to correct their status and documentation. On May 10, the Ministries of Interior and Labor announced an “amnesty” for all workers who had violated residency and labor rules before April 6, provided that the workers bring themselves into compliance with the law by July 3.
The kafala, or sponsorship, system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to “sponsoring” employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or leave the country. Employers often abuse this power in violation of Saudi law to confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will or on exploitative terms.
Thousands of workers in Saudi Arabia work illegally under the so-called “free visa” arrangement, with Saudis posing as sponsoring employers and importing workers to staff businesses that do not exist. Workers who enter Saudi Arabia under this scheme work outside the regulatory system for real companies and businesses that are happy to avoid any official scrutiny while the worker pays regular “fees” to the free-visa “sponsor” to renew residency and work permits. According to the Saudi Gazette, these illegal sponsors charge workers thousands of dollars in annual and monthly fees.
In April 2012, the Labor Ministry proposed abolishing the kafala system by transferring immigration sponsorship to newly created recruitment and placement agencies, but later decided to retain the current system. To tackle kafala-related abuses, Saudi Arabia needs to amend its Residency Law so that a migrant worker no longer requires a sponsor’s consent to change jobs or leave the country, Human Rights Watch said.
Some 1.5 million of the migrant domestic workers remain entirely excluded from the 2005 Labor Law and thus have no legal protections even if they work for a legal sponsor. In a 2008 report on the conditions of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch documented a range of abuses including non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.
On January 14, the labor ministries of Gulf Cooperation Council countries announced a unified standard contract for domestic workers, which entitles them to a weekly day off, possession of their passports, and traceable electronic monthly salary payments into bank accounts. The unified standard contract is a private agreement between parties, however, without the special protections provided by law. It also does not guarantee a minimum salary or improve regulation of exploitative recruitment agencies.
In 2011 and 2012, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, and Kenya imposed restrictions on their citizens, barring them from migrating to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. The Philippines resumed migration in October 2012 after Saudi authorities agreed on a US$400 per month minimum wage but few other legal protections. On May 19, the Philippines and Saudi Arabia announced a bilateral agreement to cooperate on labor issues – the first such agreement Saudi Arabia has signed.
“Fair bilateral agreements and standard contracts for migrant workers are a step in the right direction, but they are not a substitute for effective protections under the law,” Stork said.