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Saudi Arabia: Steps Toward Migrant Workers’ Rights

But Reforms Exclude Domestic Workers, Discriminate Against Women

(Beirut) – Saudi Arabia’s recent labor reforms may help curb rampant abuses, but they exclude domestic workers and institutionalize bias against women.

Since October 18, 2015, when a package of 38 amendments to the Labor Law went into effect, the Labor Ministry has issued directives introducing or raising fines for employers who violate regulations. These include prohibitions on confiscating migrant workers’ passports, failing to pay salaries on time, and failing to provide copies of contracts to employees. However, domestic workers, mostly migrant women who work in family homes, are still excluded from the Labor Law and its enforcement mechanisms. And some of the new regulations institutionalize discrimination against women.

“Saudi Arabia’s labor reforms will help protect migrant workers if the government follows through and enforces them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director. “But domestic workers, often the ones who need the most protection from abuse, are left out in the cold.”

Saudi Arabia’s labor reforms will help protect migrant workers if the government follows through and enforces them. But domestic workers, often the ones who need the most protection from abuse, are left out in the cold.
Sarah Leah Whitson

Middle East Director

Saudi Arabia's restrictive kafala (visa-sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employers, grants employers’ excessive power over workers and facilitates abuse. Over the past decade, Human Rights Watch has documented rampant employer abuses of migrant workers, including forcing them to work against their will or on exploitative terms.

The new or increased fines penalize a number of the abusive practices, creating the potential to increase worker protections, particularly for migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said.

The Labor Law amendments, approved by the Council of Ministers in March, include provisions increasing paid leave and the compensation period for job-related injuries, and they require employers to provide a day a week with full pay to employees to seek other employment if they terminate workers’ contracts.

The amendments also grant the Labor Ministry greater inspection and enforcement powers. The ministry can issue fines of up to 100,000 Saudi Riyals (US$26,665), an increase of SR$70,000 (US$18,667) from the highest fines listed in the 2007 Labor Law, and can shut down companies permanently or for limited periods for labor code violations. On October 12, 2015, the ministry published a table of labor code violations and their corresponding penalties. While many of the practices were prohibited before the law was amended, the new or increased penalties may improve enforcement, Human Rights Watch said.

However, the strengthened protections exclude both domestic workers and limited-term migrant workers, who enter the country for two months or less.

The new or increased penalties include fines of SR$2,000 (US$533) for withholding employees’ passports; SR$3,000 (US$800) for not paying salaries on time, and SR$5,000 (US$1,333) for withholding an employee’s salary without a judicial order.

The Labor Ministry can also impose fines of SR$5,000 (US$1,333) if employers don’t provide workers with a copy of their contract and SR$15,000 (US$4000) if they force their workers to do jobs not specified in their contracts. The new regulations increase the penalty for employers who violate health and safety standards to SR$25,000 (US$6,666) from up to SR$10,000 (US$2,667) under the 2007 Labor Law, and impose a fine of SR$20,000 (US$5,333) on those who employ children under 15.

The Saudi authorities should strongly enforce the new penalties if they are to benefit migrant workers, Human Rights Watch said. Saudi authorities should investigate, prosecute, and punish offenders when violations amount to forced labor. Both passport confiscation and withholding salaries are considered indicators of forced labor.

There are some signs that Saudi Arabia is serious about enforcement, but also some areas of concern, Human Rights Watch said. Arab News reported that through October 2015, the Labor Ministry had shut down 1,441 companies during the past year for failing to comply with the wage-protection program, which monitors payment of salaries to employees; had shut down the computer systems of 89 companies for failing to respond to employee complaints; and had withdrawn the licenses of a recruitment firm and seven recruitment offices for failing to comply with regulations, including not abiding by previously published recruitment fees.

Yet, around the same time the Labor Ministry announced its increased fines for employers who fail to pay salaries on time, news media reported that Saudi Arabia itself had delayed paying government contractors for six months or more and was attempting to cut government contract prices.

Pursuing complaints against employers can be extremely difficult for workers, particularly migrants. The Labor Ministry, in September 2014, posted a website to inform workers of their rights. Another website, Musaned, focused specifically on domestic labor, was also launched in 2014. Both sites contain some information on how to file a complaint, but Human Rights Watch has documented other obstacles, including a prohibition on seeking other work while pursuing claims against employers.

The reforms also do not address all of the kafala system’s abusive aspects. Saudi Arabia continues to impose an exit visa requirement that prevents foreign workers from leaving the country without their employer’s permission. And migrant workers who change jobs without their employer’s approval remain at risk of becoming undocumented. More robust Labor Law enforcement in 2013 was accompanied by a sweeping official campaign to detain and expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers and migrants, including those without valid residency or work permits and migrants caught working for an employer other than their legal sponsor.

Since 2011, Saudi officials, concerned about the unemployment rate among Saudi nationals, have issued reforms requiring employers to hire a certain percentage of Saudi citizens. Under these changes, when a firm fails to meet the required percentage, Saudi labor authorities can allow foreign employees to move to other companies without their employer’s approval. While this policy grants some workers greater opportunity to choose a new employer, Saudi Arabia should ensure that all workers, including domestic workers, can change employers without their first employer’s permission and without losing legal status.

The International Labor Organization estimated in 2013 that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest employers of domestic workers. Human Rights Watch has documented abuse and exploitation of migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, some of which amounts to forced labor, trafficking, or slavery-like conditions. In 2013, the Saudi authorities issued a new regulation guaranteeing domestic workers nine hours of rest every day, one day off a week, and one month of paid vacation every two years. But that still allows employers to require domestic workers to work up to 15 hours a day, and denies workers the ability to turn down any work without a “legitimate” reason.

Some of the reforms also entrench discriminatory aspects of preexisting labor regulations, including strict sex-segregation policies in the workplace and a restrictive dress code that applies only to women. Provisions of fines of up to SR$10,000 (US$2,667) for failing to provide separate areas for women to work; SR$5,000 (US$1,333) if they fail to provide written instructions on the required dress code for women; and SR$5,000 (US$1,333) for keeping women working after sunset also discourage employers from hiring women workers. Women who don’t abide by the dress code can be fined SR$1,000 (US$267).

“Saudi Arabia’s labor reforms are an encouraging sign that it may be serious about improving conditions for some migrants,” Whitson said. “But the Saudi authorities should make certain that its reforms don’t further institutionalize discrimination.”

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