The Saudi Arabian kafala sponsor system for guest workers has been described as "modern slavery." Now, its government has announced new laws that they say promises to end its abuse.
Almost one third of Saudi Arabia's 34 million people are migrant workers whose legal status in the country is controlled by their employer, leaving them exposed to abuse and exploitation. The kingdom's "kafala" rules were the most restrictive in the Gulf.
This week government officials announced reforms that would see some 7 million low-income workers allowed to exit the country or change sponsors, without asking their boss's permission, to be rolled out in March 2021. Those covered by the reforms, such as construction, retail or IT workers, will not need to ask for their boss's permission to leave or re-enter the country, seen as one of the most abusive elements of the system. But they must still make a request to authorities, who can deny exit if any debts or fines are outstanding. Those workers will also be able to transfer sponsorship when their contract ends without needing their existing sponsor's consent, provided they give notice and "specific measures," which are yet to be defined, are adhered to. Other details such as the length of the notice period are also unclear, however local media reported that workers need to complete a year of work to be allowed a transfer.
Many workers, however, are confused or pessimistic about key details as they remain sketchy. Some 3.7 million of the most vulnerable, including domestic workers, drivers, farmers, gardeners and guards have also been left out of the reforms.
"They are the ones who are most likely to be subject to situations of forced labor," said Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW). "We documented situations of domestic workers who have been confined to their employers' homes, their passports confiscated, forced to work excessive hours without rest or days off, and they happened to be subject to very specific forms of abuse, such as physical and sexual abuse."
There are those who doubt whether it is a significant or a sincere move towards ending the system but instead just window dressing as Riyadh prepares to host the G20 later this month. Other elements of the system stay in place, such as employers' power to threaten employees with charges of absconding - "at the click of mouse," according to the human resources ministry - there is still a long way to go.
Skeptics point to other measures of recent years, such as a system to make sure workers are actually paid the wages they are due and an "amicable settlement" process for labor disputes. Those reforms have been unsuccessful due to lack of implementation and enforcement, according to the monitoring body Migrant-Rights.org.