Saudi Arabia has announced that it intends to relax key restrictions on millions of foreign workers, under reforms to its labor legislation that is blamed for widespread abuses and exploitation.
Human rights groups have repeatedly called for the abolishment of what is known as the "kafala" sponsorship system, which critics say is a modern form of slavery that binds workers to their Saudi employers.
Last week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Saudi Arabia had one of the most restrictive kafala systems in the Gulf, which it said facilitates "abuse and exploitation including forced labor, trafficking, and slavery-like conditions."
The Social Development Ministry said that from March 14, foreigners will no longer need their employers' authorization to change jobs, travel, or leave Saudi Arabia, which is home to some 10 million expatriates.
Deputy Minister Sattam Alharbi said the changes will abolish "runaway" reports against foreign workers who do not report for duty, which effectively turns them into criminals at risk of being jailed and deported.
"These changes are not small changes -- it's huge," Alharbi told Bloomberg News on November 4.
However, Alharbi said the new regulations will not apply to the country's 3.7 million migrant domestic employees, a highly vulnerable category governed by separate regulations which he said are also under review.
The exclusion of migrant domestic workers from the reforms was also problematic given that many are forced to work excessive hours without rest, denied their wages and even subjected to physical and sexual abuse, HRW said.
Foreign workers in Saudi Arabia say they are often vulnerable to extortion from their sponsors, who can demand a portion of their salaries in order to continue working legally after many arrive heavily indebted from their home countries.
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters