Saudi Arabia has boasted of its “huge” reforms of the labor market aimed at restructuring the harsh sponsorship rules that are often blamed for the exploitation and abuse of millions of foreign workers in the oil-rich kingdom.
Relaxing key restrictions in the sponsorship system known as “kafala” will affect some 10 million private employees. But another 3.7 million domestic workers will be left in labor arrangements that critics have compared to a modern form of slavery.
Noor Mohammad, a young driver from northwestern Pakistan, has been chasing a mirage of prosperity in Saudi Arabia for more than eight years. “Overall, my life has not improved one bit,” he told Radio Mashaal. “It is still a life of pain and suffering.”
Mohammad says that after investing years of his life into hard labor in Saudi Arabia he has little in savings and now lives in fear of being deported. He first spent nearly $9,000 in borrowed money to buy a work visa from a Riyadh resident in January 2013.
He spent his first 10 months confined to one room because of legal issues with his sponsor or “kafil” in Arabic. During the next six years, he worked to pay off his debts. A change of sponsors and their increasing demands meant he had to pay sponsor fees multiple times. The savings he sent back to his village in Charsadda, a rural district in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, were barely enough to feed his extended family of 16.
Two years ago, Mohammad flew back to Pakistan to marry. “I had just 4,000 riyals ($1,100) in my pocket when I landed at Peshawar airport,” he recalled of returning to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s capital, which borders his home district. “That was all I had saved after so much suffering.”
He returned without his wife to Riyadh, where he is still struggling to find his feet. But he says he is now optimistic.
“I am being told the government is taking back the authority from the sponsors,” he said. “People say that in future we don’t have to pay the kafil and will only be responsible for paying taxes to the government.”
Riyadh is hyping the potential benefits of the planned reforms that will take effect in March 2021.
"These changes are not small changes -- it's huge," Sattam Alharbi, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, told Bloomberg last week. He said the new changes will end “runaway” reports. Such reports enabled Saudi sponsors to effectively turn foreign workers into criminals with some being jailed and deported.
"Through this initiative, we aim to build an attractive labor market and improve the working environment," Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain, the deputy minister for human resources, told journalists. He said the reforms will grant foreign workers the right to switch jobs and even leave Saudi Arabia without their employer’s permission.
Nisar Ahmad Omarkhel, an Afghan lawyer in Saudi Arabia, says Riyadh is gradually moving toward curtailing what local employers had amassed over decades. But it will only apply to organizations and not individual employers, who typically hire domestic workers.
“The previous system reflected badly on the government because the abuse of one person was sometimes seen as an act of the entire [labor] system,” he told Radio Mashaal. “It had turned getting work visas into an enterprise.”
Pakistanis and Afghans comprise a large share of the menial workers toiling in the Saudi desert for a living. “This will inevitably also prompt Saudi employers to hire local workers instead of relying on relatively cheap foreign labor,” Omarkhel said while pointing out the potential impact for some of the poorest.
He says that while the reforms leave out domestic workers for now, it will eventually open doors for them. “Gradually, it will open new avenues,” he said.
His advice to foreign workers is that they need to be vigilant when signing a contract. “They need to be super careful while signing an employment contract so their work environment does not deteriorate,” he said.
Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, says Riyadh is still far from abolishing the abusive sponsorship scheme. She argues that Saudi authorities need to ensure all migrant workers are able to work in, live, and leave the country without being dependent on an individual employer or company.
“Saudi Arabia’s wealth and economy has been built on the backs of millions of migrant workers, and it is time for deep-rooted change to accord them the legal protection and guarantees for their rights that they deserve,” she said.
In teeming labor housing across the desert kingdom, millions of expatriate workers are hoping for the best.
Noor Rahmand Dawar, a laborer from Pakistan’s western North Waziristan district, has endured abuse from his Saudi sponsor during the past decade. He says they typically overcharged him when renewing his residence and work permits. The hardest part, he says, is having to depend on employers for permission to leave Saudi Arabia.
“Once my father was very ill and I desperately wanted to visit him, but my sponsor kept on delaying for eight months,” he said. “He continued to make excuses, which forced me to quit my job.”
Dawar is now optimistic. “The proposed changes are all very positive and might make our lives easy,” he said.
Under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, the conservative Muslim nation has embarked on ambitions economic reforms. But a marked slump in the oil market this year and the country’s costly war in neighboring Yemen have raised serious questions over whether Riyadh can sustain a march toward modernization.