Saudi Arabia announces reforms protecting migrant workers

The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development (HRSD) in Saudi Arabia launched today a Labor Reform Initiative (LRI) Wednesday aimed at improving job mobility for migrant workers by lifting “kafala” restrictions that have historically left workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The LRI seeks to regulate employee exit and re-entry visa issuance, allowing workers to move freely without requiring the employer’s consent, and enables workers to transfer sponsorship between employers. However, employers will receive a notice of the employee’s departure from the country via smartphone apps with the worker “bearing all consequences” of violating the employment contract. The Kingdom hopes these reforms will improve the job market, reduce the disparity between Saudi and migrant workers, and strengthen Saudi Arabia’s presence in the global market sphere. Reforms are due to take effect in March 2021.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced reforms as part of a broader plan called Vision 2030 designed to attract foreign investors. Vision 2030 seeks to expand the Saudi private sector and “diversify” the country’s oil-dependent economy.

Human rights organizations remain skeptical. Migrant Rights researcher Ali Mohammed says the current kafala system will continue as long as migrant worker visas are sponsored by an individual, known as the “kafeel.” However, Mohamed notes that “any move toward delinking migrant workers from the control of a single sponsor will certainly benefit migrant workers and is to be welcomed.”

Amnesty International migrant rights researcher May Romanos cited similar concerns, stating that “the devil is usually in the details.” Romanos says that Saudi must publish and enforce the new reforms if there is any hope for change. Otherwise, she says, foreign workers may be vulnerable to a new host of human rights violations.