Saudi Arabia 'enhances migrant worker rights', except for women

Saudi Arabia 'enhances migrant worker rights', except for women
Analysis: Riyadh has reformed labour law to protect the rights of migrant workers, but reforms continue to exclude domestic workers and discriminate against women, writes Human Rights Watch.
3 min read
16 November, 2015
Saudi Arabia has shown a commitment to improving migrant workers' rights [Getty]

Recent labour reforms in Saudi Arabia are an important move towards improving the rights of migrant workers, but legislation excludes domestic workers and further institutionalises discrimination against women, said Human Rights Watch yesterday.

Thirty-eight amendments were made to the labour law in October, with fines introduced or raised for employers violating regulations.

Violations include confiscating migrant workers' passports, failing to pay salaries on time, and failing to provide copies of contracts to employees.

However, domestic workers, who are mainly migrant women, and limited-term migrant workers, who enter the country for two months or less, remain excluded from the labour law.

"Saudi Arabia's labour reforms will help protect migrant workers if the government follows through and enforces them," said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director.

"But domestic workers, often the ones who need the most protection from abuse, are left out in the cold," she added.

The amendments include provisions for paid leave, a compensation period for job-related injuries, and for employees to have a paid day off each week to find other work if employers end their employment contracts.

HRW has called on Saudi authorities to strongly enforce the new penalties to ensure they benefit migrant workers.

The human rights organisation also called for authorities to investigate, prosecute and punish offenders when violations amount to forced labour, including passport confiscation and the withholding of salaries.


     Domestic workers and limited-term migrant workers remain excluded from the labour law

The kingdom has shown a commitment to enforcing the new legislation.

The ministry of labour recently published a report saying that during the past year it had closed down 1,441 companies for failing to comply with the wage-protection programme that monitors the payment of salaries to employees.

It also shut down the computer systems of 89 companies for failing to respond to employees' complaints, reported Arab News.

This marks an increase of 91 percent in the total number of cases compared with the previous year.

Bloomberg, however, reported on 19 October 2015, that Saudi Arabia had not paid government contractors for six months - as it saught to preserve cash due to the slump in oil prices.


Migrant workers are employed in the kingdom according to the kafala (visa-sponsorship) system. This gives employers great power over employees and facilitates exploitation by, for example, giving employers control of workers' legal residency status in the country.

The new reforms fail to address abusive parts of the kafala system.

For example, migrant workers still cannot leave the country without their employer's permission, and those that change jobs without permission from their employer may be left without documents.

In 2013, the International Labour Organisation, the UN agency dealing with workplace issues, estimated that Saudi Arabia had one of the biggest numbers of domestic workers in the world.

Cases of appalling abuse against migrant workers in the kingdom have been well-documented.

HRW argues that some of the reforms "also entrench discriminatory aspects of preexisting labour regulations".

These include strict sex-segregation policies in the workplace and a restrictive dress code that applies only to women.

"Saudi Arabia's labour 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 institutionalise discrimination," she added.