Real change for labor rights in Saudi Arabia?

Recent news stories about workers’ rights in the Gulf region have been replete with stories of horrendous human rights abuses and exploitation. Indeed the planning for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar has itself been overshadowed by media reports of labor rights abuses in the run-up to the competition.

Saudi Arabia has not been free from criticism, particularly for a country with 10 million foreign workers and a total population of 27 million. But there may be signs that we are beginning to see real change in Saudi labor laws and regulations.

Last week, at the 25th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Saudi Arabia agreed to 181 out of 225 recommendations on human rights reforms made to it by U.N. member states. These recommendations not only included commitments to improve protection for labor rights, but a number of measures enacted before the approvals were formally announced.

For example, Saudi Arabia recently ratified ILO (International Labor Organization Convention) article 138 requiring a minimum working age of 15. And in the past year alone, agreements protecting migrant workers have been signed with the Philippines, Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia. These agreements address key concerns over worker pay, holidays, health insurance, possession of passports and the right to change employers.

Comprehensive policy

Such agreements could form the basis of a comprehensive policy for all migrant workers. The beginnings of such a policy are already appearing. Migrant workers can now also change their employment at will with no fees and no permission required from their employer, a big step in their ability to act with greater independence.

The feminization of certain industries like women’s retail, recruitment, and even plans for a “woman friendly” city in the eastern province of Hofuf have had a positive effect on women’s participation in the private sector

Dr. Christian Koch

Of course, a significant degree of media attention was given to the drive to deport illegal foreign workers in 2013. According to the kingdom’s Deputy Labor Minister, Dr. Ahmed al-Fahaid, the “corrections period,” as this episode was known as, was about “addressing the huge numbers of illegal workers in Saudi Arabia, something no country would be expected to leave unaddressed.” Al-Fahaidy felt that Saudi Arabia “needed to do this in the most reasonable and humane way possible. As such all workers status corrections were permitted to be amended with the usual financial penalties waived, leading to millions of corrective processes.”

It was also part of a wider process that enabled the Ministry of Labor of streamline employment data and information in the kingdom in order to better protect workers’ rights. For example, the ministry has created a new wage protection system - an electronic system designed to precisely monitor private sector’s monthly wages to ensure timely and complete payments as per agreements and contracts.

And in making information about laws and regulations accessible in a participative and contributory way, all changes to legislation are now accessible through a crowd sourced website where recommendations, for or against, can be gathered. Neighboring countries are looking to adopt this system as well.

Not just for migrant workers

But efforts by the ministry appear to be improving things not just for migrant workers, but another demographic of Saudi society - women. The feminization of certain industries like women’s retail, recruitment, and even plans for a “woman friendly” city in the eastern province of Hofuf have had a positive effect on women’s participation in the private sector. This sector has grown tenfold since 2009, from 40,000 to over 400,000. It’s a pace of change unmatched anywhere in the world.

However, there is still a long way to go and much room for improvement. Saudi Arabia still rejected ratifying key covenants on labor (ILO 87 and 98), women (OP-CEDAW), and migrant worker rights (ICRMW) at the recent 25th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council meeting. And there is clearly opposition within the country to the expanded role women are able to play in the economy within Saudi Arabia.

As Christian Amanpour pointed out in a recent interview with Dr. al-Fahaidy, the Labor Ministry has come under significant pressure from Saudi voices vehemently opposed to any form of role for women in the Saudi workforce, making each step towards integrating women into the workforce a challenging one.

But significant steps have been taken over the previous year that appear to be far more visionary and forward looking then many in the international sphere may have come to expect of Saudi Arabia. It is, on balance, an encouraging trend and an important trajectory, one that needs to be maintained if Saudi Arabia’s record on worker and labor rights is to be radically overhauled.


Dr. Christian Koch is the Director of the Gulf Research Center Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. Previously, he served as Director of International Studies at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, UAE. Prior to joining the GRC, he worked as Head of the Strategic Studies Section at the Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research, Abu Dhabi. His work at the Gulf Research Center combines the various international and foreign relations issues of the GCC states with a particular interest in GCC-EU Relations. Dr. Koch received his Ph.D. from the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany and also studied at the American University in Washington, D.C. and the University of South Carolina. He is the author of Politische Entwicklung in einem arabischen Golfstaat: Die Rolle von Interessengruppen im Emirat Kuwait (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2000), the editor of six books and has written numerous chapter contributions and journal articles. He regularly writes for the international media including the Financial Times, Handelsblatt, die Süddeutsche Zeitung, Jane’s Sentinel Publications on Gulf issues and his media appearances include the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Al Arabiya News Channel. In January 2007, he joined the advisory board of the German Orient Foundation.

Last Update: Wednesday, 20 May 2020 KSA 09:43 - GMT 06:43
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