Saudi Arabia’s labor sponsorship system must go

The large influx of workers to the GCC States, especially Saudi Arabia, have created a big “visa market”

Khaled Almaeena
Khaled Almaeena
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Over the past few years there have been growing criticism over the treatment of foreign workers in the Gulf States. Accusations were hurled by International Labor Organization (ILO) and human rights activists, which for years were ignored.

However, in the past few years Gulf States have been taking steps to alleviate the miserable conditions of the workers. There have been some steps taken but by and large the problem persisted because the foreign worker, whether labors or white-collared office workers, remained under the total mercy of the sponsors or “Kafeels”.

I had written several articles over the past few years outlining the situation and even writing to concerned officials but to no avail.

The large influx of workers to the GCC States, especially Saudi Arabia, have created a big “visa market”

Khaled Almaeena

Only my last letter to the new Saudi minister of labor evoked a quick response and action and I must thank the minister and his staff who viewed the humanitarian case of a doctor who could not travel for 19 months due to a bureaucratic error.

The problem lies not in the laws but in implementation. Also workers, who mainly are non-Arabic speakers, are rarely given a sympathetic hearing and in most cases victimized as the sponsors go and report them as runaways — registering “huroob” cases against them.

Qatar and the UAE

Apart from the Kingdom streamlining and reforming its labor laws, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are also in the process of reforming their sponsorship laws.

The UAE is introducing labor reforms that aim to tighten oversight of employment agreements for the millions of migrant workers and they will take effect on Jan. 1. 2016.

They focus on improving transparency of job terms and employment contracts, spell out how contracts can be broken and could make it easier for workers to switch employers.

The UAE Minister of Labor Saqr Ghobash has taken the GCC lead by initiating reforms that will better protect foreign workers. Now workers can change employers and also be saved from substitution “contract”, which forces them to sign another document on arrival.

“These rules will take the labor market to a new stage based on a strong and balanced relationship between all parties and on agreement and transparency in contracting to guarantee the rights of all parties,” Ghobash was reported as saying while announcing the date of implementation.

Green light

Long-awaited changes to Qatar’s kafala sponsorship system have been green-lighted by the Cabinet, bringing reforms one step closer to becoming enshrined in the law.

However, the new rules still require final approval from the Qatari Emir and are unlikely to come into force until late 2016 at the earliest.

The large influx of workers to the GCC States, especially Saudi Arabia, created a big “visa market” and many nationals and recruitment agencies abroad made millions of riyals.

Today in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia too, the Ministry of Labor has clamped down on heartless “visa traders” and has pushed for reforms. A media campaign should be conducted and people, both the workers and the employees, should be made aware of their rights and obligations.

Contracts should be lodged with the Ministry of Labor rather than with employers. And the Kafala system must go.

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on Sept 8, 2015.

Khaled Almaeena is a veteran Saudi journalist, commentator, businessman and the editor-at-large of the Saudi Gazette. Almaeena has held a broad range of positions in Saudi media for over thirty years, including CEO of a PR firm, Saudi Television news anchor, talk show host, radio announcer, lecturer and journalist. As a journalist, Almaeena has represented Saudi media at Arab summits in Baghdad, Morocco and elsewhere. In 1990, he was one of four journalists to cover the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia. He also traveled to China as part of this diplomatic mission. Almaeena's political and social columns appear regularly in Gulf News, Asharq al-Aswat, al-Eqtisadiah, Arab News, Times of Oman, Asian Age and The China Post. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter: @KhaledAlmaeena

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