Saudi Labour Ministry’s proposal to abolish the employer-based “sponsorship” system is a positive step for migrant workers, Human Rights Watch has said.
The system fuels human rights abuses against migrants by tying their legal residency in the country to one employer, the US-based group said in a statement.
Earlier this month, local media reported that a draft law changing the sponsorship system would be submitted to the Council of Ministers in the next few months for final approval.
The change would transfer sponsorship to newly created recruitment and placement agencies.
However, to fully remove the risk of abuses from the system, Saudi Arabia would also need to amend the Residency Law so that a migrant worker no longer would require a sponsor’s consent to change jobs or leave the country, Human Rights Watch said.
“The current sponsorship system makes it easy for employers to intimidate, cheat, and abuse migrant workers,” said Christoph Wilcke, senior Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“Reducing the immense control that employers have over migrant workers would be a positive step toward fighting exploitation.”
The Labour Ministry estimates there are approximately 9 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, primarily from Asia and Africa.
Human Rights Watch said it has documented dozens of cases in which the sponsorship system trapped migrant workers, in particular domestic workers, in abusive working conditions or prevented their return to their home countries.
Many workers said their employers had withheld their salaries, made them work excessive hours, denied them food, locked them in the workplace, confiscated their passports, and in some cases beat, raped, or psychologically abused them.
Migrant workers’ residency permits are currently linked to their employers, who are considered their sponsors, under articles 5, 11, and 44bis of the Saudi Residency Law of 1952 and subsequent amendments.
The employer’s consent is required if a migrant worker wants to change jobs or leave the country.
“Handing control over migrant workers to the recruitment industry brings new risks,” Wilcke said. “If a sponsorship system is retained, strong oversight over these new companies will be essential, including a vetting process to disqualify recruitment agents with records of abuse.”
HRW said the Labour Ministry proposal specifies that migrant workers would no longer have to obtain their employer’s consent to go on the Hajj, get married, or visit relatives in Saudi Arabia.
The Labour Ministry’s proposal also calls for a new governmental commission to oversee migrant workers’ affairs.
The commission would monitor the newly established recruitment companies and ensure compliance with regulations such as the ban on taking migrant workers’ passports.
“This proposal deserves serious consideration from the Council of Ministers and the Shura Council,” Wilcke said. “But Saudi authorities should also review immigration and other regulations to ensure that migrant workers are able to change employers and to leave the country without sponsor consent.”
Saudi Arabia voted in favour of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Convention No. 189 on Decent Work for Domestic Workers, adopted in June 2011.
The ILO Convention establishes the first global standards for the estimated 50 million to 100 million domestic workers worldwide.
It requires governments to provide domestic workers with labor protections equivalent to those of other workers,to monitor recruitment agencies rigorously, and to provide protection against violence.
“Domestic workers have been at high risk of abuse both because of the current sponsorship system and because they are not covered by the labor law,” Wilcke said. “Saudi authorities should extend labour protections to domestic workers and set up strong safeguards over private recruiters.”