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Migrant workers get win as Saudi Arabia ends kafala system

  • Published at 11:22 pm March 15th, 2021
migrant workers
File photo shows migrant workers at the Dhaka airport Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune/

Under the reformed system, Saudi Arabian employers will no longer be able to block migrant workers from changing jobs or leaving the country

Saudi Arabia has brought about long-awaited reforms to the kafala (sponsorship) system of migrant worker recruitment agreements, hopefully bringing an end to the exercise of authoritarian levels of control by Saudi Arabian employers on migrant workers.

Under the reformed system, Saudi Arabian employers will no longer be able to block migrant workers from changing jobs or leaving the country. Government officials, labour organizations and human rights groups said these changes would be of great benefit to Bangladeshi migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, especially female migrant workers.  

The new rules have been in effect since Sunday.

Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, former secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (BAIRA), said the reforms were a momentous step forward in upholding the rights of millions of migrant workers, including those from Bangladesh.

“Migrant workers no longer have to rely on exit permits and minimum wages. They now have the freedom to change jobs,” Shameem added.

The kafala system emerged in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s to rapidly bring in temporary labour during periods of economic boom and expel them during low-growth periods. The system tied workers to their employers, or sponsors, who are responsible for the employees’ visa and legal status.

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development last November announced that it would implement new conditions from March 2021, with the aim of improving the system and benefitting migrant workers.

The new conditions include stipulations that will allow migrant workers to transfer to other jobs upon the expiry of their work contracts without the need for their former employers’ approval, reported the Al Arabiya Saudi broadcast news channel based in Dubai.

Under the amended rules, migrant workers will also be able to change jobs within the contract period, in which case their employers must be notified within a certain period of time.

In addition, migrant workers can travel outside Saudi Arabia without their employers’ permission. The exit and return service allows a migrant worker to travel outside Saudi Arabia upon submitting the relevant application, with an online notification to employers and without the need to seek their permission.

A final exit stipulation will also enable a migrant worker to leave immediately after the end of their contract, with an online notification sent to an employer and without requiring their consent.

According to the Saudi Arabian authorities, provisions are also being put in place for workers who are not given employment contracts or are being denied payment.

The new law would limit the relationship between employers and expatriate workers under the system, who primarily work in construction and domestic work.

Reports of Saudi Arabia abolishing the sponsorship system first surfaced in February last year, with the Saudi Gazette citing unnamed sources.

Last October, the Saudi Arabian Maaal newspaper reported using unnamed sources that Saudi Arabia was set to announce the replacement of the kafala system, and that it would be replaced with a reformed system of contracts between employers and employees.

According to the Brac Migration Program, there is a total of about 10 million migrant workers from Bangladesh. Among them, 150,000-200,000 work in Saudi Arabia. 

About 700,000 Bangladeshi migrant workers leave for Saudi Arabia every year.

This year, a total of 50,000 migrant workers left Bangladesh for Saudi Arabia in January, 44,000 in February and 39,000 so far in March.