The Saudi Labor Law, amended through Royal Decree No. M/51 on September 27, 2005, excludes all domestic workers, denying them protections guaranteed to other workers, such as a day off once a week, limits on working hours, and access to new labor courts to be established according to court system reforms announced in October 2007. The government has repeatedly announced that it will develop an annex to the labor law that would cover domestic workers, but as of June 2008, the annex was not yet finalized.
Human Rights Watch believes that the adoption and implementation of such an annex could represent a significant step forward. However, in order for the reform to be truly effective, the Saudi authorities would need to introduce protections for domestic workers that are equal to those provided to other workers and that have adequate mechanisms for their enforcement. If not, the annex will be only a cosmetic change that fails to address legal discrimination against domestic workers.
Saudi Arabia’s restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system, which ties migrant workers’ employment visas to their employers, also fuels exploitation and abuse. Under this system, an employer assumes responsibility for a hired migrant worker and must grant explicit permission before the worker can enter Saudi Arabia, transfer employment, or leave the country. The kafala system gives the employer immense control over the worker. Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases where workers were unable to escape from abusive conditions or even to return home upon completion of their contracts because their employer denied them permission to leave the country.
Domestic workers suffer from shortcomings not only in the labor and immigration laws, but also a vast, profit-minded, and poorly monitored labor recruitment industry in both the labor-sending countries and Saudi Arabia. The business of recruiting workers in Asia and placing them with employers in the Middle East has thrived as migration flows grew exponentially in the past few decades. In labor-sending countries, recruiters may charge exorbitant fees, provide incomplete or misleading information about working conditions, and, in Indonesia, subject women and girls to forced confinement for months and other pre-departure abuses in training centers. In Saudi Arabia, Human Rights Watch documented cases where labor agents ignored or rejected domestic workers’ pleas for help, and in cases where the domestic worker wished to return home, instead transferred them to other employers to avoid repatriation costs.
The Saudi government is considering reforming the kafala system by replacing it with three or four large recruitment agencies that would serve as foreign workers’ sponsors. This option resolves some of the problems inherent in an employer-based sponsorship system, yet presents new challenges by concentrating a lucrative industry under the control of a few large agencies that would still exercise enormous control over the lives of migrant workers. In order to prevent corruption and abuse of migrant workers by recruitment agents, any such reform should include checks and balances to protect the rights of migrant workers, including mechanisms for rigorous and independent monitoring.