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Saudi Reform Means Expatriate Workers Can Change Jobs Without Boss’ OK
A foreign labourer works on the construction of a house in the Saudi capital Riyadh on April 13, 2019. (Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

Saudi Reform Means Expatriate Workers Can Change Jobs Without Boss’ OK

The changes to the sponsorship system will benefit millions of foreign employees

As of Sunday, foreigners working in the Saudi private sector can switch jobs when their work contracts expire or provided they notify their employers in a timely manner.

The kingdom’s near-abolishment of its 70-year-old kalafa sponsorship system follows similar reforms in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Other countries such as Qatar, Kuwait and Oman continue the practice, under which an employer can unilaterally renew or terminate residency and work status in the country.

Now, foreign workers in Saudi Arabia can move from one employer to another according to specific conditions, and travel without the consent of their sponsor, after requesting “exit and return” permission from Saudi authorities.

There are new contractual terms between employer and employee that will be a reference in any dispute if it needs to be resolved in court.

The amended Saudi system differs from those in Bahrain in the UAE in that it does not provide the migrant workers with their own work permits, rather they still need a “residence permit” connected to an employer, and that if there is a problem not otherwise resolved by authorities, the worker’s exit from Saudi Arabia will be final.

Unless the work contract has expired, there are still several conditions for changing employment in the kingdom, including that the employee be a “professional worker,” have worked for the current employer for at least 12 months, that they have a work contract, and that they adhere to the notice period stipulated in the contract.

They can also change jobs with the approval of the current employer, or if they have not been paid for three months or more.

One of the conditions for issuing a permit to “travel” or “exit and return” is that if the expatriate worker owns a car, he must not have unpaid traffic violations.

The changes, however, do not apply to certain categories of employees: private drivers, home guards, domestic workers, shepherds and gardeners.

Mutlaq al-Enezi, a Saudi economist, told The Media Line, “This new initiative will eliminate the problem of illegal employment that is wide-spread in the kingdom, as there are more than a million illegal workers.

“It will improve the rights of foreign workers in the kingdom, which means improving human rights as well, and this is perhaps the first step to moving toward a much better situation,” Enezi added.

“The Saudi economy will definitely improve. When all workers are registered and documented and have clear contracts, this will definitely raise competitiveness and provide greater opportunity for Saudi citizens. As the foreign worker has these rights and is largely equal to the Saudi worker, it means that employers will hire Saudi employees, thus eliminating a large proportion of unemployment,” he continued.

“In the past, many workers would remain in the kingdom after their jobs ended, and their status would become ‘irregular’ and they work until they were arrested and deported. They pose a security and economic threat, but now this phenomenon will be eliminated,” Enezi said.

Farouk Mohamed, an Egyptian civil engineer who has lived in Saudi Arabia for 10 years, told The Media Line that “the new system is good for the upper class of workers. As for simple laborers, it may hurt them.”

He explained: “The highest category of workers, whose [monthly] salaries exceed 4,000 Saudi riyals (approximately $1,100) will be able to pay fees and costs in the event of a desire to travel and return [to the kingdom], and they can also bear the expenses until they obtain another job. As for those whose salaries are less than that, it will be difficult for them.

“It seems the trend in Saudi Arabia is to favor qualified people only, as there are several taxes that we pay in order to work here, including the high fees imposed by the state on the worker’s family, the high price of electricity, and others, and it has become impossible for the poor wage category to live,” he added.

“On the other hand, it has also become better for foreign workers, because there is a work contract with the employer, and now he cannot keep their passports or prevent them from traveling or visiting their country after spending a long period without a monthly salary, so it protects workers’ rights,” Mohamed said.

Muhammad Khatim, a Sudanese citizen who works for a Saudi newspaper, told The Media Line: “The system has now become much better, but at the same time it is more expensive. I don’t know how those who work in simple occupations such as construction workers or others will make it under the new conditions, but for sure there will be no sponsor who controls their fate.”

Ahmed al-Dossary, a Saudi economic analyst, told The Media Line, “The initiative will contribute to eliminating the phenomenon of covering up illegal employment, which results in a parallel economy that is not included in the GDP and national income and is not under the state’s umbrella, which will positively affect the kingdom’s economy.

“The initiative will enhance the quality of services and the efficiency of workers entering the labor market, as it will no longer possible to sign a work contract with a driver in order to be an engineer,” Dossary continued.

“It will also contribute to increasing employment for Saudis, which means the kingdom gradually gives up bringing in labor from abroad, as there are work contracts and rights for foreign workers, and therefore the Saudi citizen will be a better option,” he added.

“Saudi Arabia is now correcting mistakes that were made in the past, whether through labor regulations or even in how to deal with workers, and in the coming period we will definitely see a decline in the number of expatriate workers,” Dossary said.

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