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There are reports this week that Saudi authorities are seeking to abolish the notorious kafala (sponsorship) system in 2021. Under that system, some 10 million migrant workers’ legal status are tied to their employer—facilitating abuse and exploitation including forced labor, trafficking, and slavery-like conditions.
Gulf states are increasingly keen to insist they have abolished the system. But most have really tinkered with reforms, and none have abolished it in full. Saudi Arabia has one of the most restrictive kafala systems in the region as it retains all of the abusive elements.
The measure of whether Saudi Arabia is truly abolishing the kafala system hinges on ending five key elements that give employers control over migrant workers’ lives:
Requiring a migrant worker have an employer act as their sponsor to enter the country.
The power employers have to secure and renew migrant workers’ residency and work permits—and their ability to cancel these at any time.
Requiring workers obtain their employers’ consent to leave or change jobs.
The crime of “absconding,” under which employers can report a worker missing, meaning the worker automatically becomes undocumented and can be arrested, imprisoned and deported.
Requiring migrants obtain their employer’s consent to leave the country in the form of an exit permit.
Human Rights Watch has documented how these elements of the kafala system facilitate abuse and exploitation. Workers have little power to complain about or escape abuse when their employer controls their entry and exit from the country, residency, and ability to change jobs. Far too many employers exploit this control by taking workers’ passports, forcing them to work excessive hours and deny them wages. Migrant domestic workers in particular, can be confined to their employers’ homes and may be subject to physical and sexual abuse. The kafala system also has led to hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers, as employers can force people into such status and workers who escape abuse can become undocumented.
If Saudi Arabia is to abolish kafala, it needs to address each of these elements and ensure all migrant workers are able to enter, reside, or leave the country without being dependent on the mercy of an individual employer or company. Saudi Arabia’s wealth and economy has been built on the backs of millions of migrant workers and it is time for deep-rooted change to accord them the legal protection and guarantees for their rights that they deserve.