In a milestone for working expatriates in the kingdom, Saudi Arabia announced several labour reforms for private sector workers. What it means is that expat workers will find themselves with far more flexibility to determine their future and their places of employment than ever before.
In the present system before the changes, a worker who is recruited from overseas falls under the sponsorship of his employer and has to do his bidding. For the most part, the sponsorship or kafala is a mutual agreement of services rendered and income earned. But it also binds the fate of the employee to the specific employer.
This tie that binds had resulted in a number of employer-worker abuses in the past, so much so that the kingdom established special courts to hear grievances and mete out due justice. There were cases of non-payment of dues, of excessive working hours beyond the terms of the contract, unspecified deductions from wages, etc, etc. It left the fate of an expat worker forever tied to his sponsor or kafeel. Woe befalls a worker who is unfortunate enough to land in the hands of an unscrupulous kafeel.
Human rights organisations had decried about how these elements of the kafala system lead to abuse and the exploitation of workers who have little power to complain about or escape abuse when their employer controls their entry and exit from the country, residency, and the ability to change jobs. Some employers exploit this control by taking workers’ passports, forcing them to work excessive hours and deny them wages.
The kafala system also has led to hundreds of thousands of undocumented workers, as employers can report workers as missing or huroob. In some cases, it was the workers who escaped abuse, while in others it was the employers who not wanting to pay his workers their dues reported them in as huroob cases.