This week, Saudi officials announced reforms to the country’s kafala system that would allow seven million low-income workers to exit the country or change sponsors without asking for their boss’s permission—a move that has been met with cautious optimism by those affected.
However, as reported by DW, these reforms don’t cover all migrant workers in the country, amounting to one-third of Saudi Arabia’s population of 34 million.
Some of those most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, including domestic workers, drivers, farmers, gardeners and guards, have been left out of the reforms.
Rothna Begum, a researcher at Human Rights Watch told DW:
“They are the ones who are most likely to be subject to situations of forced labor…we documented situations of domestic workers who have been confined to their employers’ homes, their passports confiscated, forced to work excessive hours without rest or days off, and they happened to be subject to very specific forms of abuse, such as physical and sexual abuse…It’s really crucial that you remove all of the elements because otherwise you will continue to see the same kinds of abuses.”
Critics are also wary that the move is just window dressing as Riyadh prepares to host the G20 later in the month.
Further, while those who are covered by the reforms such as those working in construction, retail and IT will not need to ask for their boss’s permission to leave or re-enter the country, they will still need to make a request to authorities who can deny exit if the individual has any fines or debts outstanding.
Skepticism about whether the reforms will amount to real change is fueled by experience of other similar reforms announced in recent years that have been unsuccessful due to lack of implementation and enforcement.
However, others are less skeptical, and it is important to note that these reforms do bring Saudi Arabia closer in line with other countries in the region, such as Qatar.
Commenting on the announcement this week, Mohamed el Zarkani–the Chief of Mission for the International Organization for Migration in Bahrain–stated:
“It’s easy to undervalue this reform from the outside…But the reality is, considering how many people will be affected positively by this, considering this reform came from within as well — it wasn’t really pushed by UN agencies or other entities — this reform is coming with a vision.”
While there is reason to be optimistic, there is still a long way to go until all migrant workers are protected from abuse and exploitation in Saudi Arabia.