Saudi Arabia is set to abolish its employment sponsorship — Kafala – system following years of controversy over migrant workers’ rights, according to a report in the Saudi Gazette citing anonymous sources.
The decades-old system, which has been used for hiring overseas workers, primarily from the Indian subcontinent and south-east Asia, and allows Saudi employers to have responsibility for them during their stay in the Kingdom, has long been criticised worldwide for its frequent descent into abuse of the workers.
Under the current structure of the system created in the 1950s, the workers are tied to their employers and sponsors, who have the power to grant or forbid their entry and exit into and from the country. In short, the employers control the workers’ visas and legal status. Due to the extent of this control, it has been likened to a modern form of slavery. The system is used not only in the Kingdom, but also in other Gulf States.
The workers are employed primarily in construction and domestic work. It is reported that they suffer significant amounts of prejudice and abuse. They complain regularly about underpayment or no pay at all as well as physical assaults. One Filipino worker was found dead in a freezer in Kuwait two years ago.
Under the reported move to abolish the system, expatriate workers would have the freedom to enter and exit the country, have their passport stamped without permission from the sponsor, and would be able to be employed without prior state approval.
If the move goes ahead, it would be the latest and one of the most significant of the social reforms in the Kingdom which are part of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s efforts to reduce its dependence on oil revenues under the Vision 2030 initiative.
The abolition of the Kafala system has been debated across the Gulf States. Qatar, for example, has reformed some aspects of it to allow most foreign workers to be able to leave the country without permission from their employers. There were also rumours back in 2017 that Saudi Arabia planned to abolish the system, but they were denied by the authorities.