Saudi Arabia reforms labour laws to improve rights for expat workers

Employees will be able to switch companies and apply for exit visas without needing employers' consent

A worker at construction site in Riyadh. A new Labour Relation Initiative strengthening rights for workers in Saudi Arabia will come into force from March next year. Reuters
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Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development is reforming its labour laws that it said will provide additional rights to expatriate workers.

Expats will now be more easily able to transfer their sponsorship from one employer to another. They will also be able to apply for automatic approval from the ministry for exit/re-entry visas and for final exit visas without needing their employers' consent. Employees can submit their applications either online or through the Absher smartphone app, the ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.

"The reforms will drive greater competition in Saudi Arabia's labour market by permitting employees to change their employers and allow employers to attract the best talent, ultimately increasing competition, wages, and public spending inside the kingdom," the ministry said.

There were more than 10.4 million expat workers out of a total workforce of more than 13.6 million workers in the second quarter of 2020, according to the General Authority for Statistics.

The new rules are due to come into force by March next year. The ministry said the changes are "in line with international immigration best practices" and will lead to a reduction in the number of disputes between local employers and expatriate workers relating to employee mobility or exit visa requests.

The changes to the rules are “a real win” for the average labourer or manager in the kingdom’s workforce, according to Terry Smith, founder of construction consultancy Bluewater Global Advisors, which has an office in Khobar in the kingdom’s Eastern Province.

One recurring difficulty workers face is enforcing claims if an employer doesn’t pay wages on time, Mr Smith said.

“So these tools to exit [an employer] to find a professional work environment is a huge win for the little guy.”