Foreign workers welcome new rights under Saudi labour law changes

Reforms remove employers' control over employees travelling and changing jobs

Foreign workers wearing protective face masks and gloves work at a construction site, following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 7, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri
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Foreign workers and Saudi business owners welcomed amendments to the kingdom’s sponsorship system announced on Wednesday.

The changes, which come into effect in March 2021, will allow the approximately 10 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia to change jobs and to travel abroad without their employer’s prior approval.

"It has been every expatriate's dream, no matter which working class, to be able to exercise these rights for as long as I can remember," Hussain Khan, an Indian-Canadian aviation expert living in Jeddah, told The National.

“I am so thankful to the kingdom and Vision 2030 for recognising this issue where foreigners can feel vulnerable and taking this initiative to help millions of expats in the kingdom,” Mr Khan said.

“I feel a sense of freedom and empowerment and I am sure all of us do," said Syed Mohsin, an Indian living in Dammam.

"For the first time in 35 years, I will not be under any obligation to seek or wait for approvals for my family or myself. I can easily travel to see my family when I want to and conduct business without any pressure or delays.”

Rehana Hamid, a Pakistani marketing specialist in Jeddah, also described the new rules as liberating.

"It grants workers a sense of freedom, where we can travel at any time without having to seek permission from our sponsor. It also helps us to easily switch between jobs, without having to worry about any technicalities or difficulty," Ms Hamid, a Pakistani marketing specialist working in Jeddah, told The National.

"It is a fair, rules-based system and I am so grateful for it.”

Previously, expatriate workers could not leave the country or change jobs even upon the expiry of their contract without their employer’s consent, exposing them to potential exploitation, such as being charged hefty sums to "buy their release". But under the Labour Reform Initiative announced by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, they can now do so through a government app or website that will then send a notification to their employer.

The human resources ministry said the reforms aimed to improve worker-employer relations and grant foreign workers more flexibility, creating a more competitive, lucrative and robust labour market as part of the National Transformation Programme based on the Saudi Vision 2030 plan drawn up by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We aim to build an attractive labour market and improve the working environment,” said Abdullah Abuthnain, the Deputy Minister of Labour and Social Development.

“The new regulation was clearly issued in the public interest for the labourers and the employers,” said Saad Hamrani, a business executive from Jeddah.

"It is a progressive move for private sector businesses to ensure the labourer's rights," he told The National.

Ahmed AlDossary, a Saudi businessman in Riyadh, said the reforms were needed in the current global situation caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The new law is being implemented in a precise manner, ensuring a positive labour market future especially during the pandemic when the world economic system is suffering and vulnerable,” he said.

“The Saudi labour market is shifting towards a more resilient, productive and stable working environment.”