COUNTLESS Pakistanis who have worked in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are familiar with the kafala system. This system of ‘sponsorship’ severely restricts the freedoms foreign workers have in the kingdom, basically with the kafeel or sponsor having the final say in when and if the worker can leave or travel outside the country, or change jobs. Due to its very nature it is open to abuse, with sponsors/employers keeping workers’ travel documents, and everyone — from executives to blue-collar workers — in one form or the other beholden to the kafeel. However, as announced recently by Saudi officials, the kingdom is set to revamp the system to make it more transparent and worker-friendly. According to Saudi officials, the changes, due to take effect from next year, will allow foreign workers to change jobs and travel from Saudi Arabia without their employer’s permission.
No doubt many foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, and those hoping to tap the kingdom’s labour market, will welcome these proposals. Over a million Pakistanis work in the kingdom, and these changes to Saudi labour laws will be keenly followed in this country. As it is currently being practised, the kafala system is outdated and not in line with modern labour laws. In worst-case scenarios, the kafeel can act like a slave driver, and there are few forums for foreign workers to complain to in the kingdom. Usually, the odds are stacked against foreigners, with Saudi authorities rarely giving workers from outside the kingdom a sympathetic ear. Hopefully, the proposed reforms will change this. The Saudis have initiated these changes “to improve Saudi Arabia’s labour market attractiveness”, as one official in the kingdom put it. Those who rule Riyadh are looking to diversify the kingdom’s economy away from petrochemicals, and for this they need both a qualified Saudi workforce, as well as foreign labour. However, to attract the best and most able foreign workers there must be visible changes to the Saudi labour market, and reforming kafala is the ideal place to start. Human rights organisations have said the proposed changes are welcome, but not enough, and that Riyadh must do away with the sponsorship system totally. This may be too much to ask, but ideally Saudi planners must aim to create a labour market that conforms with international regimes where workers, foreign and local, have all the rights the ILO and international conventions guarantee.