Equidem, a charity dedicated to promoting the human rights of the most marginalised globally, is warning that new labour laws taking effect in Saudi Arabia today do not adequately protect or improve conditions for migrant workers in the Kingdom.
Saudi Arabia hosts the third-largest migrant population in the world; foreign workers account for about a third of Saudi Arabia's 30 million population and more than 80 per cent of the kingdom's private-sector workforce. These workers are prone to exploitation and abuse, and those harms have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Saudi government announced a series of labour reforms last year that take effect today. But the new laws do not address the systematic discrimination, weak enforcement, and prohibition on migrant workers joining or forming a union that currently leaves millions at risk of modern slavery.
"Passage of laws alone will not improve conditions for migrant workers," said Mustafa Qadri, founder and executive director of Equidem. "Saudi Arabia has historically allowed conditions to flourish that lead to the abuse, exploitation, and dehumanization of migrant workers. The pandemic has rapidly worsened conditions for workers, but these new laws simply do not address the root of the problem. We have heard from workers about what they're experiencing, and we know what needs to be done to enact real change. Our hope is that Saudi Arabia chooses to put some action behind its rhetoric and show the world it's serious about improving conditions for migrant workers."
Equidem is calling on the Saudi government to allow all categories of workers to exercise their rights to freely change their employer and leave the country as and when they wish to; remove the crime of absconding from Saudi law, and put in place protections against retaliation from employers for workers who make complaints about their treatment, or seek to change jobs or leave the country; end the racial discrimination of migrant workers by providing employment, health and other protections and benefits to all women, men, and children without distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin, gender or sexuality.
Also, to ensure all migrant workers are paid the wages and other benefits owed to them, including the women and men who are no longer based in the country; increase efforts to raise worker awareness of their rights and avenues for support and redress, including with respect to labour disputes and access to health care; recognise migrant workers' right to join and form a trade union and collectively bargain through the passage of legislation, and provide long-term migrant workers with a path to seek permanent residency and citizenship if they so choose.