Saudi labour reforms to benefit Nepalis

Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development holds LRI workshops with embassies including Nepal’s. Source:

Saudi Arabia, a major destination for Nepali migrant workers, on Sunday announced reforms intended to make them less vulnerable to exploitation.

The reforms are said to improve the kafala system that ties workers to employers and exposes them to mistreatment and abuse, restrictions of the sponsorship system and allows for more job flexibility in favour of workers.

Labour rights activists are cautiously optimistic, and say the real challenge lies in their practical implementation and how effectively they are enforced.

The reforms have been in the cards since November, and took effect on 14 March and are aimed at increasing the attractiveness of the Saudi labour market for migrant workers.

“This is a landmark decision by the Saudi government and will benefit migrant workers. I am optimistic as this is a positive step towards reforming the kafala system,” Nepal’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia Mahendra Prasad Singh Rajput told Nepali Times.

In November 2020, Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development launched the Labor Reform Initiative (LRI) which included allowing migrant workers to change employers upon completion of contract, or after completing one year of contract. In addition, the requirement to obtain exit permit from the employers to leave the country has also been removed.

Activists said the major weakness in the proposed reforms in Saudi Arabia is that it excludes domestic workers, who are still outside the purview of labor laws. Similar reforms in Qatar applied also to domestic workers.

There are 3.7 million domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, of which 70% are said to be female. There is lack of data on Nepali domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, since the Nepal government has banned Nepali women household workers in the Gulf. Many Nepali workers take irregular routes overland across the border and fly from Indian cities.

Nepali Times has documented cases of domestic workers who have faced serious abuse in Saudi Arabian households, and these proposed reforms do not impact them.

The Saudi Human Resources Ministry has been holding workshops with embassies of origin countries like Nepal to brief them on the LRI including details on the updated provisions on job mobility and exit requirements.

The onus of ensuring the enforcement of these reforms will also fall on the origin countries like Nepal which will have to ensure migrant workers are well-informed about the new provisions and get adequate support in benefiting from these options should the need arise.

Alongside the reform, demand for migrants in Saudi Arabia has been recovering after a year long halt due to Covid-19. Between mid-Jan to mid-February, close to 5,000 Nepalis obtained labour approvals for Saudi Arabia, with 2,703 receiving new labour permits while 2,274 renewed their approvals. Saudi Arabia made up 35% of the new labour permits issued in that month.

Sujit Shrestha of the National Association of Foreign Employment Agencies (NAFEA) says Saudi Arabia is one of the only destination countries where post-pandemic recovery has been significant, primarily in cleaning, construction, small restaurants and factories.

However, administrative hurdles have come in the way of exploiting the available opportunities. While the government allowed new workers to travel abroad, the Nepali Mission in Saudi Arabia started attesting demand only in 24 January. Shrestha says attestation has been halted again with around 2,500 letters pending approval.

Attestation is a mandatory Nepal government requirement for employers to get their demand letters approved at the Nepali mission before they are allowed to hire from Nepal.

“There is demand of up to 60,000 migrant workers but there has been a delay in attesting by the Nepali mission in Saudi Arabia,” says Shrestha. “The delay is a consequence of trying to introduce a new system to attest demand and lack of sufficient resources including staff in the destination country. It doesn’t send a good message to employers in Saudi Arabia.”

Ambassador Rajput defends this delay, saying: “We have created a new online system, the first of its kind in a destination country as it will no longer require the employers to physically visit the embassy to get the demand letters approved, everything will be done online.”

He said the embassy had already attested 1,100 demand letters since the process resumed and is working to clear the backlog.

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