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Fri 20 Nov 2015 10:05 AM

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Saudi labour reforms 'may help curb rampant abuses'

Human rights group applauds move but says more needs to be done to protect domestic workers

Saudi labour reforms 'may help curb rampant abuses'
(AFP/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s recent labour reforms may help curb rampant abuses, but they exclude domestic workers and institutionalise bias against women, according to an international human rights organisation.

“Saudi Arabia’s labour reforms will help protect migrant workers if the government follows through and enforces them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of Human Rights Watch. “But domestic workers, often the ones who need the most protection from abuse, are left out in the cold.”

Her comments follow the introduction of a package of 38 amendments to the labour law last month, since when the Labour Ministry has issued directives introducing or raising fines for employers who violate regulations.

These include prohibitions on confiscating migrant workers’ passports, failing to pay salaries on time, and failing to provide copies of contracts to employees.

However, Human Rights Watch said in a statement that domestic workers, mostly migrant women who work in family homes, are still excluded from the labour law and its enforcement mechanisms.

It said Saudi Arabia's kafala system, which ties migrant workers’ legal residency to their employers, grants employers’ excessive power over workers and facilitates abuse. Over the past decade, Human Rights Watch said it has documented rampant employer abuses of migrant workers, including forcing them to work against their will or on exploitative terms.

The new or increased fines penalise a number of the abusive practices, creating the potential to increase worker protections, particularly for migrant workers, Human Rights Watch added.

The amendments, approved by the Council of Ministers in March, include provisions increasing paid leave and the compensation period for job-related injuries, and they require employers to provide a day a week with full pay to employees to seek other employment if they terminate workers’ contracts.

The amendments also grant the Labour Ministry greater inspection and enforcement powers which can issue fines of up to SR100,000 ($26,665), an increase of SR70,000 from the highest fines listed in the 2007 Labour Law.

While many of the practices were prohibited before the law was amended, the new or increased penalties may improve enforcement, Human Rights Watch said, adding that Saudi authorities should strongly enforce the new penalties if they are to benefit migrant workers.

It said some of the reforms also entrench discriminatory aspects of pre-existing labour regulations, including strict sex-segregation policies in the workplace and a restrictive dress code that applies only to women.

“Saudi Arabia’s labour reforms are an encouraging sign that it may be serious about improving conditions for some migrants,” Whitson said. “But the Saudi authorities should make certain that its reforms don’t further institutionalise discrimination.”

The International Labor Organisation estimated in 2013 that Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s largest employers of domestic workers.