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Saudi Arabia to ease restrictions on foreign workers

The labor overhaul will allow foreign workers to leave the country without their employers' approval.
Construction workers stand on scaffolding in Al-Balad, a historical area in the Saudi Arabian port city of Jeddah, on January 11, 2020. (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE / AFP) (Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia is loosening a number of restrictions that kept expats working in the kingdom legally bound to their employers. 

The Ministry of Human Resources says the labor reforms unveiled Wednesday will allow foreign workers in the private sector to switch jobs without the permission of their current employers. Under the new rules, expats also won’t need their employer’s consent to travel abroad. 

Saudi Arabia’s total workforce of 13.6 million includes 10.4 million expats, according to the General Authority for Statistics. Saudi employers will now be required to keep digital records of their foreign workers’ contracts. 

The official Saudi Press Agency reports the initiative, which takes effect in March, “aims to support the Ministry's vision of establishing an attractive job market, empowering and developing labor competencies and developing the work environment in the Kingdom.”

The reforms are in line with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s pledge to modernize and diversify Saudi Arabia’s oil-dependent economy. Under strain from a slump in global oil prices and coronavirus restrictions at home, the Saudi economy shrank by 7% in the second quarter of 2020. 

Later this month, all eyes will be on the world’s largest oil exporter as it hosts the G20 summit of the world’s major economies. Human rights groups have sought to draw attention to Riyadh’s human rights record, including its treatment of migrants, ahead of the annual gathering. 

Like many of its Gulf neighbors, Saudi Arabia uses a “kafala” sponsorship system that ties low-paid migrant workers to their Saudi sponsors and rights groups warn exposes vulnerable migrants to abuse. 

Qatar, which is using migrant labor to build stadiums ahead of its hosting of the 2022 World Cup, has also carried out some labor reforms. In January, the Gulf country removed visa requirements on most foreign workers that required they obtain permission from their employers before leaving the country. 

Human Rights Watch called the move an important step forward, but noted workers are still required to give their employers 72 hours' advance notice of their departure.

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