For decades Egyptians travelling to work in Saudi Arabia have been haunted by the idea of the kafeel, or their employer’s sponsorship, while living in the kingdom.
Ordinarily, a worker would hand in their passport to a kafeel or sponsor upon arrival and would only get it back upon their departure either on holiday or for good. This meant that employers could sometimes manipulate non-Saudi employees, creating an unhealthy working relationship.
Today, this is all set to change thanks to the Labour Reform Initiative launched by the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and social development, which offers expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia employee mobility, automatic exit and re-entry visas, and automatic exit visas. It will come into effect in March 2021.
The initiative is among a series designed to achieve the kingdom’s Vision 2030 plans, Nasser Alhazani, official spokesman of the ministry, told Al-Ahram Weekly. It applies to all expatriate workers in the Saudi private sector and includes specific measures that take into account the rights of both parties in the relationship, Alhazani said.
He said that contracts between employers and employees in the private sector would be documented digitally to guarantee the rights of both.
The initiative is part of the Saudi National Transformation Programme (NTP) that aims to support the ministry’s vision to create a more attractive labour market, empower and develop human resources, and improve the working environment in Saudi Arabia.
According to the ministry’s website, “based on research and studies that covered international best practices in the field, the initiative was developed in partnership with the Ministry of Interior and the National Information Centre after holding several meetings with private-sector representatives and the Council of Saudi Chambers.”
The initiative is expected to be a huge improvement for many Egyptians working in Saudi Arabia.
Nahed Afifi, a dermatologist who worked in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s and then again in 2004, said that she had had to submit her passport to her employer upon arrival and take it back once a year during the contractual period for her annual vacation.
In 1983, she worked in a public clinic and did not have problems getting her salary. But when she worked in the private sector in 2004, her employer, or kafeel, used to delay the payment of salaries and would not give her her passport when she wanted to travel on vacation.
Afifi was not alone, and other Egyptians have had similar complaints about their Saudi employers.
These violations have nothing to do with Saudi labour law, Alhazanisaid, adding that the word kafeel is not even mentioned in the law. “Even before this initiative, a worker had the right to resign or leave for another employer if the employer violated his rights. It was banned for an employer to take workers’ passports,” he added.
“There are 945,000 Egyptian employees in addition to their families living in the kingdom, and I believe this number will increase after implementing the initiative,” Ahmed Ragaai, labour counsellor at Egypt’s Embassy in Riyadh, told the Weekly.
Ragaai said that when the initiative is implemented, the three main issues that some Egyptian expatriates suffer from in Saudi Arabia will be solved.
The first is the inability of some employees to get approval for annual vacations. The second is not getting a final exit visa because employers sometimes do not want to process the paperwork and pay fees for new employees. The third is when an employer refuses to transfer a worker’s file to another employer, wanting the employee to either continue working for them or to exit the country altogether, Ragaaiy said.
The new initiative should put an end to such abuses. “Greater employee mobility will allow expatriate workers to transfer between employers upon the expiry of work contracts without the employer’s consent,” he said.
The initiative also outlines the conditions applicable during the validity of the contract, provided a notice period and specific measures are adhered to. Exit and re-entry visa reforms allow expatriate workers to travel outside Saudi Arabia without the employer’s approval after submitting a request. The employer will be notified electronically of their departure.
The final exit visa reforms allow expatriate workers to leave the kingdom after the end of employment contracts without their employer’s consent, and they will notify the employer electronically, with workers bearing any consequences (financial or otherwise) relating to breaking employment contracts.
All such services will be made available through the smartphone application Absher and the Qiwa portal of the ministry concerned, Ragaai said. “This initiative supports the role a documented contract plays in protecting the rights of the employer and the worker,” Alhazani said.
Alhazani said that the word kafeel was slang to describe an employer’s relation to employees, and that procedures depend on the attitude and behaviour of the employer.
Saudi labour law forbids taking passports from employees, he said. In order to combat such violations, the government had developed programmes such as the electronic documentation of contracts, raising awareness of labour culture, and private-sector insurance to guarantee workers’ rights, Alhazani added.
Zeinab Kheir, a lawyer and chair of the Egyptian Association for Economic and Social Rights, an NGO, commented that the initiative protected workers from the kafala system that controlled relations between employers and workers in Saudi Arabia.
“Such practices are human-trafficking,” she argued, adding that the initiative would also put an end to selling visas or “visa merchants”. Some employers might get workers visas in exchange for money when they were not working for them, for example. Those same workers could then be doing informal work for which they received no benefits.
Adel Sadek, chief business officer of International Business Driving Licences, a company responsible for grading, accreditation, and professional development, said that the new initiative reinstated a positive image of Saudi Arabia after the kafeel system had negatively affected its reputation.
The Saudi labour market will be modernised by the initiative, according to Sadek. “The private sector in Saudi Arabia is a kind of monopoly system,” he said. “Employees are treated as objects that the employer monopolises.”
The new initiative would help to end this and improve Saudi Arabia’s reputation abroad.
He said the initiative would also be beneficial to the Saudis themselves because it targeted the modernisation of the Saudi labour market and should attract more qualified Saudis.
The end of the kafeel system would be good for the employer, not just the employee, Ghanem Al-Ghamdi, a Saudi writer told Al-Ahram Weekly.
The employer used to be the guardian of the employee and was responsible for employees during their residence in the kingdom. If an employee did anything wrong, the employer was responsible for it. With the new initiative, the relationship between the two was on a more equal footing, Al-Ghamdi said.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly