Intl human rights group call for abolition of Saudi’s sponsorship system

“Employers often abuse this power in violation of Saudi law to confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will or on exploitative terms.” – Human Rights Watch


MANILA – International human rights group Human Rights Watch called on Saudi Arabia to abolish its migrant worker sponsorship system.

“Saudi Arabia should get serious about regularizing the status of its workers and do away with an abusive labor system that forces migrants into illegal employment,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch, said.

He added that, “Migrant workers trapped in miserable job conditions or fleeing abusive situations should be able to change jobs without employer permission or government delay.”

In a statement, Human Rights Watch said there are about nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia. Many of them, the group added, experienced abuses and labor exploitation, which, at times, amount to slavery-like conditions.

Kafala is the immigration and labor system in Saudi Arabia, which states that no migrant worker is allowed to work in the country without securing an “in-country” sponsor who would be responsible for the workers’ visa and legal status. Residency permits, according to overseas Filipino group Migrante International, are also bound to their sponsors.

In case a worker needs to move to another employer, one needs to secure a written consent from their sponsors.

“Employers often abuse this power in violation of Saudi law to confiscate passports, withhold wages, and force migrants to work against their will or on exploitative terms,” Human Rights Watch said.

Fake employers

Human Rights Watch said there are thousands of migrant workers who are working in Saudi Arabia outside the Kafala system. These migrant workers, they said, were brought in Saudi under the guise of business establishments that do not exist. As a result, employers are “happy to avoid any official scrutiny while the worker pays regular ‘fees’ to the free visa ‘sponsor’ to renew residency and work permits.”

Citing a Saudi Gazette report, the international human rights group said these illegal sponsors are raking in thousands of dollars from the fees migrant workers need to pay.

Saudi’s Labor Ministry, in April 2012, has already proposed the abolition of Kafala. Human Rights Watch said they proposed to create recruitment and placement agencies to replace the immigration sponsorship. But Saudi preferred to retain Kafala.

“To tackle kafala-related abuses, Saudi Arabia needs to amend its Residency Law so that a migrant worker no longer requires a sponsor’s consent to change jobs or leave the country,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch said domestic workers, even if they are employed by legal employers, are victims of abuses such as “non-payment of salaries, forced confinement, food deprivation, excessive workload, and instances of severe psychological, physical, and sexual abuse,” according to their 2008 report.

Gulf Cooperation Council countries forged a standard contract for domestic helpers on Jan. 14, 2013. The said standard contract stipulates that they are entitled to a weekly day off, possession of their passports and electronic payment of their salary through their bank accounts. But Human Rights Watch said there it “does not guarantee a minimum salary or improve regulation of exploitative recruitment agencies.”

In 2011 and 2012, Philippines, along with Indonesia, Nepal and Kenya, imposed restrictions and barred deployment of Filipinos to work as domestic helpers in Saudi Arabia. But it resumed deployment in October 2012 when Saudi agreed on a $400 minimum wage. Philippines and Saudi Arabia also forged a bilateral agreement on May 19, 2013 “to cooperate on labor issues,” which, according to Human Rights Watch is “the first such agreement Saudi Arabia has signed.”

“Fair bilateral agreements and standard contracts for migrant workers are a step in the right direction, but they are not a substitute for effective protection under the law,” Stork said.

In the Philippines

Migrante International, for its part, welcomed the call of Human Rights Watch, adding that Kafala is one of the policies in Saudi Arabia that has caused the surge in the number of undocumented migrant workers and is a direct violation of Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Universal Declaration on the Protection of Migrant Workers and their Families.

Garry Martinez, chairperson of Migrante International, said it is the reason there is an annual increase in the number of stranded Filipino workers, who either end up in jail or in death row.

“These policies have been in place for decades now yet both the Saudi and Philippine governments have done nothing to address its adverse effects. The kafala is one of the main reasons why there are now thousands of stranded OFWs in Saudi awaiting repatriation,” Martinez said.

Martinez also put to task the Philippine government, who, he said, has failed to “impose its own laws and policies on host countries like Saudi Arabia just so it could continue to implement an unabashed and unapologetic labor export policy.”

Over the years, Saudi Arabia is still one of the top receiving countries for Filipino workers despite the numerous reported abuses.

“This is the face of a shameless and ruthless labor export policy. They continue to send OFWs there so they could turn them into milking cows. But when they are faced with a difficult situation, the government hardly lifts a finger to help,” Martinez said, adding that he is challenging the Aquino government to join the international clamor to end the Kafala. (

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