RIYADH: Saudi Arabia has ushered in a new era with historic labor reforms offering greater freedom to millions of migrant and expatriate workers taking effect on Sunday.
Under changes to the kafala sponsorship system, foreign workers in the private sector will have improved job mobility, and be able to change jobs and leave the country without employers’ consent.
The dramatic overhaul — part of the Kingdom’s efforts to build an attractive jobs market — also will allow expat workers to apply directly for government services, with their employment contracts documented digitally.
As many as 10 million migrant workers are expected to benefit from changes under the Kingdom’s Labor Reform Initiative (LRI), intended to foster “a competitive and fair working environment.”
The initiative will help foreign workers acquire residency status that is not tied to a specific employer, and will allow job mobility as well as exit and re-entry visas while protecting the rights of both employee and employer.
Expat workers have greeted the reform package enthusiastically, saying it offers them greater choice and support in employment.
“This is one of the best things to have happened since I came to work in Saudi,” Imroz Abdulrahman, an Indian expat who has been living in the Kingdom for five years, told Arab News.
“I remember four years ago, when I wanted to leave my former employer and go to work for another family, the process was very complicated and difficult for everyone involved. The problems took months to resolve.”
He added: “This is a great development and will help a lot of people. I am happy to have more control over where I can work and knowing that people like me will have more support in future.”
However, Abdulghani Al-Ansari, chairman of information technology firm Bayt Al-Edarah, said that the labor reforms are a “big challenge” for private sector SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), adding that the government sector is leading the overhaul as part of the Vision 2030 objectives.
“The private sector is still absorbing the changes,” he told Arab News.
Employers will be required to digitally document employee contracts to reduce the disparity between Saudi and expat workers.
“Today there is a big challenge ahead of us in terms of developing the human resources in SMEs, which are finding it difficult to absorb the concepts and mechanisms of the initiative easily.”
Al-Ansari said that he hoped SMEs will be given six months to adapt to the new rules.
“SMEs do not have laws protecting their secrets, meaning that the secrets of a company will go to another competitive company,” he said.
Al-Ansari, who led the human resources committee at the Madinah Chamber of Commerce, said the labor market is changing dramatically.
“However, minds and skills do not have a nationality or a race, and the private sector believes in profitability and competency, meaning that diversity is a good thing and will benefit the national economy,” he said.
Gloria Calinao, a domestic worker who has lived Saudi Arabia for 10 years, said: “I remember how complicated the kafala process was. I wish the new rule applies to domestic workers too so that they can also enjoy job mobility.”
Two government portals, Absher and Qiwa, have been designated for the reform procedures.