Saudi sponsorship initiatives welcome

Saudi Arabia has perhaps the most restrictive employee sponsorship program of any GCC country.

COMMENT, Human Resource

Reema Memon, our Jeddah-based Saudi Arabia correspondent, writes this week about signals from the Saudi government that its sponsorship system may be overhauled.

Only employee sponsorship rivals working conditions and wages as the most important aspect of an expatriate's life in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has perhaps the most restrictive program of any GCC country. To say that it's archaic, unproductive and entails a Rube Goldberg bureaucratic system that no employee can comprehend is an understatement.

Having said that, my own experiences as an expatriate worker in Saudi Arabia were relatively trouble free. The sponsorship system can be a fairly well-oiled machine for employees at the management level but it often falls apart when it comes to labourers' rights.

The primary argument against Saudi-style sponsorship is that it controls virtually every aspect of an employee's life outside the workplace. The most offensive condition of employment is giving up one's passport in exchange for a residency permit, also known as an iqama. One doesn't leave the country without the employer's permission.

Workers can't change accommodation, purchase a car, apply for a driver's licence or open a bank account without an employer's permission. Workers can't quit a job and find employment elsewhere. If a worker is arrested, it's the employer's responsibility to get him out of jail.

I've seen grown men cry when they've been denied their annual 30-day holiday for the second year in a row because they are considered essential in the workplace. These aren't Westerners in management but Bangladeshis earning US $133 (SAR 500) a month who haven't seen their families in years.

Good Saudi employers - and that is the majority in the kingdom - scrupulously follow the rules and provide the necessary paperwork to pave the way for workers to own and drive cars, live where they please or leave the country when they wish. But there are many companies that employ unskilled labour and exploit the disadvantaged in virtual slavery.

I am not so naïve to think this doesn't happen elsewhere. It does. Governments are not quick to embrace change, especially if they consider the current system is working well. So I view this as a courageous step by the Saudi government to consider changing the rules to allow workers their freedoms.

Saudis recognise the flaws in the system and see the changing nature of doing business and importing workers. A way to maintain that workforce is to implement a more streamlined and equitable sponsorship program.

Rob Wagner is the editor of Construction Week.

RELATED LINKS: Saudis rethink labour sponsorship system, KSA suicides hike among foreigners

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