Set to Work
Saudi Arabia is a case in point. There are around six million skilled and semi-skilled expatriate workers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ranging from senior managerial level to labourers. Non-Saudi labour constitutes 79.1% of the total number of non-Saudi residents aged 15 years and above, representing 99.7% of the total non-Saudi workforce. The popularity is apparent.
Indians, interestingly, form the largest expatriate community in the Kingdom with close to three million in numbers! The popularity amongst migrants stems not only from the higher pay scale (unskilled labour in Saudi Arabia draws $2.77/hour compared to $2.63/hour in Mexico) but also the guidelines/provisions in place for the workers. A quick glance may help explain why: As the first step towards a comprehensive agreement on labour cooperation covering the entire spectrum of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia, the two countries signed an agreement on Labour Cooperation for Domestic Service Workers Recruitment to protect the rights of both the employers and workers and regulate the contractual relation between them. The two countries have also established a Joint Working Group on Consular issues.
Saudi Labour Law itself is comprehensive and employee friendly. It covers all general category workers and entails a 48 hours work week and overtime rates at 150% of the hourly wage. Article 101 even lays down provisions for rest periods wherein “no worker shall work for more than five consecutive hours without a break of no less than thirty minutes each time during the total working hours for rest, prayer and meals”. By law, the employer must bear the cost of recruiting new employees and expatriates into the country, the cost of residency and work permit, the cost of its’ renewal, fines for late renewals, the cost of changing occupation, exit and returns, and the cost of return tickets for employees after the termination of their contractual relationship. Even employees serving their notice period are entitled to eight fully-paid hours per week or a full day per week to look for alternative employment.
The labour law puts the onus on the employer to ensure the workplace is hygienic, workers are given protective equipment and are provided treatment in case of a work injury or occupational disease. The law not only requires an employer to inform the worker, prior to engaging in the work, of the hazards of his job, but also arrange for a comprehensive annual medical examination for workers who are exposed to occupational diseases. Each provision has been spelled out in great detail. For example, Article 138 states, “if an injury results in a permanent total disability or the death of the injured person, the injured person or his eligible beneficiaries shall be entitled to a compensation equal to his wages for three years, with a minimum of fifty four thousand riyals. If the injury results in a permanent partial disability, the injured person shall be entitled to a compensation equal to the percentage of the estimated disability in accordance with the approved disability percentage guide schedule multiplied by the amount of compensation for the permanent total disability.” It is also mandatory for employers to provide their expatriate workers health insurance to enable access to medical treatment.
Saudi labour law also provides all expatriates full legal protection, which includes a unified labour contract, and provisions that prohibit employing persons in jobs different from the profession stated in the contract or holding their payments. Article 61 of the labour law requires the employer to “treat his workers with due respect and refrain from any action or utterances that may infringe upon their dignity and religion”. The Ministry of Labour has even fixed stiff penalties for employers who violate the rights of their workers. For example, a fine of up to SR 25,000 for companies violating safety and health standards; of SR 2,000 fine on employers who keep the passports of his employees and of SR 5,000 for not providing a copy of the contract to the workers.
In a bid to prevent violation of workers’ rights and any sort of exploitation of expatriate workers in the Kingdom, the Ministry of Labour launched an exclusive portal to sensitise workers about their rights and how to avail them. Any employee in any sector can seek legal redressal in case of dispute or violation of their labour rights. In fact, even the time required to exercise their rights is mandated without any deductions from their wages. The Kingdom also has a very strong law prohibiting human trafficking.
Saudi Arabia’s Wages Protection System also monitors the processes of wages disbursement for all workers in the private sector facilities (Saudis as well as expatriates) in order to establish a database to determine the extent of the facilities’ commitment to pay wages on time and at the agreed-upon values. The recent announcement by the Ministry of Labour and Social Development for opening bank accounts of employees is another step in this direction.
Labour welfare issues have always occupied the Kingdom’s attention. In fact, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia became an ILO member state way back in 1976 and ratified 16 ILO Conventions, including six of the eight core Conventions. Furthermore, ‘creating an attractive environment for world talents’ is listed as a Vision 2030 objective under the National Transformation Program. The target is to reduce the time taken to issue work visas for new expat employees from a baseline of 30 days to just 10 days by 2020. Meanwhile, the Saudi Ministry of Labour is trying to reduce the cost differential between employing Saudis and expatriates. The Saudi government is also contemplating the introduction of a Saudi Green Card, similar to the one issued by the US, to allow expatriates to reside in the Kingdom permanently. Visa exemption for expats working in King Abdullah business district also under consideration.