The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a monarchy ruled by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who is both head of state and head of government. The 1992 Basic Law sets out the system of governance, rights of citizens, and powers and duties of the government, and it provides that the Quran and Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad) serve as the country’s constitution. It specifies that the rulers of the country shall be male descendants of the founder, King Abdulaziz (Ibn Saud).
The State Security Presidency, National Guard, and Ministries of Defense and Interior, all of which report to the king, are responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The State Security Presidency includes the General Directorate of Investigation (mabahith), Special Security Forces, and Special Emergency Forces; police are under the Ministry of Interior. Civilian authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: executions for nonviolent offenses; forced disappearances; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment of prisoners and detainees by government agents; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; harassment and intimidation against Saudi dissidents living abroad; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; collective punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious abuses in a conflict, including civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure as a result of airstrikes in Yemen; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists and others, and censorship; serious restrictions on internet freedom; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions of religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to choose their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government restrictions on domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including but not limited to domestic and intimate partner violence; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, the role of trade unions, and labor committees.
In several cases the government did not investigate, prosecute, or punish officials accused of committing human rights abuses, contributing to an environment of impunity. The government prosecuted some officials for corruption, although there were allegations of significant due process violations and other human rights abuses, including allegations of torture, in these cases.
Houthi militant attacks from Yemen caused civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law does not provide for the right of workers to form and join independent unions; however, trade unions and labor committees existed. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining or the right to conduct legal strikes. Workers faced potential dismissal, imprisonment, or, in the case of migrant workers, deportation for unsanctioned union activities.
The government allowed citizen-only labor committees in workplaces with more than 100 employees, but it placed undue limitations on freedom of association and was heavily involved in the formation and activities of these committees. For example, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development approves the committee members and authorizes ministry and employer representatives to attend committee meetings. Committee members must submit the minutes of meetings to management and then transmit them to the minister; the ministry can dissolve committees if they violate regulations or are deemed to threaten public security. Regulations limit committees to making recommendations to company management that are limited to improvements to working conditions, health and safety, productivity, and training programs.
The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. There was little information on government efforts to enforce applicable laws and whether penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not prohibit or criminalize all forms of forced or compulsory labor, and forced labor occurred, especially among migrant workers, notably domestic workers. Conditions indicative of forced labor experienced by foreign workers reportedly included withholding of passports, nonpayment of wages, restrictions on movement, and verbal, physical, and sexual abuse. The law prohibits the confiscation of passports and nonpayment of wages. Penalties for violations of labor laws were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government improved enforcement of the law, including electronic systems to monitor and ensure compliance. On March 14, the government announced the Labor Reform Initiative, which eliminated the need for many private-sector workers to obtain their employer’s permission to obtain an exit and re-entry visa, obtain a final exit visa, or change employers at the conclusion of their contract or after one year. This provided increased freedom of movement and lessened the risks of forced labor for seven million private-sector workers. According to the Human Resources Ministry, as of November, 65,000 workers had successfully changed employers. The Labor Reform Initiative does not apply to domestic workers (see section 2.d.).
Many migrant workers, particularly female domestic workers, who are not covered under the labor law, were unable to exercise the right to terminate their employment contract, change employers, or leave the country without undue restrictions. Employers may require a trainee to work for them upon completion of training for a period not to exceed twice the duration of the training or one year, whichever is longer.
The government expanded to all private-sector companies the implementation of the Wage Protection System, which requires employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer through a Saudi bank. The government also implemented a mandatory e-contract system that includes type of work, salary, duration of contract, working hours, and annual leave. Contracts were verified by both the employer and employee. The government reported it used the Mudad platform to track Wage Protection System and e-contract compliance in real-time and imposed penalties for any firm that failed to maintain at least 80 percent compliance on a monthly basis.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits and criminalizes all the worst forms of child labor and provides for a minimum age of employment. The law provides that no person younger than 15 may legally work unless that person is the sole source of support for the family. Children between the ages of 13 and 15 may work if the job is not harmful to health or growth and does not interfere with schooling. A ministerial decree provides that hazardous operations, such as use of power-operated machinery, or harmful industries, such as mines and quarries, may not employ legal minors. Children younger than 18 may not be employed for shifts exceeding six hours a day. There is no minimum age for workers employed in family-owned businesses or other areas considered extensions of the household, such as farming, herding, and domestic service.
The HRC and NSHR are responsible for monitoring enforcement of child labor laws. There was little information on government efforts to enforce applicable laws and whether penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Authorities mostly enforced the law in response to complaints regarding children begging on the streets.
Most child labor involved children from other countries, including Yemen and Ethiopia, forced into begging rings, street vending, and working in family businesses.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The labor law in general prohibits discrimination in the terms of recruitment as well as during employment. The law mandates that employers treat all workers equally and barred discrimination on the basis of gender, disability, age, or any other forms of discrimination, whether in work, employment, or advertising a vacancy. No regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, sexual orientation or gender identity, language, or HIV-positive status. Gender-based violence and harassment occurred in the workplace (see section 6, Women). Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred in all these categories. There are no effective complaint resolution mechanisms to determine whether any existing penalties were commensurate with other laws on civil rights, such as election interference.
Women may work without their guardian’s permission, but some employers required applicants to submit proof of it, even though the law prohibits the practice. A 2019 decree expanded previous regulations barring employers from firing female workers on maternity leave and includes protection from dismissal for pregnancy-related illness if the absence is less than 180 days per year. Employers who violate the antidiscrimination law can be fined. The antidiscrimination law only applies to citizens and does not protect the rights of expatriates. There was widespread societal discrimination against African and Asian expatriate workers.
In recent years women’s labor participation increased significantly, including in sectors traditionally dominated by men (see section 6, Women). Prohibitions on employment of women in some hazardous jobs and night shifts were lifted. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development explicitly approved and encouraged employment of women in specific sectors, particularly in government and retail, but women continued to face societal discrimination, and gender segregation continued in the workplace. In medical settings and the energy industry, women and men worked together, and in some instances, women supervised male employees. There were no women working as judges or as members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars.
The first-quarter Labor Market Report by the General Authority for Statistics found the labor force participation rate of the total female working-age population was 33.6 percent. Most non-Saudi women were employed as domestic workers.
No regulation requires equal pay for equal work. In the private sector, the average monthly wage of Saudi women workers was 64 percent of the average monthly wage of Saudi men. Labor dispute settlement bodies did not register any cases of discrimination against women.
The law grants women the right to obtain business licenses without the approval of their guardians, and women frequently obtained licenses in fields that might require them to supervise foreign workers, interact with male clients, or deal with government officials. Women who work in establishments with 50 or more female employees have the right to maternity leave and childcare. Bureaucratic procedures largely restricted women working in the security services to employment in women’s prisons, at women’s universities, and in clerical positions in police stations, where they were responsible for visually identifying other women, for example those wearing niqabs, for law enforcement purposes. In 2020 the military chief of general staff inaugurated the first women’s wing in the armed forces, and on April 25, the Ministry of Defense created a joint admissions portal for upcoming military positions open to both women and men. In September the first class of women graduated from the Saudi Armed Forces Training Academy.
Discrimination with respect to religious beliefs occurred in the workplace. Members of the Shia community complained of discrimination based on their religion and had difficulty securing or being promoted in government positions. They were significantly underrepresented in national security-related positions, including the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the National Guard. In predominantly Shia areas, Shia representation was higher in the ranks of traffic police and employees of municipalities and public schools. A small number of Shia occupied high-level positions in government-owned companies and government agencies. Shia were also underrepresented in employment in primary, secondary, and higher education.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The monthly minimum wage for public-sector employees was above the estimated poverty-income level. There was no private-sector minimum wage for foreign workers.
By law a standard workday is eight hours. A standard workweek is 48 hours but can extend to 60 hours, subject to payment of overtime, which is 50 percent more than the basic wage. The law requires employers to provide paid holidays on Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, and Saudi National Day but does not apply to domestic workers sponsored by individuals rather than companies.
An estimated 10.2 million foreign workers, including approximately 1.4 million women, made up approximately 75 percent of the labor force, according to the General Authority for Statistics’ labor market survey for the first quarter. Legal workers generally negotiated and agreed to work conditions prior to their arrival in the country, in accordance with the contract requirements contained in the law.
The law provides penalties for bringing foreigners into the country to work in any service, including domestic service, without following the required procedures and obtaining a permit. Penalties, however, were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
Occupational Safety and Health: The government issued occupational safety and health standards that were up-to-date and appropriate for the main industries. The law provides for regular safety inspections and enables ministry-appointed inspectors to make unannounced inspections, initiate sanctions, examine materials used or handled in industrial and other operations, and submit samples of suspected hazardous materials or substances to government laboratories. The government effectively enforced the law.
The Ministry of Health’s Occupational Health Service Directorate worked with the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development on health and safety matters. Responsibility for identifying unsafe situations remains with occupational safety and health experts and not the worker. By law employers are obligated to safeguard safety and health requirements in the workplace to protect employees from harm and disease. Regulations require employers to protect some workers from job-related hazards and disease, although some violations occurred. Penalties for violations of occupational safety and health laws were not commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. Punishment for labor violations involved a range of fines and the possible temporary or permanent closure of a business. The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from a hazardous workplace without jeopardizing their employment.
Informal Sector: The law requires that a citizen or business must sponsor foreign workers for them to obtain legal work and residency status, although the requirement exempts Syrian and Yemeni citizens who overstayed their visas. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development implemented measures allowing noncitizen workers to switch their employer to a new employer or company that employed a sufficient quota of Saudi citizens. Some workers were unaware of the new regulations and were forced to remain with their sponsor until completion of their contract or seek the assistance of their embassy to return home. There were also instances in which sponsors bringing foreign workers into the country failed to provide them with a residency permit, which undermined the workers’ ability to access government services or navigate the court system in the event of grievances. Sponsors with commercial or labor disputes with foreign employees also could ask authorities to prohibit employees from departing the country until the dispute was resolved. Authorities, however, would not jail or forcibly return fleeing workers who sought to exit the country within a 72-hour period or coordinate with their embassy for repatriation, provided the employees did not have criminal charges or outstanding fines pending against them.
Bilateral labor agreements set conditions on foreign workers’ minimum wage, housing, benefits including leave and medical care, and other topics. Those provisions were not drafted in line with international standards and varied depending on the bargaining power of the foreign workers’ country. There were reports that some migrant workers were employed on terms to which they had not agreed and experienced problems, such as delays in the payment of wages, changes in employer, or changed working hours and conditions. Migrant workers, especially domestic workers, were vulnerable to abuse, exploitation, and conditions contravening labor laws, including nonpayment of wages, working for periods in excess of the 48-hour workweek, working for periods longer than the prescribed eight-hour workday without due compensation, and restrictions on movement due to passport confiscation. There were also reports of physical, psychological, sexual, and verbal abuse.
There were reports that some migrant workers, particularly domestic employees, were unable to remove themselves from dangerous situations. Some employers physically prevented workers from leaving or threatened them with nonpayment of wages if they left. Sponsoring employers, who controlled foreign workers’ ability to remain employed in the country, usually held foreign workers’ passports, a practice prohibited by law. In some contract disputes, in order to prevent the employee from leaving the country until resolution of the dispute, sponsors asked authorities to coerce the employee into accepting a disadvantageous settlement or risking deportation without any settlement.
While some foreign workers were able to contact the labor offices of their embassies for assistance, domestic workers faced challenges when attempting to gain access to their embassies, including restrictions on their freedom of movement and telephone access, confiscation of their passports, and being subjected to threats and verbal and physical abuse. During the year several dozen (primarily) female domestic workers sought shelter at their embassies’ safehouses to escape physical and sexual abuse by their employers. Those workers usually sought legal assistance from their embassies and government agencies to obtain end-of-service benefits and exit visas. In addition to their embassies, some domestic servants could contact the NSHR, HRC, Interministerial General Secretariat to Combat Human Trafficking, and Migrant Workers’ Welfare Department, which provided services to safeguard migrant workers’ rights and protect them from abuse. Some were able to apply to the offices of regional governors and lodge an appeal with the Board of Grievances against decisions by those authorities.
Occupational safety and health regulations do not cover farmers, herdsmen, domestic servants, or workers in family-operated businesses. Although the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development employed nearly 1,000 labor inspectors, foreign workers privately reported frequent failures to enforce health and safety standards. Although statistics were unavailable, examples of major industrial accidents during the year that caused the death or serious injury to workers included local media reports from February 15 that at least six Bangladeshi migrant workers were killed in a fire at a furniture factory in Medina.