Section 7. Worker Rights
The law, including related regulations and statutes, severely restricts worker rights by recognizing only the PCC-controlled Central Union of Cuban Workers (CTC) as the paramount trade union confederation. To operate legally, a trade group must belong to the CTC.
The law does not provide for the right to strike. The law also does not provide for collective bargaining; instead it has a complicated process for reaching collective agreements. The International Labor Organization raised concerns regarding the trade union monopoly of the CTC, the prohibition on the right to strike, and restrictions on collective bargaining and agreements, including giving government authorities and CTC officials the final say on all such agreements.
The government prevented the formation of independent trade unions in all sectors. The PCC chose the CTC’s leaders. The CTC’s principal responsibility is to manage government relations with the workforce. The CTC does not bargain collectively, promote worker rights, or advocate for the right to strike. The de facto prohibition on independent trade unions virtually eliminated workers’ ability to organize independently and appeal against discriminatory dismissals. The government’s strong influence over the judiciary and lawyers limited effective recourse through the courts. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
During the year, as in the past several years, Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, general secretary of the Association of Independent Unions of Cuba, was harassed, beaten, detained, threatened, and fined. In January he was arrested, fined, and had his cell phone confiscated after he traveled to Havana from his home in Matanzas. A government security officer told Hernandez the government would continue these sorts of abuses if Hernandez tried to leave his town. The security officer implied the government would fabricate criminal charges against Hernandez as it did to UNPACU leader Jose Daniel Ferrer (see section 2.b.). After a representative of a foreign embassy visited him on February 11, Hernandez was arrested for questioning on February 12.
Several small, independent labor organizations operated without legal recognition, including the National Independent Workers’ Confederation of Cuba, National Independent Laborer Confederation of Cuba, and Unitarian Council of Workers of Cuba. Together they constituted the Independent Trade Union Association of Cuba. These organizations worked to advance the rights of workers by offering an alternative to the state-sponsored CTC and advocating for the rights of small-business owners and employees. Police reportedly harassed the independent unions, and government agents reportedly infiltrated them, limiting their capacity to represent workers effectively or work on their behalf.
The law does not explicitly prohibit forced labor. It prohibits unlawful imprisonment, coercion, and extortion, with penalties ranging from fines to imprisonment, but there was no evidence these provisions were used to prosecute cases of forced labor. The use of minors in forced labor, drug trafficking, commercial sex, pornography, or the organ trade is punishable by seven to 15 years’ incarceration. When the government discovered the involvement of individuals or nongovernmental groups in these crimes, it enforced the law, and penalties were commensurate with those for analogous crimes, such as kidnapping. The government did not enforce laws against forced labor in its own programs.
Compulsory military service of young men was occasionally fulfilled by assignment to an economic entity, such as a farm or company owned by the military or by assignment to other government services.
Foreign entities both inside the country and abroad contracted with state-run entities to employ citizens to provide labor, often highly skilled labor such as doctors, engineers, or merchant mariners. These employees received a small fraction of the salaries paid to the state-run company, usually 10-25 percent or less; the rest went into the government’s coffers. In some cases where workers were paid directly by their foreign employers, they were required to give a portion of their wages to the state.
Medical workers formed the largest sector of the government’s labor exports. The NGO Cuban Prisoners Defenders collected testimony from 622 former medical workers that documented the country’s coercive and abusive labor practices within this sector. The workers described how they were forced to join the program and were prevented from leaving it, despite being overworked and not earning enough to support their families. Former participants described human trafficking indicators, including coercion, nonpayment of wages, withholding of their passports and academic credentials, and restriction on their movement. The government denied all of these allegations. Similar practices occurred in the tourism sector.
The government refused to improve the transparency of its medical missions program or address concerns about forced labor, despite persistent allegations from former participants, civil society organizations, and foreign governments.
Prisoners were subject to forced labor, often in strenuous farm work without sufficient food or water, or working in hazardous environments without protective equipment, such as working in production of industrial chemicals. Prisoners were punished if they refused to work and were forced to make goods for the Ministry of the Interior’s company (PROVARI or Empresa de Producciones Varias), which were exported or sold in state stores and the tourism sector. The government used high school students in rural areas to harvest crops (also see section 7.c.).
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. The legal minimum working age is 17, although the law permits the employment of children ages 15 and 16 to obtain training or fill labor shortages with parental permission and a special authorization from the municipal labor director. The law does not permit children ages 15 and 16 to work more than seven hours per day, 40 hours per week, or on holidays. Children ages 15 to 18 may not work in specified hazardous occupations, such as mining, or at night.
There were no known government programs to prevent child labor or to remove children from such labor. Antitruancy programs, however, aimed to keep children in school. Children were subject to commercial sexual exploitation, and the government did not report significant efforts to reduce the presence of child sexual exploitation by tourists. The government investigated and convicted one perpetrator of forced child labor during the year.
The government used some high school students in rural areas in the Escuela al Campo (school to countryside) plan to harvest crops on government farms during peak harvest time. Student participants were not paid but as compensation received school credit and favorable recommendations for university admission. Ministry of Education officials used the Escuela al Campo plan to make students ages 11 to 17 work in the agricultural sector with no pay. Students were expected to work 45 days during the first academic quarter. Failure to participate or obtain an excused absence reportedly could result in unfavorable grades or poor university recommendations, although students were reportedly able to participate in other activities (instead of the harvest) to support their application for university admission. Children who performed agricultural work under the Escuela al Campo plan were not given proper tools, clothing, footwear, or food. Deficient and unsanitary living conditions, coupled with poor infrastructure, exposed them to diseases such as dengue fever, zika, and chikungunya.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits workplace discrimination against persons based on skin color, gender, religious belief, sexual orientation, nationality, “or any other distinction harmful to human dignity,” but it does not explicitly protect political opinion (see section 7.a.), social origin, disability, age, language, gender identity, or HIV-positive status or other communicable diseases. No information was available on government enforcement of these provisions during the year.
The government continued to use politically motivated and discriminatory dismissals against those who criticized the government’s economic or political policies. The government deemed persons “unfit” to work because of their political beliefs, including their refusal to join an official union, and for trying to depart the country illegally. The government penalized professionals who expressed interest in emigrating by limiting their job opportunities or firing them. A determination that a worker is “unfit” to work can result in job loss and the denial of job opportunities. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. Persons forced out of employment in the public sector for freely expressing themselves were often further harassed after entering the emerging but highly regulated self-employment sector.
For example, Jorge Felix Vazquez Acosta was dismissed from his job in the Hotel Packard when his superiors learned in May he was against socialism. The hotel was owned by a subsidiary of the army-owned conglomerate Grupo de Administracion Empresarial S.A. and operated by European company Iberostar. A letter signed by the hotel’s deputy director stated Vazquez Acosta was fired for comments “against our socialist system and the constitutional reform” as well as actions that “undermine the political-ideological state that should prevail in our workers.” In the military-controlled tourism sector, military intelligence officers were often embedded in companies’ staff to investigate the political loyalty of employees and fire individuals such as Vazquez Acosta when they were identified as holding views critical of the government.
Discrimination in employment occurred against members of the Afro-Cuban and LGBTI populations, especially in the state-owned but privately operated tourism sector. Leaders within the Afro-Cuban community noted some Afro-Cubans could not get jobs in better-paying sectors such as tourism and hospitality because they were “too dark.” Afro-Cubans experienced low job security and were underrepresented in the business and self-employed sector, frequently obtaining lower-paying jobs, including cleaning and garbage disposal, which had no interaction with tourists, a major source of hard currency.
Hiring practices in the private sector were racist, colorist, and sexist. A job posting for an accounting or finance position usually called for women with lighter or olive skin, blonde hair, and physically fit. Postings for bodyguards and security jobs normally sought male candidates of color, who were perceived as being stronger than other races.
There was no information available showing whether the government effectively enforced applicable law.
Authorities set a national minimum wage at a rate below the poverty line.
The standard workweek is 44 hours, with shorter workweeks in hazardous occupations such as mining. The law provides workers with a weekly minimum 24-hour rest period and one month of paid annual vacation per 11 months of effective work. These standards apply to state workers as well as to workers in the nonstate sector, but they were seldom enforced in the nonstate sector.
The law does not prohibit obligatory overtime, but it generally caps the number of overtime hours at 16 hours per week and 160 per year. The law provides few grounds for a worker to refuse to work overtime below these caps. Compensation for overtime is paid in cash at the regular hourly rate or in additional rest time. The government did not effectively enforce applicable law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
The government set workplace occupational safety and health (OSH) standards and received technical assistance from the International Labor Organization to implement them. Information about penalties for violations of OSH law was not publicly available. The Ministry of Labor and Social Security enforced the minimum wage and workhour standards through offices at the national, provincial, and municipal levels, but the government did not effectively enforce OSH standards. No information was available regarding the number of labor inspectors. Reports from recent years suggested there were very few inspectors, and OSH standards frequently were ignored or weakened by corrupt practices. Civil society organizations reported working conditions for doctors in hospitals were severely unsanitary and that doctors worked long hours without sufficient access to food.
According to government statistics, approximately 250,000 self-employed workers, or 41 percent of the 606,000 persons in the sector, voluntarily suspended their licenses to work due to the economic crisis related to the COVID-19 epidemic. Most self-employed workers worked directly in the tourism sector or in fields that support it. With most international flights suspended, the tourism sector atrophied. The lack of clear regulations about what activities were permissible (when it was clear that some were not) prevented persons from finding employment in this sector.
Despite criminal penalties for doing so, a significant number of workers participated in the informal economy, including individuals who actively traded on the black market or performed professional activities not officially permitted by the government.
Self-employed persons, such as fruit sellers, bicycle taxi drivers, and others, were frequently targeted by police for allegedly acting illegally, even when licensed. Police sometimes arbitrarily and violently closed down these businesses and confiscated any goods.
Foreign companies operated in a limited number of sectors, such as hotels, tourism, and mining. Such companies operated via joint ventures in which the government contracted and paid company workers in pesos for a salary that was a small fraction of what the foreign company remitted in hard currency to the state for labor costs. Most formal employment took place only through government employment agencies. Employers, including international businesses and organizations, were generally prohibited from contracting or paying workers directly, although many reportedly made informal supplemental payments in the form of gratuities.
The Ministry of Labor enforces labor law on any business, organization, or foreign governmental agency based in the country, including wholly foreign-owned companies operating in the country, joint-stock companies involving foreign investors operating in the country, the United Nations, international NGOs, and embassies. Workers employed by these entities are subject to labor regulations common to most state and nonstate workers and are also subject to some regulations specific to these kinds of entities. Government bodies, including the tax collection agency and the Ministry of Finance and Prices, enforced regulations.
On July 6, a total of 13 military personnel were hospitalized and 1,245 persons near La Pua were evacuated after old ammunition exploded in a military facility in Holguin. Following the initial major explosions, workers in nearby fields continued to feel several small explosions throughout the day. They received no information about the cause or the response from the government or military.
The CTC provided only limited information to workers about their rights and at times did not respond to or assist workers who complained about hazardous workplace conditions. It was generally understood that workers could not remove themselves from dangerous situations without jeopardizing their employment, and authorities did not effectively protect workers facing this dilemma.
Section 7. Worker Rights
The constitution, federal legislation, and government regulations provide for the right of employees to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct legal strikes. Wildcat strikes are not allowed. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and offers legal remedies to claim damages, including the reinstatement of unlawfully dismissed workers.
Some laws and regulations limit these labor rights. While civil servants are free to form or join unions, their wages and working conditions are determined by legislation, not by collective bargaining. All civil servants (including some teachers, postal workers, railroad employees, and police) and members of the armed forces are prohibited from striking.
Employers are generally free to decide whether to be a party to a collective bargaining agreement. Even if they decide not to be a party, companies must apply the provisions of a collective agreement if the Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs declares a collective bargaining agreement generally binding for the whole sector. Employers not legally bound by collective bargaining agreements often used them to determine part or all of their employees’ employment conditions. Employers may contest in court a strike’s proportionality and a trade union’s right to take strike actions. The law does not establish clear criteria on strikes, and courts often rely on case law and precedent.
The government enforced applicable laws effectively. Actions and measures by employers to limit or violate freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are considered unlawful and lead to fines. Penalties and remediation efforts were commensurate with those of equivalent laws denying civil rights.
Laws regulate cooperation between management and work councils (companies’ elected employee representation), including the right of the workers to be involved in management decisions that could affect them. Work councils are independent from labor unions but often have close ties to the sector’s labor movement. The penalty for employers who interfere in work councils’ elections and operations is up to one year in prison or a fine. Findings from 2019 showed that a significant number of employers interfered with the election of work council members or tried to deter employees from organizing new work councils. This practice has been criticized by labor unions for a long time; they call for stronger legislation that shields employees seeking to exercise their rights under the law.
The constitution and federal law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor. Penalties for forced labor range from six months to 10 years in prison and were generally commensurate with those of other serious crimes.
The government effectively enforced the law when they found violations, but NGOs questioned the adequacy of resources to investigate and prosecute the crime. Some traffickers received light or suspended sentences that weakened deterrence and undercut efforts to hold traffickers accountable, but the language was generally consistent with the country’s sentencing practices. In March media outlets released findings from a detailed investigation regarding migrant workers in the country who were lured under false pretenses and forced to work in squalid conditions with barely any pay. One media outlet reported that workers “described a sophisticated operation which kept tight control over their livelihoods. The men picked them up when they arrived, ran their accommodations, set rules for their workdays, and … decided when and how they would be paid.” Further, the workers “described deductions for everything from up-front ‘bureaucratic costs’ to monthly rent to gasoline for the car they were driven to work in, even the special safety boots they had to wear.”
There were reports of forced labor involving adults, mainly in the construction and food service industries. There were also reported cases in domestic households and industrial plants. In 2019 police completed 14 labor-trafficking investigations that identified 43 victims, nearly a third (13) of whom were from Ukraine.
In August 2019, 800 federal police officers conducted raids in the states of Thuringia and Saxony-Anhalt on the suspicion of human trafficking and labor exploitation of workers from Eastern Europe. As of September the general prosecutor in Erfurt was still investigating two Ukrainian nationals, one German recruiter, and one employee of a local authority.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor and provides for a minimum age of employment, including limitations on working hours and occupational safety and health restrictions for children. The law prohibits the employment of children younger than 15 with a few exceptions: Children who are 13 or 14 may perform work on a family-run farm for up to three hours per day or perform services such as delivering magazines and leaflets, babysitting, and dog walking for up to two hours per day, if authorized by their custodial parent. Children younger than 15 may not work during school hours, before 8 a.m., after 6 p.m., or on Saturdays, Sundays, or public holidays. The type of work must not pose any risk to the security, health, or development of the child and must not prevent the child from obtaining schooling and training. Children are not allowed to work with hazardous materials, carry or handle items weighing more than 22 pounds, perform work requiring an unsuitable posture, or engage in work that exposes them to the risk of an accident. Children between the ages of three and 14 may take part in cultural performances, but there are strict limits on the kind of activity, number of hours, and time of day.
The government effectively enforced the applicable laws, and penalties were commensurate with those of other serious crimes. Isolated cases of child labor occurred in small, family-owned businesses, such as cafes, restaurants, family farms, and grocery stores. Inspections by the regional inspection agencies and the resources and remediation available to them were adequate to ensure broad compliance.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law prohibits discrimination in all areas of occupation and employment, from recruitment, self-employment, and promotion to career advancement. Although origin and citizenship are not explicitly listed as grounds of discrimination in the law, victims of such discrimination have other means to assert legal claims. The law obliges employers to protect employees from discrimination at work.
The government effectively enforced these laws and regulations during the year. Employees who believe they are victims of discrimination have a right to file an official complaint and to have the complaint heard. If an employer fails to protect the employee effectively, employees may remove themselves from places and situations of discrimination without losing employment or pay. In cases of violations of the law, victims of discrimination are entitled to injunctions, removal, and material or nonmaterial damages set by court decision. Penalties were commensurate with those of other civil rights violations.
FADA highlighted that applicants of foreign descent and with foreign names faced discrimination even when they had similar or better qualifications than others. Workers filed 1,176 complaints with FADA alleging workplace discrimination because of their ethnic background; the majority of complaints concerned the private sector, where barriers for persons with disabilities also persisted.
The law provides for equal pay for equal work. In March the Federal Statistical Office found the gross hourly wages of women in 2019 were on average 20 percent lower than those of men. It blamed pay differences in the sectors and occupations in which women and men were employed, as well as unequal requirements for leadership experience and other qualifications as the principal reasons for the pay gap. Women were underrepresented in highly paid managerial positions and overrepresented in some lower-wage occupations. FADA reported women were also at a disadvantage regarding promotions, often due to career interruptions for child rearing.
The law imposes a gender quota of 30 percent for supervisory boards of certain publicly traded corporations. It also requires approximately 3,500 companies to set and publish self-determined targets for increasing the share of women in leading positions (executive boards and management) and to report on their performance. Consequently, the share of women on the supervisory boards of those companies bound by the law increased from approximately 20 percent in 2015 to nearly 35 percent in 2019. The representation of women on management boards in the top 200 companies stood at 14 percent.
There were reports of employment discrimination against persons with disabilities. The unemployment rate among persons with disabilities decreased to 11.2 percent in 2018, remaining considerably higher than that of the general population (on average 5.2 percent for 2018). Employers with 20 or more employees must hire persons with significant disabilities to fill at least 5 percent of all positions; companies with 20 to 40 employees must fill one position with a person with disabilities, and companies with 40 to 60 employees must fill two positions. Each year companies file a mandatory form with the employment office verifying whether they meet the quota for employing persons with disabilities. Companies that fail to meet these quotas pay a monthly fine for each required position not filled by a person with disabilities. In 2018 nearly 100,000 employers did not employ enough persons with disabilities and paid fines.
The law provides for equal treatment of foreign workers, although foreign workers faced some wage discrimination. For example, employers, particularly in the construction sector, sometimes paid lower wages to seasonal workers from Eastern Europe.
The nationwide statutory minimum wage is below the internationally defined “at-risk-of poverty threshold” of two-thirds of the national median wage. The minimum wage does not apply to persons younger than 18, long-term unemployed persons during their first six months in a new job, or apprentices undergoing vocational training, regardless of age. A number of sectors set their own higher minimum wages through collective bargaining.
The government effectively enforced the laws and monitored compliance with the statutory and sector-wide minimum wages and hours of work through the Customs Office’s Financial Control Illicit Work Unit, which conducted checks on nearly 55,000 companies in 2019. Employees may sue companies if employers fail to comply with the Minimum Wage Act, and courts may sentence employers who violate the provisions to pay a substantial fine. Penalties for wage and hour violations were commensurate with those of similar crimes.
Federal regulations set the standard workday at eight hours, with a maximum of 10 hours, and limit the average workweek to 48 hours. For the 54 percent of employees who are directly covered by collective bargaining agreements, the average agreed working week under existing agreements is 37.7 hours. The law requires a break after no more than six hours of work, stipulates regular breaks totaling at least 30 minutes, and sets a minimum of 24 days of paid annual leave in addition to official holidays. Provisions for overtime, holiday, and weekend pay varied, depending upon the applicable collective bargaining agreement. Such agreements or individual contracts prohibited excessive compulsory overtime and protected workers against arbitrary employer requests.
Extensive laws and regulations govern occupational safety and health. A comprehensive system of worker insurance carriers enforced safety requirements in the workplace. Penalties for occupational safety and health violations were commensurate to those for other similar crimes.
The Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and its state-level counterparts monitored and enforced occupational safety and health standards through a network of government bodies, including the Federal Agency for Occupational Safety and Health. At the local level, professional and trade associations self-governing public corporations with delegates representing both employers and unions as well as works councils oversaw worker safety. The number of inspectors was sufficient to ensure compliance. Inspectors had the authority to make unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions.
The number of work accidents continued to decline among full-time employees, but workplace fatalities increased to 497 in 2019, up from 420 in 2018. Most accidents occurred in the construction, transportation, postal logistics, wood, and metalworking industries.
Section 7. Worker Rights
The law does not provide for the right of workers to form and join independent unions. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining or the right to conduct legal strikes. 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 under other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination.
The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. There were no labor unions in the country, and workers faced potential dismissal, imprisonment, or, in the case of migrant workers, deportation for 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 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 Saudi National Committee of Workers Committees, an umbrella organization that supports dozens of workers committees and advocates for workers’ rights, chaired the Labor20 engagement group, as the country hosted the year’s G20 meeting.
The law prohibits forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping, which can receive up to the death penalty. The fine for trafficking in persons is 15 years in prison and fines up to one million riyals (approximately $267,000). Forced labor occurred, especially among migrant workers–notably domestic servants. 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. Labor law prohibits the confiscation of passports and nonpayment of wages. Violations of labor laws could result in penalties, but these did not sufficiently deter violations. Many migrant workers, particularly domestic employees not covered under the labor law, were unable to exercise their right to end their contractual work. An employer may require a trainee to work for him or her upon completion of training for a period not to exceed twice the duration of the training or one year, whichever is longer.
Restrictive sponsorship laws increased workers’ vulnerability to forced labor conditions and made many foreign workers reluctant to report abuse. The contract system does not allow workers to change employers or leave the country without the written consent of the employer under normal circumstances. Employers or sponsors were responsible for processing residence permits and exit visas on their behalf.
If wages are withheld for 90 days, a ministerial decree permits an employee to transfer his or her sponsorship to a new employer without obtaining prior approval from the previous employer. There were reports, however, that the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development did not always approve petitions to transfer sponsorship due to withheld wages, including some cases in which wages had been withheld for more than three months.
Due to the economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of expatriate workers lost their jobs. Many who could not or chose not to repatriate were left without legal status, putting them at greater risk of exploitation and trafficking. The government encouraged companies to place employees on reduced hours, vacation leave, or unpaid leave, rather than terminating contracts. In April, Article 41 was inserted in the Implementation Regulation of the Labor Law, which enabled the employer and employee, between April and October 2020, to agree to any of the following: a reduction in salary provided that there is a corresponding reduction in working hours; placing the employee on paid annual leave (as part of their holiday entitlement); or implementing a period of unpaid leave. Officials confirmed that Article 74 of the labor law still applied during the pandemic, which only recognized termination when either the business or the business unit within which the employee worked was closing permanently.
The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development, Ministry of Interior, and Ministry of Foreign Affairs developed an electronic platform and integrated system in 2014 to facilitate recruitment of domestic workers and regularize contractual relationships. The platform was also designed to lower recruitment costs and address worker shortages due to source country deployment bans. The system failed to prevent completely exploitative practices by middlemen, brokers, and other stakeholders that both workers and employers encounter before they reach registered agencies. Some domestic workers lacked access to the platform, and source country agencies lacked influence on the platform’s procedures.
A few countries that previously allowed their citizens to migrate to the country for work prohibited their citizens from seeking work in Saudi Arabia after widespread reports of worker abuse.
The government continued implementation of the Wage Protection System (WPS), which requires employers to pay foreign workers through bank transfers, thereby allowing the ministry to track whether workers were paid appropriately. On August 1, the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development started implementing stage 16 of the WPS, requiring all employers with more than five employees to comply with WPS regulations. The ministry fined companies for delaying payment for employees’ salaries on the first occurrence and blocked companies from accessing government services if a company delayed salaries for two or more months. In November the ministry announced that 200,000 establishments were already using the WPS application and stated that by the end of the year, all private-sector companies with one or more employees would be required to utilize the WPS.
In November the government announced the Labor Reform Initiative, scheduled to come into effect on March 14, 2021, which will allow workers to change employers upon the conclusion of an employment contract without the original employer’s approval. The reform will also enable workers to obtain exit-reentry visas and depart the country upon the contract’s conclusion without employer approval. The changes will benefit roughly seven million private-sector expatriate workers but will not initially apply to domestic workers.
Undocumented workers were not protected by labor laws and were particularly susceptible to forced labor, substandard wages, and deportation by authorities.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. 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. Ministerial Decree No. 1/2834, Article 1, provides that hazardous operations, such as 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 most commonly enforced the law in response to complaints about 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.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
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 world of work (see section 6). Discrimination with respect to employment and occupation occurred in all these categories. There are no effective complaint resolution mechanisms present to deter these discriminatory regulations and practices.
A 2019 amendment to the labor law enacted a general prohibition on discrimination during employment as well as in the terms of recruitment. The amendment mandated 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. Women may work without their guardian’s permission, but some employers required women to have such permission, even though the law prohibits the practice. The decree expands 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 is widespread societal discrimination against African and Asian expatriate workers. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those under laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.
In recent years the government decreased the number of restrictions on women’s employment in various sectors (see section 6, Women). On August 26, the Council of Ministers approved two amendments in the labor law removing Articles 149 and 150, which had prohibited employment of women in some hazardous jobs and night shifts. The Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development explicitly approved and encouraged the employment of women in specific sectors, particularly in government and retail, but women continued to face societal discrimination, and in practice 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. 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. 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 that Saudi girls and women (15 years of age and older) constituted 8.3 percent of the country’s total labor force (Saudi and non-Saudi, 15 years of age and older). The same report estimated that women and girls, both Saudi and foreign, represented 25.4 percent of all employed persons (15 years of age and older) in the country. 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 58 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. Although it is illegal for a potential employer to ask a female applicant for her guardian’s permission when she applies for a job, some employers required them to prove such permission. Women who work in establishments with 50 or more female employees have the right to maternity leave and childcare.
The country had an increasing number of female diplomats; in March local media reported the number reached 151 in 2019. On August 2, the minister of education appointed the country’s first three women overseas cultural attaches. On August 25, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appointed Ahlam bint Abdulrahman Yankasar as the director-general of the general department of cultural affairs, the first woman to serve as a director general in the ministry. In February 2019 a royal decree appointed the first female Saudi ambassador.
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 wearing niqabs, for law enforcement purposes. On January 19, the military chief of general staff inaugurated the first women’s wing in the Armed Forces. In October 2019 officials announced that women would be able to join the armed forces in a wide range of positions, including corporals and sergeants. In June, Director of Government Affairs Moaid Mahjoub tweeted a photograph of one of the first female members of a Saudi Royal Guard regiment.
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 very 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.
The monthly minimum wage for public-sector employees was above the estimated poverty-income level. In November the minister of human resources announced the minimum wage for Saudis in the private sector would be set at 4,000 riyals (approximately $1,066) per month. 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. Labor 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–those sponsored by individuals rather than companies.
An estimated 10.4 million foreign workers, including approximately 1.3 million women, made up approximately 76.5 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 labor 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. The penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.
Occupational safety and health (OSH) standards are appropriate for main industries. The labor 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. In accordance with Articles 121 and 122 of the labor 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 OSH laws were not commensurate with those for crimes of negligence. Under Article 121, punishment for labor violations can range up to 100,000 riyals (approximately $26,700) and possibly temporary or permanent closure of a business (commensurate with the punishment for vandalizing cultural or historical sites). These regulations did not cover farmers, herdsmen, domestic servants, or workers in family-operated businesses. Although the ministry 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 include local media reports from June 11 that six workers died in a water pipeline construction accident in al-Aziziah district in Riyadh and from December 16 that one worker died and three others were injured due to gas leakage in an air-conditioner shop in Riyadh.
On April 25, local media reported that the Ministry of Municipal and Rural Affairs began preparing residences belonging to the Saudi Authority for Industrial Cities and Technology Zones to be used as temporary housing for up to 29,000 workers. According to the ministry, the residences were established in response to the rapid rise in number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among expatriate workers in densely populated labor camps and neighborhoods.
The law requires that a citizen or business must sponsor foreign workers in order 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 as long as 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. The labor law and the law against trafficking in persons do not provide penalties commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.
In July the HRC, in coordination with other government bodies, conducted a large-scale awareness campaign, Together to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which included educational messages coordinated across social media platforms, print media, and television.
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 exercise their right 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, sponsors asked authorities to prevent the employee from leaving the country until resolution of the dispute 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 in particular 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 hundreds of 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, the HRC, the governmental Interministerial General Secretariat to Combat Human Trafficking, and the 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.
In June media outlets reported that Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons had received distress calls and evidence that Nigerian women in Saudi Arabia were subjected to cruel working conditions, unpaid salaries and other entitlements, 18-hour workdays, and hazardous duties.