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. 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.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
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.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
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.
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.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
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.