The government demonstrated increased efforts to prevent trafficking, including significant steps to reform its sponsorship system, allowing expatriate workers covered under the Labor Law to obtain an exit and re-entry visa, obtain final exit visas, or change employers at the conclusion of their contract or after one year without an employer’s permission, therefore lessening workers’ vulnerability to forced labor. It demonstrated improved progress on implementation of its 2017-2020 national action plan (NAP) to combat trafficking that focused on monitoring, prevention, building government capacity, inter-ministerial coordination, effective law enforcement, and provision of protective services for victims. The NCCHT reported meeting approximately every two weeks throughout the reporting period; it created a subcommittee to draft the next iteration of the NAP to be published in 2021. The committee actively increased its engagement with civil society organizations through workshops and training, created a subcommittee to review the anti-trafficking law, and established an executive arm of the committee responsible for trafficking case processing and management and ensuring effective application of the NRM—which included points of contacts from each agency represented on the committee, as well as the MOH, the Saudi Red Crescent Society, the MOE, the Saudi Bar Association, and the General Organization for Technical and Vocational training. Additionally, the government renewed its anti-trafficking partnership with the IOM in March 2021 and held a roundtable with two international organizations and 13 embassies, including labor-source countries, to discuss the Kingdom’s recent changes to the labor law and to receive feedback on ways to improve its trafficking response. In October 2020, the Saudi government joined the second annual Anti-Trafficking Forum in the Middle East, hosted by the United Arab Emirates.
The government continued to operate and utilize its online domestic labor portal known as Musaned, meaning “support” in Arabic. This system consisted of a website and smartphone application that allowed potential employees in various sectors and individual employers to verify the license of a recruitment agency, review materials on employee and employer rights and responsibilities (in Arabic and English only), complete and electronically sign contracts, and request a visa. The system intended to eliminate unregulated brokers, increase transparency and accountability of recruitment agencies and work contracts, and reduce the risk of forced labor. It also included a complaints resolution mechanism and associated resources. Musaned also served as a tool for authenticating contracts for domestic workers. Diplomats from multiple labor-source countries reported Musaned enhanced the ability of embassies to monitor newly arrived nationals. However, in some cases, embassies found some information entered in the platform, such as address of residence and place of work, was either missing or incorrect following a transfer, impeding efforts to track reported victims of abuse and trafficking. Finally, MHRSD continued a pilot program called Weddi (“friendly” in Arabic), which was an alternative dispute resolution mechanism whereby a worker could electronically submit a complaint and supporting documentation. If either the employee or employer rejected the proposed resolution via arbitration, officials would automatically transfer the case to the MOJ labor courts for administrative settlement.
Pursuant to a ministerial circular promulgated in September 2019, authorities continued to implement a mechanism to electronically verify work contracts to prevent contract switching and fraudulent documentation. The initiative aimed to obligate all private sector companies to sign contracts with their employees enabling MHRSD to electronically account for, authenticate, and monitor all employment contracts in the private sector. During the reporting period, the MHSRD further developed this electronic contract program into a Single Electronic Contract to ensure compliance with labor laws through provisions on contract data, type of work, salary, duration of contract, working hours, weekends and annual leave, making the system mandatory for all private sector companies in November 2020. Each contract was verified by both the employer and employee and filed through the Mudad electronic platform. It also granted employees access to their contract and ensured MHSRD could impose sanctions on establishments that contravened the terms contained therein. The e-contract could also be used in a potential labor dispute as an enforceable deed to protect the rights of the employee. Representatives from labor-source countries reported the e-contact was a helpful tool that enhanced transparency and accountability for their nationals who raised labor disputes against an employer during the reporting year. The government reported that if an employer did not have an e-contract on file that an employee could approve electronically, the employer could be fined up to 3,000 SAR ($800), multiplied by the number of employees at the company. At the end of the reporting period, MHSRD reported 5,000,000 ratified contracts existed within the Mudad system, out of a total of 9,000,000 employee contracts in the Kingdom.
During the reporting period, the government continued to expand usage of its Wage Protection System (WPS), which required employers to pay foreign workers by electronic transfer via a Saudi bank, thereby permitting the government to track disbursements and prevent non- or delayed payment of wages—a key forced labor indicator prominent across the Kingdom. In December 2020, the government extended the WPS to require 100 percent of private sector companies to register, including those with just one employee. The government reported it also used the Mudad platform to track WPS compliance in real-time, and through this electronic platform, a notification of payment was sent to the employee. The government reported that in instances where employers withheld wages from the employee, the system required the employer to explain the reason for non-payment; the explanation would be sent to the employee for approval. If approval was not given, the MHSRD reported it would investigate the employer and screen for other potential trafficking indicators. This system became mandatory during the reporting period and continued to review payrolls and impose penalties for any firm that failed to maintain at least 80 percent compliance on a monthly basis, resulting in suspension of government services and recruitment privileges. Authorities penalized companies for less than 80 percent compliance and/or for failing to submit monthly WPS data. The government reported a 2020 compliance rate of 68.33 percent for companies with 30 employees or more, and a compliance rate of 13 percent for companies with 11-29 employees. In total, the government reported 5,659 violations of companies for non-compliance in both the WPS and e-contract system. Although the WPS was not available for domestic workers, the government continued to mandate individual employers of domestic labor issue prepaid payroll or salary cards as soon as the domestic worker arrived in the Kingdom to ensure a legal working relationship between employer and employee and safeguard employees’ prescribed wages.
In the previous reporting period, the government removed the requirement for employer approval to receive a final exit visa for commercial or domestic workers whose sponsors failed to pay required fees, renew a worker’s status, or were absent; however, the majority of workers continued to need employer permission to depart the country or change sponsors for the majority of the reporting period, rendering them at greater risk of forced labor. As part of a larger suite of labor reforms announced by the MHRSD in November 2020 through Ministerial Resolution No.51848/1442, which the government began to implement in March 2021, private sector workers no longer needed their employer’s permission to travel abroad (obtain an exit and re-entry visa), obtain final exit visas, 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 in the Kingdom. Sources reported the government intended to use both the Abshir and Qiwa electronic applications to automate the process for transferring employment, notifying an employer of an employee’s departure and re-entry, and providing an employee a final exit visa. Several NGOs expressed concern these initial reforms did not include the 3.7 million domestic workers employed in Saudi Arabia, a group highly vulnerable to abuse. The government reported domestic workers would be added to the reforms at an unspecified later date. NGOs also reported concerns that although the reforms were a step in the right direction, the sponsorship system would continue to persist as long as both the employee’s work and residence visas were tied to an employer. Additionally, these organizations noted the reforms did not abolish the exit permit entirely—a worker must still submit a request to MHRSD for an exit permit, and the ministry will, in turn, notify the employer electronically of their worker’s departure. The employer had ten days to lodge an inquiry into the worker’s exit permit request, and an employer’s inquiry could potentially be used to deny the worker an exit permit.
The government made efforts to prevent vulnerability to exploitation and potential trafficking for migrant workers who experienced job loss, expired visas, and loss of wages related to the pandemic. The MHSRD reported all work permits for migrant workers that expired between March 18 and June 30 were automatically extended for three months, benefitting more than 1.5 million workers; the government extended this initiative several times during the reporting period to address vulnerabilities of workers who lost residency status due to expired permits as part of pandemic response measures. Additionally, the government allowed laborers to temporarily work for other employers through the Ajeer program, which created more jobs for migrant workers whose employers could not afford to employ them, benefitting 7,115 workers. The government also reported extending the validity of all re-entry visas for migrant workers stranded abroad due to the suspension of international flights and whose visas expired while abroad; this initiative benefitted nearly seven million workers during the reporting period. To regulate the employer-employee relationship at the onset of the pandemic, the government invoked Article 41 of the labor law in April 2020, allowing employers and employees to agree to reduced salaries and work hours or paid annual leave as part of their entitlement to avoid firing employees and rendering them more vulnerable to trafficking due to an irregular status. However, this policy also allowed employers to implement a period of unpaid leave with employee consent, which may have put some workers at greater risk of exploitation.
During the reporting period, the NCCHT launched Twitter accounts in both Arabic and English to raise awareness on trafficking crimes and consistently monitored the online traffic each account received throughout the year. In its largest awareness-raising campaign ever, the NCCHT and HRC jointly launched a week-long #UnitedAgainstTrafficking campaign in conjunction with World Day against Trafficking in Persons on July 30, 2020. The HRC published and disseminated an educational video describing trafficking in persons to the general public and activated the hashtag #UnitedAgainstTrafficking_KSA through the HRC’s English and Arabic social media accounts. Numerous social media influencers and high-level government officials amplified the campaign through their own accounts. The PPO, Border Guard, and Passport Authorities published videos related to the campaign, and numerous other government bodies and officials amplified the message, including Saudi embassies overseas. In addition to social media, the campaign was featured on traditional media as well as through art exhibits from local artists. The government also sent text messages to 40 million mobile phones to raise awareness of the dangers posed by trafficking and the need for all to combat the crime. In an effort to raise awareness on the Labor Reform Initiative and associated reforms to the sponsorship system, the government published videos and infographics in multiple languages and informational service guides to ensure targeted groups and the public received adequate information on the reforms. Additionally, to socialize the reforms with labor-source countries, companies and recruitment agencies, and other stakeholders, the government hosted informational workshops in various regions, including Riyadh, Jeddah, and the Eastern province, which were attended by at least 8,000 companies and recruiting agencies, and held awareness and informational meetings at the Saudi Chamber of Commerce in Mecca, Taif, and Medina. Finally, the government held two workshops in collaboration with more than 30 embassies of labor-source countries on leveraging services offered through the new reforms, such as applications for residency permits or transfer requests for workers to be requested through Abshir and Qiwa, as noted above. Additionally, MHRSD officials launched a program during the reporting period to send labor attachés to key labor-source countries to enhance coordination on suspected trafficking cases and ensure workers from labor-source countries were adequately informed of their rights before arriving in Saudi Arabia. The government reported the first Saudi representative arrived in Philippines in September 2020, with six additional attachés planned for Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
Officials operated a 24-hour call center that received calls in nine major labor-source country languages: Amharic, Arabic, Bengali, English, Hindi, Indonesian, Malay, Tagalog, and Urdu. The call center received approximately 280 calls per day on average. The MHRSD complaint hotline number was also included in pamphlets received by all expatriate workers who entered the Kingdom during the year. The government reported it identified 374 potential trafficking cases via its hotline and referred 14 of those cases to the MOI for further investigation during the reporting period. The MOI’s crime reporting app, Koolna (“All of Us”), added a feature that allowed users to report trafficking crimes as a standalone option in November 2020. In March 2020, the HRC began piloting a multilingual call center that received calls, texts, and Whatsapp messages and operated 24 hours and seven days a week, equipped with a specific trafficking option and staffed with operators trained on identifying potential trafficking cases. The call center could receive calls in English and Arabic; the government reported that additional languages would be added in 2021. Additionally, the NCCHT established a reception and management group for trafficking-related complaints, and the committee reported receiving an unknown number of cases through an email address during 2020. The government reported that once a case was received, the group coordinated with the HRC and other agencies to refer the case for further processing. Some workers and labor-source country officials reported impracticalities and technical difficulties getting through to operators using this phone line, citing poorly trained and under-resourced staff.
The government sought to eliminate vulnerabilities in labor recruitment through its deployment of labor inspectors and HRC officials—400 of whom specialized in trafficking crimes—who conducted 843,419 field visits to monitor the application of employment and recruitment laws. The government reported 17 potential trafficking cases were identified during these inspections and referred to the MOI for further investigation. During the reporting period, diplomatic representatives from several countries reported an improvement in Saudi government oversight over labor recruitment and the proper implementation of labor contracts. Although authorities instructed labor inspectors to ascertain, through field inspections and an understanding that withholding employees’ passports, residency permit, or personal/family insurance cards was indicative of trafficking, among other investigative steps to safeguard employees against the crime, the government did not report investigating or referring for criminal prosecution any passport retention crimes. The government circulated a questionnaire for labor inspectors to complete for situations where they suspected a trafficking crime; inspectors sent the forms to the MHRSD’s anti-trafficking department. The HRC Secretariat reported receiving 102 general complaints from workers during the reporting period; nine of those complaints were for passport confiscation, which the HRC referred to the MHRSD, which then referred the complaints to the MOI and PPO for further investigation. The MHRSD reported processing 670 complaints filed through its Domestic Labor Dispute Committee and Trafficking Hotline Program and referred an unknown number of suspected trafficking cases to the MOI and PPO for further investigation. In addition, the MHRSD, in collaboration with the MOJ, launched a remote amicable resolution initiative to ensure workers and employers could complete procedures while maintaining health and safety precautions due to the pandemic; 17,000 workers benefitted from this remote option. The government had several bilateral labor agreements with primary labor-source countries, including Ethiopia and Indonesia, which set minimum wage standards and regulated protections and benefits for laborers, such as work hours, mandatory time off, and overarching work conditions. The government did not report efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government provided anti-trafficking training to its diplomatic personnel.