For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking very closely at the news regarding the plan to abolish the infamous Saudi Arabia’s sponsorship (kafalah) system. The system, which has also been implemented in the Gulf countries for years, defines a number of laws for the employers and their employees (in this case migrant workers). It was made in such a way so that the person who recruits the worker takes full responsibility for them, including paying a salary, obtaining a residence permit (which must be renewed every two years), providing them with housing, and much more. However, the sponsorship system, which has not been reviewed for decades, has received many criticisms as it restricts the worker’s movement in the Kingdom and at the same time brings disadvantages to many Saudi employers. So when the Labor Minister Al-Gosaibi revealed to the media that the government is planning to abolish this system, it really brings a sense of relief in me. And I’m sure everyone welcomes this news. Though we are not sure yet how this new system is going to be, I am pretty sure it’s going to provide us — the migrant workers — more freedom.
Under the current kafalah system, foreign workers are not permitted to seek other jobs or move to a different company without their employer’s permission. They are also not allowed to travel to other cities in Saudi Arabia (let alone abroad) without a written permission from their sponsor/employer. They have a risk of being fired and sent home (their employer can do that whenever they wish), yet they are not permitted to quit their job and go back home as they wish (they need their employer’s permission to do that). Migrant workers are also not allowed to work with an employer who is not their own sponsor. They MUST work with their sponsor, otherwise, they violate the laws. So practically, there are no legal part time jobs in the Kingdom for expats. And if you have read my most scary experience in 2008 😀 (I have made it private for a while, but now you can access and read it again), you will understand why I almost got into trouble and thrown into jail (and perhaps deported from Saudi Arabia).
So why would I and many other expats risk of working with someone who is not our own sponsor? Well, there are many reasons to consider, and most of them are due to lack of freedom. My rights as a woman here have already been restricted and honestly, I don’t want to receive any more restrictions. It’s ridiculous. That’s a short answer. The long answer is more complicated than that. I have gone to a number of job interviews in Jeddah and most of them require me to transfer my iqamah — or what they call nagal kafalah. They want me to change my sponsor to the company that I will be working at (currently, my sponsor is my dad). In most cases, I would refuse their offer. First of all, I don’t know them. I don’t know how the company is performing. Is it a stable company? Do they pay salaries on time? Are they nice? Some of them give me a chance to work in the first 3 months for evaluation. But what happen if after I’ve transferred they’re not “nice” anymore (not paying salary on time, etc)?? And what if I want to find another job? Will I be allowed to do that?? The ‘ifs’ go on and on… Those are just some of the concerns that I usually have. And as a woman, I find it really hard to complain or act when these issues arise. I don’t believe the law system here. It’s sometimes unfair for the expats. Although the kafalah system that I described above seems quite “scary” and risky, it’s actually not THAT bad if you have a sponsor who abides by all rules and law of this country. You don’t need to worry about not receiving salary on time and whether or not your sponsor would take advantage of you (financially), for example.
In my family case, we are SO LUCKY! We are lucky because my dad has the best sponsor in the whole Kingdom. I kid you not :D. My dad’s sponsor is his own close Saudi friend; they used to work in the same office about 10 years ago. Let’s called him Ahmed. Ahmed is a half Saudi and half Indonesian (but he can’t speak Indonesian at all). His mother is a Javanese of a Hadhrami descent and once in a while, we visit her house to pay her a respect. I love visiting her house and meeting a number of her family relatives, in-laws, and friends to know more about Saudi culture. I will need to write about it in a separate post, though :P. Anyhow, with Ahmed being my dad’s friend and sponsor (and my dad being the sponsor of my siblings, mom, and I), every task and paperwork related to sponsorship (e.g. extending our residency permit, asking permissions to travel to other cities & abroad, and many more) become so easy for us. Usually, those tasks must involve some money paid to the sponsor. But my dad just does it for free (except for the government fees, of course). Ahmed never takes even a cent from us!! Mom told me that people would usually need to pay at least 20,000 Riyals (50 million Rupiahs or USD 5,300) for extending residency permit for a family consists of 5 members. That huge amount of money would mostly go to the sponsor’s pocket — and only a few of those go to the government. But for us, we only need to pay the fee to the government — the “official” one. So indeed we are just so lucky to have Ahmed here! 🙂
Unfortunately, some people are not that lucky. Some of my colleagues had a bitter experience with their sponsors. Most of the problems are due to their sponsors or employers not able to pay salary on time — sometimes for months. I am not talking about blue-collar workers; these are my colleagues who hold at least university degree. And this thing does happen, mostly in a small-scale company where wages are still handled in a traditional way (e.g. they are given by cash, instead of automatically transferred through a bank). I worked in such company before and I didn’t know it was like that until I worked for 1 month over there (coz everyone in the office started to tell me everything about the company). Right after I was told about how crap the inside of the company was, there was not a single day I thought about whether or not I would get paid in a full amount and my family had been pushing me to get a signed contract, but apparently, the boss refused to do it. Thankfully, I got my salary (I was the FIRST one in the office to get it, coz I kept asking for it so maybe the boss was a bit annoyed) and I quit the job in the same week! 😀 Please note that the company that I worked with was a well-established company that provided a great relaxing and fun environment (no pressure!). So I was quite surprised to find such an awful BASIC thing happened there. The problem with wages is just one of the MANY examples of sponsorship-related violations that occur in the Kingdom.
Dispute with your sponsor may result in ending your stay in this country because your sponsor does not want to sponsor you anymore. You will be sent back to your own country. That’s what I call the BEST case scenario. The worst case scenario is much uglier than this. There are too many stories of the sponsor not wanting to renew one’s residency permit AND at the same time, he does not want to take the responsibility of sending one back to the country of origin. This is such an awful thing that unfortunately happens frequently. What can one do when his/her sponsor refuses to send him/her back? The only option is to stay in the country with a new status: illegal migrant or overstayer. As I said previously, you are not able to go out of Saudi Arabia if your sponsor does not want you to (because prior to your departure, the sponsor has to do a few paperwork. This task can only be done by the sponsor). So staying illegally in the Kingdom is, unfortunately, one of the solutions for these people. The other solution is to hand yourself over to the immigration authority who will take you to jail for few days (or weeks) and deport you to your own country.
The sponsorship system also brings a number of disadvantages to the Saudi employers. The process of getting a prospective employee from abroad involve so many paperwork and MONEY for all Saudis. This process is known to be very expensive and long. What happen if their maid escapes after just one week working and after spending all that much money to get her here?? So this is why some Saudis refuse to give a salary of their maids for the first one or two years because they fear that their maids will escape someday. Of course, this is not fair because they work for money, indeed! How can one work for two years without getting a salary?!?! They want to send their money home so that their children can survive and go to school, for God sake! So the government really needs to take a look at this problem seriously!!
Some people here treat the sponsorship procedures as a “business”. Now, what do I mean by that? Some sponsors blackmail their employees so that they can get extra money each time they do paperwork, e.g. renewal of residency permit, getting an exit/re-entry visa, etc. They charge their employees more than they suppose to! Imagine how the low-income people could pay so much money for the renewal of their visa! Unfortunately, there are no rules currently present about overcharging the employees, so many people are being disadvantaged, I have to say. There are also no government bodies currently set up to solve the problems that I mentioned above, i.e. to make sure that the salary is being paid for, to make sure that the employees are not overworked, and to make sure that no rules are violated. So we all hope the new system is going to handle those problems in an efficient way 🙂