By Kathryn Maureen Ryan
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Last week an amateur video showing a native Saudi man beating a migrant worker for allegedly talking to his wife sparked outrage in Saudi Arabia and around the world. The video highlighted the harsh reality of life for millions of migrant workers in the Arab state.

there are an estimated nine million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, many will have there passports confiscated under the Kafala System (Photo Courtesy of BBC News)

The Saudi government-backed Human Rights Commission has condemned the video. Mohammed Al-Madi, of the Human Rights Commission, said “We are taking this very seriously and are looking into it with Saudi security.” He added “We are doing our utmost to ensure the accused abuser is arrested and tried. We are also doing everything we can to find the abused man, so that we can help him in any way.”

An estimated nine million migrant workers live in Saudi Arabia. Migrant workers make up more than half of the state’s workforce mostly filing manual, clerical and services possessions.

Legal migration into the country depends on the Kafala system which requires migrant workers to be sponsored by their employer’s in order to enter and remain in the country. This system has been criticized by human rights organizations around the world. Human Rights Watch has called this system abusive saying that “the kafala, or sponsorship system ties migrant workers’ residency permits to sponsoring employers, whose written consent is required for workers to change employers or leave the country.”

Human Rights Watch argued that under the Kafala system “employers often abuse this power in violation of Saudi law to confiscate passports, withhold wages and force migrants to work against their will or on exploitative terms.”

Azfar Khan of with the International Labour Organization argued that the Kafala system allows for widespread abuses of labourers. Because many migrant workers are forced to surrender their passports upon entering many Arab states in the Middle East they become vulnerable to abuse.

“When the employer has that kind of power, then they can dictate the working conditions,” explains Khan. “Whether it’s a question of the wage rates, whether it’s a question of the work time. “Because legal residency under this system depends on employer sponsorship, rather than a system of residency less tied to individual employees, migrant workers are often suitable to workplace abuses out of feat that if they defy their bosses or quit their jobs they may be forced to leave the country.

In an effort to reduce the 12% unemployment rate among native Saudis the government announced that it would crack down on illegal migrant workers in the country.

On April 3, 2013 the Saudi government announced an amnesty period for illegal workers which would allow them to get their papers in order or leave the country without being penalized by the state.

The deadline passed on November 4th and one million worker are estimated to have left the country since the amnesty period began in April while four million are reported to have found employers to sponsor them under the kafala system, making these migrants dependent on their employers for their residency in the state.

For more information please see:

Al Jazeera – Should Saudi Arabia End Its Kafala System? – 4 November 2013

BBC News – Saudi Arabia Rounds Up Migrant Workers As Amnesty Ends – 4 November 2013

The Economic Times – 10,000 Sri Lankan Migrants Return On Saudi Amnesty – 4 November 2013

CNN International – Abuse Video Shocks Saudi Arabia – 4 November 2013

Human Rights Watch – Saudi Arabia: Protect Migrant Workers’ Rights – 2 July 2013

Author: Kathryn Maureen Ryan