Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Saudi Arabia

Publisher International Trade Union Confederation
Publication Date 20 November 2008
Cite as International Trade Union Confederation, 2008 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights - Saudi Arabia, 20 November 2008, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4c52ca71c.html [accessed 31 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Population: 24,700,000
Capital: Riyadh
ILO Core Conventions Ratified: 29 – 100 – 105 – 111 – 182

The new Labour Code does not give workers the right to organise, bargain collectively or strike, but there are signs that the government is making moves to improve employment rights. Migrant workers, particularly women, live in conditions of "involuntary servitude".

Trade union rights in law

New labour legislation but no trade union rights: The new Labour Code that was adopted in September 2005 came into force in April 2006. It was drafted without any input from workers' representatives. It still does not grant workers the right to organise, bargain collectively or strike. While it improves women's opportunity to work by opening more sectors where they will be allowed to work, there is no sign of the promised protection for female domestic workers.

The law still only allows for workers' committees. Trade unions and strikes are banned. Whoever tries to form a union can be dismissed, imprisoned or (in the case of the huge number of migrant workers) deported. Protest action is made difficult by the heavy limitations on the right of association. Public demonstrations of a political nature are prohibited, as is collective bargaining. There is no minimum wage.

Workers' committees: Since 2002, Saudi workers have the right to set up workers' committees in workplaces where more than 100 workers are employed. These committees aim to find a "means of dialogue between the employee and employers in order to improve the level of work performance and eliminate technical and material obstacles impeding that".

Activities heavily circumscribed: Only one committee can be formed in each qualifying enterprise. The government approves the statutes of the committees. The main tasks of the committees are limited to providing recommendations on issues such as improving working conditions, health and safety standards and training, and increasing productivity. The Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and management both have the right to send a representative to committee meetings. Minutes of the meetings must be submitted to management, who then pass them on to the Minister.

Committee members are chosen by the workers of the company but must be approved by the Minister of Labour. Foreign workers are not allowed to serve on committees, although committees are allowed to represent their views. The Ministry of Labour may dissolve a workers' committee should it violate regulations or threaten public security.

Reforms could create employment rights tribunal: In October the government said it would set up a tribunal to deal with employment rights as part of a move to develop a justice system.

Trade union rights in practice and Violations in 2007

Associations: A regional collective of taxi drivers has existed for several years, and professional associations grouping computer experts, economists and engineers also exist. However, their scope of action is very limited.

No collective bargaining: Wages are fixed by employers, based on the nature of the work and the nationality of the worker. Even in big multinational companies, Saudi and Western employees are paid at least 30 to 50 per cent more than workers from other parts of the world.

Workers rights' panel rejected: At the end of 2007, a proposal to set up a workers' rights panel to protect rights and tackle unemployment was rejected by the Ministry of Labour. The recently established Saudi Society of Labour had planned to offer training to women and hire lawyers to handle labour disputes.

Work stoppages: Despite the ban on strikes, there have been occasional work stoppages in recent years, usually to protest against nonpayment of wages.

Plan to reduce foreign workforce: Over 67 per cent of the workforce is foreign, holding between 90-95 per cent of private sector jobs. Under the new labour law, the government has raised the minimum requirement of Saudis employed in companies to 75 per cent but allows for this percentage to be reduced if there is a shortage of qualified nationals to fill the posts. The government has also reserved 22 job sectors for Saudis, including public relations, clerical positions, storekeepers, postal services, car sales and tourist guides.

Exploitation of migrant workers: Many foreign workers live in conditions of "involuntary servitude". The law prohibits employers retaining foreign employees' passports without their consent, but many still do confiscate passports. Some domestic servants turn to labour courts to get unpaid wages, which usually ruled in their favour, but this can take months.

Women migrant workers are frequently subjected to blatant abuse, such as nonpayment of wages, forced confinement, rape and physical violence. What is more, migrant workers are regularly condemned to death and executed.

Under increasingly intensive international pressure, the government has introduced some meagre reforms aimed in particular at improving the lot of foreign workers.

Migrant domestic workers accused of witchcraft: Migrant workers suing their employers for abuse or labour violations risk imprisonment and deportation as a result of spurious counter charges in a justice system skewed against them.

In one notorious case in August 2007, employers severely beat four Indonesian domestic workers, killing two of them and leaving the remaining two in hospital intensive care. The police then forcibly removed them from hospital to investigate charges of witchcraft brought by their employer and denied them access to the Indonesian Embassy.

In another case, an Indonesian domestic worker was sentenced to 10 years in prison for witchcraft, a reduction from the original death sentence. The Indonesian Embassy did not learn about the case until after sentencing.

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