Dubai: Saudi Arabia on Wednesday announced reforms that will abolish some key restrictions tying millions of low-paid and vulnerable migrant workers to their employers in conditions that have been rife with abuse and exploitation.

The Ministry of Human Resource and Social Development said the reforms will allow foreign workers the right to change jobs by transferring their sponsorship from one employer to another, leave and re-enter the country and secure final exit visas without the consent of their employer, which had long been required.

Deputy Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthnain said the new so-called Labour Relation Initiative is slated to come into effect in March 2021, affecting potentially around a third of Saudi Arabia's total population, or approximately 10 million foreign workers in the kingdom.

Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum said the information provided thus far shows Saudi authorities are removing some elements of the kafala" sponsorship system in place across multiple Gulf Arab states that tie foreign workers' legal status to their employer.

Qatar, which is preparing to host the next FIFA World Cup in 2022, has recently introduced similar changes to its labor laws.

Begum described the three changes to the Saudi law as significant steps that could improve migrant workers' conditions but cautioned it does not appear to be a full abolition of the kafala system.

Migrant workers still need an employer to sponsor them to come to the country and employers may still have control over their residency status, said Begum, whose work focuses on migrant rights, domestic workers, and women's rights in the Middle East.

Under Saudi Arabia's restrictive kafala system, workers had little power to escape abuse because their employers controlled their exit from the country and their ability to change jobs.

Begum recently wrote about how many employers exploited this control by taking workers' passports, forcing them to work excessive hours, and denying them wages. This has led to hundreds of thousands of workers fleeing their employers and becoming undocumented.

The reforms are part of a broader plan known as Vision 2030 spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to make the kingdom more attractive to foreign investors, expand the private sector and diversify the kingdom's oil-dependent economy.

Ali Mohamed, a researcher at Migrant Rights, said the kafala system will persist as long as both work and residence visas are tied to an individual, known as a kafeel or sponsor.

He also noted that widely-criticized conditions for migrants in Saudi detention centers exist regardless of the kafala system, although any move towards de-linking migrant workers from the control of a single sponsor will certainly benefit migrant workers and is to be welcomed.

May Romanos, a researcher on migrant rights in the Gulf with Amnesty International, said the devil is usually in the details and that until Saudi Arabia publishes the new reforms and fully enforces them it is very difficult to assess the impact these promises will have on the rights of migrant workers in the country.

It remains to be seen whether these latest changes to the labor law will apply to all migrant workers, including domestic workers like maids and nannies, Begum said.

Additionally, the information released does not specify whether employers can report workers for absconding. Begum said if an employer reports a worker for absconding or is able to cancel a worker's visa before that person can request a transfer of employment, they can become undocumented in the country and then liable to arrest and deportation.

This is why a full abolition (of kafala) is necessary. Partial reforms like removing the need for employer consent to change employers and leave the country are significant, but workers can become trapped in other ways when such elements remain, Begum said. 

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Bengaluru, Jun 12: Karnataka police on Saturday said they have busted a Rs 290 crore plus scam that involved duping people through a mobile app after promising attractive interest on investment and two Chinese nationals were among the nine arrested.

The scam, aided by shell companies, is linked to money laundering and the suspected kingpin is a Kerala based business man with proximity to Chinese 'hawala' operators, they said.

Cyber Crime Division of CID said it has arrested accused persons, including two Chinese nationals, two Tibetans and five others acting as directors of the companies involved, and a search is on for the rest.

A complaint from Razor pay Software Private Limited said accused persons availed 'payment solutions' from them, claiming that they are in gaming, social and e-commerce businesses.

They, however, defrauded the company by using computer resources and by deviating from their original, registered line of business, the plaint said.

They started routing their transactions to collect payments from a different business named "Powerbank", an app listed in Google Playstore, cyber police said in a release.

Through customer complaints, the complainant company got to know that public invested money in the "Powerbank" app to earn interest on the invested amount.

The accused persons, after accepting the investments, neither gave the agreed interest nor the principal amount and cheated customers.

A case was registered under the Information Technology Act and 420 IPC (Cheating), the CCD said and added that the investigating team were successful in arresting nine men.

During investigation, it was found that Anas Ahmed, a Kerala based businessman, is the main person involved.

"We have also identified that he has very proximate connections with the Chinese hawala operators, which has come to light during the course of the investigation.

He had opened shell companies in the name of Bull Finch Technologies, H & S ventures and Clifford ventures to route the fraud money. Anas Ahamed is married to Chinese national and incidentally he did his studies in China," police said in the release.

Online applications hosted by him were later camouflaged and converted into different apps including Power Bank application, seeking investment from the public and promising good returns, the CCD said.

An unusual spike was seen in investments on the day Anees Ahmed announced much higher returns.

Subsequently, such apps were removed from Google Playstore and other websites and he absconded with the money.

Investigation showed Rs 290 crore inflow into his bank accounts and the CCD was successful in freezing a significant portion of it. There was a huge spike in opening of shell companies since November 2020.

"We have also observed that the Chinese handlers are in possession of a huge number of shell companies and bank accounts. Lured by the offer of the Chinese nationals, many innocent Indians and Tibetans have fallen in their trap to open shell companies and open bank accounts for them."