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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Washington, Nov 30: US President-elect Joe Biden on Monday named Janet Yellen as his Treasury Secretary and Indian-American Neera Tanden as Director of Office of Management and Budget, as he announced key members of his economic team.

If confirmed by the US Senate, Yellen, 74, will be the first woman to lead the Treasury Department in its 231-year history, and the first person to have served as Treasury Secretary, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Chair of the Federal Reserve. She has previously been confirmed by the Senate on four separate occasions.

Tanden, 50, if confirmed by the Senate, would be the first woman of colour and first Indian-American to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).

Tanden's career has focused on pursuing policies designed to support working families, foster broad-based economic growth, and curb rampant inequality.

"Another proud day for Indian Americans to see Neera Tanden be nominated for a Cabinet level position in the next administration. This position at OMB is a wide-ranging role with broad powers to manage trillions of dollars of the US budget. If anyone had any doubts that our community has arrived politically, this election cycle is proof enough," Indiaspora founder M R Rangaswami, and an eminent philanthropist and venture capitalist, told PTI.

Announcing key members of his economic team, Biden also named Wally Adeyemo, as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury; Cecilia Rouse as Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers; and Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, as members of the Council of Economic Advisers. Biden would formally introduce his team on Tuesday.

This crisis-tested team will help Biden administration lift America out of the current economic downturn and build back better creating an economy that gives every single person across America a fair shot and an equal chance to get ahead, the transition said.

These choices reflect the president-elect's commitment to building an administration that looks like America, drawing on the diverse backgrounds and lived experiences of some of our nation's foremost economic experts, it said.

"As we get to work to control the virus, this is the team that will deliver immediate economic relief for the American people during this economic crisis and help us build our economy back better than ever," Biden said in a statement.

This team is comprised of respected and tested groundbreaking public servants who will help the communities hardest hit by COVID-19 and address the structural inequities in our economy, he said.

"They will work tirelessly to ensure every American enjoys a fair return for their work and an equal chance to get ahead, and that our businesses can thrive and outcompete the rest of the world. This team looks like America and brings seriousness of purpose, the highest degree of competency, and unwavering belief in the promise of America. They will be ready on day one to get to work for all Americans," Biden said.

According to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, this outstanding economic team will help the Biden administration deliver on its commitment.

"They are not only some of America's most brilliant economic minds, they are also proven leaders who reflect the very best of our country," she said.

"And they share a fundamental commitment to ending this economic crisis and putting people back to work, while rebuilding our economy in a way that lifts up all Americans. With the selection of these crisis-tested public servants, the American people are getting the economic team they need and deserve," Harris said.

Adeyemo, a veteran of the Executive Branch and expert on macro-economic policy and consumer protection with deep national security experience, has previously served as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, Deputy National Security Advisor, and the first Chief of Staff of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If confirmed, Adeyemo would be the first African-American Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.

Rouse is a leading labour economist and the Dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. She has previously been confirmed by the Senate as a member of the CEA in 2009. If confirmed, she will become the first African-American and just the fourth woman to lead the CEA in the 74 years of its existence.

Bernstein had previously served as Chief Economist to President-elect Biden in the first years of the Obama-Biden administration. Heather Boushey is a distinguished economist focused on economic inequality and the President, CEO, and co-founder of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.