Saudis commit to labor policy reforms

Saudi Arabia is pushing forward with changes to its labor policies following talks last fall with Qatar and Kuwait regarding the development of unified labor laws across the region.

The Gulf News Journal recently spoke with Joe Carella, an assistant dean of executive education at the University of Arizona who has trained Saudi executives at Xenel and Sabic.

Carella, who was traveling on the state of Saudi Arabia's workforce, said the Ministry of Labor and Social Development has launched several new initiatives, including the introduction of a work ethics code and a plan to require a quota on Saudi nationals in food industry businesses.

“The Saudi government is trying to better align work practices with business needs and the overall goal of higher Saudi national employment,” Carella said.

Some Gulf Coast countries have been under scrutiny for years over issues related to abusive labor practices. Qatar in particular has been the subject of various human rights reports and criticism for its labor practices.

While Saudi Arabia has not received the same degree of criticism, it has not been immune from these problems, as evidenced by a 2015 Human Rights Watch report that said the country continues to discriminate against women and other religions in its employment practices.

To that end, Saudi Arabia’s Labor and Social Development minister, Mufrej Al-Haqabani, chaired the meeting last fall and discussed work reforms in the group of nations that he said would “make the public and private sectors treat gulf countries’ citizens with total quality.”

Al-Haqabani also said such moves would promote volunteer work and bolster protections for people with disabilities in the member states, according to Arab News.

Talk of unified labor practices builds on past successes, such as the creation of a unified GCC maid contract approved in 2014. The contract bans employers from taking passports and supports the right of domestic workers to move freely around the host country and live outside of the employer's home.

Carella said unified GCC labor laws would be beneficial to both Saudi companies and individual workers.

“It expands the availability of talent and job opportunities in one move,” Carella said. “If aligned with the Tamkeen program, this move would also help the Saudi government with current unemployment. Overall, most GCC companies stand to benefit from the transfer of know-how and capabilities.”

Carella also identified Saudi needs for continued labor development: some technical skills, which he said are in short supply, industry-specific skill sets for all levels of staff, and, in particular, advanced leadership and management skills.

“It is not enough to develop individuals who can operate today’s advanced robotics,” Carella said. “These individuals should also learn how to support and service them.”

However, he said, experience in developing Saudi executives tells him that they are catching up to their global peers in managerial and leadership skills.
“There is an opportunity for growth in their ability to manage innovation, advance the digitization of their businesses and navigate today’s business disruption,” Carella said.