Saudi Arabia has decided to ease some of the contractual restrictions giving employers control over the lives of some 10 million migrant workers.
The reforms will allow private sector workers to change jobs and leave the country without an employer’s consent.
The Saudi government said it was seeking to “improve and increase the efficiency of the work environment”.
Rights groups say the current “kafala” system (sponsorship system) leaves workers vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
One activist described the reforms as significant, but cautioned that parts of the system remained in place and called for it to be abolished fully.
The Saudi ministry of human resources said the Labour Reform Initiative it unveiled on Wednesday would apply to all expatriates employed in the private sector and would take effect in March.
Those workers will no longer be required to obtain their employers’ consent to leave or change jobs, and they will be allowed to travel outside the kingdom without their employer’s approval.
They will also be able to apply directly for government services, and their contracts with their employers will be documented digitally.
“Through this initiative we aim to build an attractive labour market and improve the working environment,” Deputy Minister Abdullah bin Nasser Abuthunain told reporters in Riyadh.
He said the reforms would also help achieve the objectives of Vision 2030, the country’s plan to diversify its oil-dependent economy.
Human Rights Watch had documented how many employers had forced domestic workers to work long hours without rest or days off, denied them their wages, or confined them to their homes. Some workers had even been subjected to physical and sexual abuse.
And a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, Rothna Begum said even though the ministry’s announcement was “significant and could improve conditions for migrant workers” it still does not “fully abolition of the kafala system”.