The employment of women both foreign and national in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long been the subject of debate and examination by the Ministry of Labour. The Ministry of Labour has long aimed at increasing the rate of KSA female participation in the workforce. There have been misconceptions on the ability of women to work in the Kingdom and it is important to note that the amended labour law has a number of provisions which are expected to encourage women working. In this article we examine the main regulations on the employment of women as well as the amended labour law provisions.

Women are permitted to work in KSA in accordance with cultural and religious norms which require that female employees are segregated from male colleagues in the workplace, with separate facilities, work stations and work place entrances. It is worth noting that observing such regulations can sometimes be conditions of a property lease for the use of office premises.  These restrictions remain important to observe as the Ministry of Labour has power to inspect the premises and order a temporary closure for remedial purposes.

Restrictions on Roles

In terms of the roles women can fulfil in the workplace there are no formal restrictions in place apart from an obligation on an employer to ensure the health and safety of all employees including female employees.  There is also a prohibition in the amended article 149 of the KSA Labour Code on the employment of a female employee in hazardous and detrimental jobs, with the Minister of Labour having authority to decide which professions would be hazardous and detrimental for a female employee to be engaged in.

There are twenty four prohibited site roles that are hazardous and detrimental, such as working within mines and quarries, sewage, construction work or renovation and anything that requires working on a scaffold or heights.  Women are also prohibited from working in asphalt production roles, car repair workshops, forges and many other related roles. The key being the physical element of such work which is regarded as overly strenuous for women.   Women can hold administrative positions within organisations operating in such sectors.  Their ability to hold professional roles within such sectors such as engineering or project management is less clear and would require further examination of the working conditions and interaction on site.

Greater Female Participation

Notwithstanding the potential restrictions on women outlined above, the Ministry of Labour has actively sought to increase female participation in the workplace by issuing regulations regarding the employment of women in factories, theme parks, retail outlets and more controversially ordering that all retail outlets for female lingerie should be staffed entirely by Saudi Arabian women.  These regulations have enabled employers to feel more confident about employing women and placing them within the work environment. It is also notable that amongst the new fines introduced in October 2015 to support enforcement of the amended KSA Labour Code, there is a fine applicable to female employees individually for not wearing the headscarf in the workplace as appropriate.  This new fine can be analysed as an acknowledgement that in certain roles or environments there may be greater interface between female employees and the public (for example at checkout counters in supermarkets).   It is also notable that due to the number of female teachers at all levels of education, the workforce female participation rate in KSA is higher than in certain other parts of the GCC.

Remote working has also been promoted to encourage women to work with the Ministry of Labour permitting remote working female employees to be counted under Nitiqat in accordance with the employer’s Nitiqat rating.  The Human Resources Development Fund also has a subsidy programme for employers operating remote working for women under which funds for training and reimbursement of salary costs can be granted.

Family Friend Rights under the Amended Labour Code

Even prior to amendment the KSA Labour Code contained a number of provisions protected female employees who took maternity leave such as the provision prohibiting termination of employment or the issue of a warning during maternity leave, or due to the employee’s maternity or illness resulting from maternity and childbirth.

Under the amended Labour Code, female employees are now entitled to maternity leave with full pay for ten weeks (regardless of length of service), compared to a four-week paid leave prior to the amendments.  Further, if the new born infant is ill or has special needs, she is entitled an additional fully paid leave of one month leave commencing after expiration of the core maternity leave period. 

Another key amendment is to bring the leave entitlement for a Muslim female employee whose husband passes away in line with the Islamic requirement.  Muslim female employees are now entitled to the prescribed period of "Iddah" of four months and ten days from the husband's death date, to comply with the Shariah Law.

Moving Forward

The KSA authorities and Ministry of Labour in particular are clearly keen to create job opportunities for women and there is anecdotal evidence that recruitment of female employees has worked extremely well for large multinationals; of note is the Tata/GE venture to create a call centre staffed entirely by women.  The economic need for KSA women to participate in the workplace is growing and they have a key contribution to the development of the Kingdom. In the coming years, we expect to see greater measures to encourage women to work including the encouragement of part time work.  The Ministry of Labour has been holding workshops in key centres across the Kingdom to inform women of their rights to work and it has also conducted a social media campaign to promote their employment.