Saudi Arabia has for the first time criminalised workplace harassment, the latest in a series of employment-related reforms aimed at modernising workforce practices in the country.

New draft legislation approved by the Shura Council introduces sentences of up to two years in prison and fines reaching SAR100,000 (US$26,600) for “the crime of harassment”. Sentences of five years and SAR300,000 (US$80,000) can be handed out in certain circumstances, including if the harassment specifically occurs in the workplace.

The move was immediately welcomed by female Shura members, including Hoda Al-Helaissi, who told the Saudi Gazette it was “of extreme importance”. Meanwhile, Dr Latifa Al Shaalan added: “It fills a large legislative vacuum, and it is a deterrent system when compared with a number of similar laws in other countries.”

The legislation will become law when it receives a royal decree. It is the latest stage in a lengthy modernisation drive spearheaded by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, which includes the relaxation of the ban of women driving cars.

Saudi Arabia undoubtedly has serious issues around harassment of women. A large-scale 2016 study conducted by the Institute for International Research suggested that 37 per cent of Saudi women had been subjected to verbal sexual harassment and 25 per cent had been physically harassed. It found complaints around harassment had risen by around 11 per cent in two years.

The country has attempted a number of previous measures to tackle the problem. Most notably, in 2015 a charter for private sector employers formally made harassment a sackable offence. But this is the first time criminal sanctions have been applied.

The Kingdom is introducing a range of workplace-related reforms amid its modernisation drive, under the broader banner of the Vision 2030. The Ministry of Labour and Social Development recently announced the formation of the country’s first occupational health and safety management service, in order to emphasis the importance of safer workplaces and better reporting of safety violations.

Expected to become operational from July 2018, the new service will be backed by inspections of workplaces and the introduction of helpline service for employees, the Ministry said.

The government has also introduced a range of fines for violation of labour laws relating to employee holidays, health and safety and other practices. These include an SAR15,000 bill for safety breaches, SAR10,000 for allowing the violation of work permit terms and SAR2,000 for retaining an employee’s passport or medical card without their consent.

At the same time, as People Management reported last month, the Saudi labour market is undergoing a profound demographic shift. In the final quarter of 2017, more than 450,000 expat workers were reported to have left the country, while 100,000 Saudi nationals entered employment.

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