Migrant workers in Saudi Arabia after a crackdown checking their documents (AFP)
In recent times amendments have been made to Labour Law in Saudi Arabia to protect the rights of both foreign and Saudi workers, at least that is the theory but is it working in practise? Not according to Farooq Khan who fears that labourers are being left unprotected and wants to highlight what he feels is an unjust system.
Mr Khan (real name protected) describes himself as a graduate from a middle class family in Pakistan who moved to Saudi with the hope of improving his prospects as he felt there was little chance of achieving this in his home country. He stated, “when it came to the stage that a graduate has zero chance to become a successful person then I decided to prove myself in Saudi Arabia with a ‘do or die’ philosophy of my own and gain my success, by the blessing of God I achieved my goal.”
Khan now works as an accountant for a contracting company but his work life took a turn for the worse when he was accused of sheltering residents (those granted a resident’s permit to work in Saudi) which he strenuously denies. He claims workers were sleeping near to his room and that their resident permits were finished due to their sponsors demanding 5000 to 10000 S.R. (Saudi Riyal) to transfer them to other companies. He was sent to jail for two days but stresses he is not the owner of building where the workers were found and that the “illegals” had their own rent contract with the building owner. After 48 hours he was taken out of custody with the help of his company who supplied paperwork to the authorities explaining his position.
The accountant claims that there is no proof against him, all his papers are legal and though he was only in prison for a short time he is speaking out “for the sake of the poor people” adding “who said slavery is finished!”
Recently, there has been a clampdown on migrant workers from authorities claiming high unemployment, wanting to ensure Saudis are kept in work. They also claim a “black market” in foreign workers.
With regard to the workers that Mr Khan is accused of sheltering, the amended Labour Law states that an employer should obtain written permission from the worker before transferring him to another place. An employer can ask an employee to work in a different place in emergency situations however the length of time this can be applied should not exceed 30 days in a year. The employer is also required to meet the worker’s transfer and residency expenditure during that period NOT extract money from him or her.
Khan now has some questions for the Saudi government on their amended Labour Law.
Firstly, he wants to know why the Saudis keep issuing resident visas if, as he read, there is increasing unemployment for Saudis themselves. He argues, if the Labour authorities feel foreign workers are a problem due to shortage of jobs, they should stop issuing so many visas instead of making life difficult for them. Khan asks, how is it possible in the modern world that the government allows Saudi citizens to take their salaries out of the residents’ pockets?
Secondly, the system is such that those with resident permits are required to pay a minimum 100 US dollars a month cash tax (which is a higher tax than locals) and a yearly renewal fee as well as traffic taxes. As the Saudi government are making good income from residents’ taxes, why are they so afraid that residents transfer money to their own countries?
Thirdly, has the Saudi government noticed that not even 5% of residents want to test out the Labour courts because there is only a 1% chance of benefiting from the courts and this is more by luck than fair judicial process. Because of this, residents prefer to violate the law, not go to court and compromise on their rights. How can these problems be addressed? It is the job of government to review their Labour Law and facilitate residents to uphold their rights. Do the authorities want residents to vacate Saudi for good and lose many hardworking migrants? Khan also made a request to the Saudi government not to torture residents every month with new laws.
Human rights groups have for some time raised concerns regarding how Gulf States treat their foreign workers including Saudi Arabia. Over 9 million of Saudi Arabia’s 28 million inhabitants are foreigners so it is important to protect those that may be vulnerable from exploitation.
Only today Reuters is reporting the death of an expatriate, Egyptian man and 9 others including 4 Yemenis injured at a holding facility for foreign workers near the holy city of Mecca. It is claimed there was an altercation on Sunday at al-Shemaisi where visa irregularities are investigated. Teargas was alleged to have been used against the workers. This would seem like a good time to consider Mr Khan’s concerns.
At this present time, there is no law with regard to the granting of citizenship for foreign workers that have often spent many years of their lives in Saudi. Khan feels that this should also be addressed by human rights organizations.
Last year the International Organization for Migration (IOM) highlighted that Saudi Arabia had rounded up 12,000 Somalis and expelled them to their war-torn and lawless homeland, without giving them any opportunity to ask for asylum.
Khan also raised the case of a Pakistani resident in Al-Kharj who poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire at a gas station. This act of self immolation was in response to learning that his sponsor had obtained a final exit visa for him. Again this draws attention to the insecure position of a migrant worker. Khan fears that there are thousands of cases concerning human rights violations but many are never reported.
Khan’s parting words to me have already become a reality for some migrants workers, he said, “I am afraid if tomorrow I died in Saudi Arabia, I am sure 100 % nobody will came to know how and why I died there, its a high risk to live in Saudi.”
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.