Marwah was among 12,000 Indonesian workers waiting on June 9 in suffocating 110-degree heat outside the Jeddah consulate. Then a rumor started that it would be the last day to process travel documents. People started throwing stones, lit a fire against the consulate wall, and Marwah, a 57-year-old woman from East Java, was caught in the stampede.
Indonesian consulate officials claim she was already ill and had died from heat exhaustion.
Under Saudi Arabia’s work visa system, people are kept in a state of permanent dependency on their sponsors. A worker can’t quit or change jobs, can’t invite a spouse or children to join her, or exit the country without her employer-sponsor’s permission. But the most common reason for people without proper papers is that they have escaped from their sponsors and are working illegally for others.
Many people waiting outside the Indonesian consulate had slept on the ground overnight. A second woman, Qoriah binti Ahmad Irfan, survived the violence but returned the following day. She was taken to hospital, where she also died from exhaustion.
Two weeks later, I was bussed with other teachers to an immigration office in Riyadh’s Al Khazan district. As an immigration worker collected our passports to re-register our expired exit visas, outside our bus windows thousands of Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, and Filipino men waited on a line snaking down several city blocks. There was the scorching sun, the thick smell of dust. And the men, silent.
Foreign workers make up one-third of the Kingdom’s population. Eight million of those workers are documented, but most people needing their papers corrected are choosing to leave rather than transferring sponsorship to another employer.
All this last year, in an attempt to create more jobs for Saudi citizens—unemployment among young people may be as high as 40 percent—the government has started fining companies who have not hired at least one Saudi for every 10 foreign workers. (In November, it’ll go 1:1.) There are no official statistics for poverty in the Kingdom, but in December 2011, three young journalists were jailed for several days for posting a video in which they claimed 22 percent of Saudis live below the poverty line.
Saudization is also designed to curb the number of foreign workers allowed, but from the multiple extensions of legalization deadlines, it seems the government has no idea of the time needed to do so.
Before the first legalization deadline of April 3, over 200,000 people were deported from raids on labor camps and inspections in shops, offices, and schools. Then, in response to the business community complaining of workers running away from job sites, King Abdullah declared the first amnesty period to end on July 3.
In that first amnesty, about 1.5 million people had come forward, with a million of those leaving the country voluntarily.
Yet, Khalaf Al-Otaibi, chairman of the Building and Construction Committee of the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce, said that the labor ministry had not issued directives of how to legalize people’s status until mid-May, halfway through the amnesty.By late June, according to the Ministry of Labor, another 2.5 million people still needed their status corrected. With so many people stranded or desperate to hold onto income, on July 2, King Abdullah then declared a second grace period to end on November 3.
Or so I learned later. On July 1, I was on a plane out of the country, my contract cut short. Teachers used to be able to work on visit visas, rather than the iqama, the residency work permit—and so it wasn’t until after 30 hours of travel that I read of the extension.
But 4 million people were and are in need of “correction”? I can’t get my head around that number. So let me give you a few examples of how people can be cheated or abused, people that were part of my life in Saudi.
An Indian man in his 50s left his native Kerala decades ago when his rice wholesaling business failed. “I couldn’t afford the bribes,” he told me. After the company he drove 12 years for in Qatar closed, he accepted a job offer to work in Saudi Arabia—except that after paying his airfare and landing in Riyadh, he could not find his sponsoring contractor. Disappeared. For six months he worked “here and there,” he said, until penniless he went to the police. I believe what happened was that the police referred him to the labor board, who in turn found him legitimate sponsorship. He appeared too embarrassed to tell me where he had slept during those six months, and whether he had paid for his visa fee himself.
But foreigners desperate for work are often willing to pay for sponsorship, and sponsoring expatriates has become a lucrative business for both recruiters in home countries—and for Saudi contractors. According to Arab News, there are 1.1 million companies in Saudi Arabia’s private sector, and 11 percent of them exist only to get visas for foreign workers. Many companies issue bogus contracts, as the Indian man experienced.
Now in Saudi Arabia for six years, he works as a house driver, for a family whose children I tutored. But what kind of life is it when you have missed watching your own children grow up, and on brief trips home, see your wife every other year?
The salary for house drivers, as required by Saudi law, is 1500 riyals ($400) a month. $13 a day. And for that, he drives the mother and children to school, shopping, hospital and family visits; picks up groceries, dry-cleaning; and maintains the car and yard.
I do believe the majority of sponsors treat their workers with respect—as I’ve watched the mother and children do. The problem is the restrictions of the sponsorship system and the demeaning conditions under which people work. The Indian man lives in a room tucked behind the compound manager’s office. “I have a bed. I cook a little. Curry, what else?” he says, smiling. “Restaurants are good for some people.”
Another house driver from Nepal knows exactly how he had been cheated. One evening at a stop light, he stared at headlights glinting in the dusk, and said, “Saudi no good.” His contractor assured him he would drive for a luxury hotel, a job he’d given up in Kathmandu, and a job he was told in Saudi would be, as he said to me, “Regular schedule. Pay high.” But then he learned that only house driver jobs were available and if he didn’t like that, he could leave.
Workers must carry their residency work permits with them at all times, but passports are held by their sponsors. And if a worker does file a complaint with the Labor Board, he or she is not allowed to work during the months that a case is pending.
The Nepalese man, with a family dependent on his income, says, “How can I go home?”
There is yet another category of workers—the 2 or 3 million people who have no papers whatsoever and for whom no amnesty is offered. In the midst of the crackdown, the Yemeni men working as cleaners in my hotel disappeared. The last man to leave told me in Arabic, “Big, big problem.”Incredibly, Saudi Arabia is second only to the U.S. in remittances sent home from workers. (In 2012, workers in the U.S. remitted $40 billion, while people working in Saudi sent home an estimated $29 billion.) About a million Yemenis work in Saudi, and Yemen—the poorest Arab country and a country bombarded by a renewed surge of U.S. drone strikes—has warned that the thousands of daily deportations could further destabilize its fragile government.
Yemenis yanked from job sites and being sent home by the planeful are returning to families who have nothing.
I learned of Rizana Nafeek from media outside Saudi Arabia, and I doubt she was thinking of remittances when on January 9, she came under the sword in the dusty town square of Dawadmi, 200 kilometers west of Riyadh, far from her lush Sri Lankan jungles and beaches.
In 2005, she had been in the country for 6 weeks when the family she worked for accused her of strangling their 4-month-old baby. Rizana said the infant accidentally choked on bottle-fed milk, but there is some question about whether the milk that dribbled out of the baby’s mouth meant he had already stopped breathing.
She was beaten into signing a confession in Arabic, a language she did not understand, and in her 2007 trial, she had no access to lawyers or translators. The family refused to accept blood money as compensation.
Human rights groups appealed against the death penalty, arguing that at the time of the baby’s death, the court had failed to recognize that Rizana was a minor. A recruitment agency had falsified her passport to allow her to travel to Saudi Arabia. The agents claimed she was 24 but at the time, she was only 17.
She had wanted to earn money to help relatives back home who had been displaced by the massive 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia, Nepal, and Ethiopia have, at one time or another, placed limits or outright bans on sending workers into Saudi Arabia—mostly because maids have been abused. Although figures for most nationalities are harder to come by, at least 45 Indonesian women are now on death row, accused of such crimes as fornication, witchcraft and sorcery, and killing sponsors who have beaten or raped them.
A few days after Rizana’s execution, a Filipina who manages a salon told me she wasn’t surprised that Rizana’s agent had lied about her age. “People are so desperate to find work.” When the Filipina first came to Saudi Arabia 20 years ago, she worked in a salon where after hours, their minder kept her and the other hairdressers locked in an apartment upstairs. “Once every two months, we were let out to some cheap discount store, where there was nothing to buy. For five years! I don’t know how I did it,” she said.
Now under different sponsorship, she regularly visits the Filipino Embassy, which is filled, she said, with maids and other women who have escaped their employers. “It’s nothing but a kind of social welfare.”
The embassy can’t buy their tickets home, so many women are stuck for months. She described one woman who looked as if she had lost her mind. She was emaciated; her bed was filthy. “She could no longer take care of herself. I bring them cans of food.”
The Kingdom has taken steps towards better monitoring of the sponsorship system. This last year, the Saudi cabinet authorized 10 “mega” agencies to oversee a worker’s entire stay in the country, including recruitment and ensuring workers’ financial rights. The agencies are slated to start work after the current amnesty expires in November.
Also on July 17, the Saudi cabinet approved a law that’s chiefly remarkable, in my mind, for exposing what people must endure. The new law guarantees domestic workers and house drivers a one-month paid vacation every two years, one day off a week, and a daily work limit of 15 hours.
Suspending the sponsorship system, the source of so much abuse, is on the table—but at the moment the focus is on increasing jobs for Saudis. Or as reported by the Saudi Gazette, a labor ministry official said, “Abolishing the kafeel system for foreign manpower will create chaos in the labor market.”
Finally, the U.S. has placed Saudi Arabia on a watch list of countries that engage in human trafficking, but I wonder if our officials are more concerned with a 2010 U.S.-Saudi $60 billion weapons deal.
So much self-interest. So much disparity between affluence and barely making it.
On the night of June 30, hours before I was due at the airport, I called my favorite taxi driver, a Pakistani man I’ll call Ahmed, for help in finding an exchange broker. He drove me to Battah, a bustling market district in the heart of Riyadh that with its shops and food stalls provides a slice of home for the city’s Asian workers. As Ahmed stood guard, and as I shoved two bricks of 50-riyal notes under the glass, and then counted my stack of hundred-dollar bills, dozens of men pressed against us, waiting their turn. My severance pay equaled what many of them might earn in three years.
Ahmed is saving for his wedding, for perhaps next year, after which he’ll return to Saudi Arabia. Without tuition money, he had dropped out of pre-med studies in Pakistan—draining his country of at least one man’s talents.
Or, as one of my Saudi students said one day, after her classmates had disrespected foreigners, “Who do you think built this country?” She stamped her foot. “Or this building?”
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