Dr. Khaled Batarfi
"Arabnews" Sunday, 18, June, 2006
Let me begin by quoting a letter from an expatriate:
“We were talking about the stock market crash when my Arab friend suddenly said: Many Saudis are trying to figure out why Allah is punishing them so hard. Of the reasons they came up with, moral decadence tops the list. I agree, but not from the same perspective. By moral decadence, they mean materialism, commercialism, dating, indecent entertainment, and less religious devotion and mosque going.
I see it from a different perspective. As a long-term expatriate, I can testify to how tough it is for foreigners to work and live in your country.
I can talk from now to the wee hours of the morning about what many employers are doing to their ‘sponsored’ employees and how the system is less than just to us.
Take me as an example. I signed a contract with a company for a certain salary and benefits. After the company became my sponsor, the contract was suddenly changed, duties were increased and rewards reduced.
I could have gone to the Labor Bureau, but I’d need an expensive lawyer. Besides, I’d have to stay home for a while without any source of income. In addition, in retaliation, my sponsor could accuse me of any number of things, from laziness to theft. He has all the power, connections and tools, and I don’t. So I decided to accept the new terms and stay on.
Like me, thousands get their salaries late, sometimes after months. Others are sent home without compensation or left in the street to find jobs and then pay part of their wages back to the sponsor for keeping them sponsored. And don’t tell me they should complain. You know what it is like when they do it. Their employer could report them to the authorities as absconders. Once captured, they get sent home after staying for a while in the infamous ‘deportation facilities’.
In conclusion, I say: To please Allah, Saudis must re-evaluate the way they treat their guest workers.”
I was ashamed to say much in defense. While, I hope, the majority of Saudi employers are decent and just, too many are not. We have heard stories about the abuse and harassment of nurses, maids and domestic servants. However, we didn’t hear of major changes to labor laws that would prevent such abuses. I understand that the government cannot enter every house, know about every case and protect every expatriate. The authorities cannot, by their nature, interfere in a dispute if the parties didn’t ask for interference. But nongovernmental organizations concerned with human rights can actively seek and find these cases. On behalf of the victims, they should sue the offenders and collect compensations. Hot lines to concerned authorities and organizations should be established, publicized and given to every expatriate on arrival. Random checks on work places and interviews with employees should be conducted. Recently allowed, labor committees in private companies should be activated and given more powers and authority to look after members, like any decent union would.
In addition, we have to be strict with abusers. Punishment must fit the crime. Long prison terms and hefty financial penalties should apply to serious cases of abuse, for males and females alike.
Our media should extensively cover these cases, and publish the proceedings and penalties. Offenders should know what awaits them if they misbehave; we should make it crystal clear to potential abusers that we have a zero-tolerance policy for such crimes.
Major changes to the sponsorship laws are long overdue. So are better facilities and higher capacities for the offices of the Labor Ministry that deal with labor disputes. A worker cannot wait forever without a source of income hoping for a verdict in his favor. Many are driven to despair because it takes too long, sometimes years to get justice.
The human rights body should focus more on the problem. We should encourage them and charity organizations to facilitate and provide services to guest workers under stress, including safe havens, social, medical and psychological consultations and legal representations.
This is much more important than fixing the stock market. If we do that, we could assure our position as the Kingdom of Humanity, the moral authority and leading inspirer to the Muslim world.