A news item that appeared in Al-Hayat daily caught my attention. It stated that the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) has signed an agreement with several recruitment committees in the Kingdom to follow up on the cases of housemaids who have been deprived of the right to contact their families or receive their salaries.
This disclosure by Dr. Mufleh Al-Qahtani, its chairman, is a welcome sign that the society is serious that violations will no longer be tolerated.
And it is a welcome sign. For a long time Gulf countries have been in the spotlight of the international media due to the alleged mistreatment of household helpers in those states. And in many cases extreme treatment such as physical and mental torture was meted out to these hopeless people coming from far away places to a strange land with different language and customs.
The problem, as I see it, is twofold. The recruitment agencies in their home countries contribute to this by providing false information and thus an accountant finds himself working as a shepherd in a remote farm.
The plight of workers
While welcoming this move I would also request Minister of Labor Adel Fakieh to also cooperate with the NSHR and look into the plight of workers who are stranded here for many reasons.
Firstly, it is due to the non-implementation of the rules and regulations, the slow bureaucratic procedures and no recourse to legal assistance by the expatriate worker.
And over the years, I have heard, read and listened to personally the plight of these poor people.
While the Nitaqat system provides flexibility for movement from red (those who have not met Saudization targets) to green (those who have) companies, many organizations do not allow that. In one instance an employee was told to forfeit his end of service benefits.
On other occasions some of these small companies charge an arm and a leg to let someone go. And in the cases of red companies where all government procedures are stopped, iqamas suspended and what not, the worker suffers. He cannot access his bank account, renew his license or let his children attend school. Movement is restricted, causing physical and emotional stress.
While I am a strong advocate of nationals getting jobs, I find that in the 21st century and with glittering examples of advanced countries there are other avenues of employment creation – namely SMEs, financing of young people, developing their entrepreneurial skills and a host of other strategic methods.
But going back to the labor issue, let us look deeply into issues of non-payment of salaries, delays, changing of contracts and confiscation of passports. How are we going to resolve them?
While expatriates whose contracts have expired or been nullified are asked to go home, we are still getting people from outside. If a proper implementation of the Nitaqat program is done, it could alleviate some of the travails of these expatriates.
And this does not focus at labor/worker level but extends to senior job levels. We therefore end up with a large number of uncertain, unhappy and worried groups.
And the argument that the labor courts will decide the outcome of such cases does not hold water. The miles of red tape that have to be unwound, language barriers and unprofessional attitudes create a vacuum.
It creates an atmosphere of hopelessness. It also gives rise to a greedy group ready to exploit the situation of these expatriates and make monetary gain.
Judges and investigators should be introduced to the proper mechanisms to understand the law’s applications. There should be speedy disposal of workers’ grievances.
I could go on and on. But there has to be a will to put a stop to all this, once and for all.
Both the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah and Crown Prince Salman have reiterated that the welfare of all in this country, including expatriates, is paramount.
When the Jeddah floods occurred, the compensation plan cut across all nationalities, races and religion.
In fact, an expatriate walked in my office with a letter of gratitude to King Abdullah. These expatriates have come to the country to work on a contract. They have worked and helped in the development of this country. Many have lived here for years and their children grew up. For them this is home.
The least we can do is to honor our commitment to them, and penalize those who exploit them.
Khaled Almaeena is a veteran Saudi journalist, commentator, businessman and the editor-in-chief of the Saudi Gazette. Almaeena has held a broad range of positions in Saudi media for over thirty years, including CEO of a PR firm, Saudi Television news anchor, talk show host, radio announcer, lecturer and journalist. As a journalist, Almaeena has represented Saudi media at Arab summits in Baghdad, Morocco and elsewhere. In 1990, he was one of four journalists to cover the historic resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Russia. He also traveled to China as part of this diplomatic mission. Almaeena's political and social columns appear regularly in Gulf News, Asharq Al-Aswat, Al-Eqtisadiah, Arab News, Times of Oman, Asian Age and The China Post.