90 days to right wrongs for Saudi Arabia’s guest workers

Somayya Jabarti
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Once again the King has graciously come to the rescue of what seems as another case of haphazard out-of-the-blue public activity (the pounce on guest workers illegally here or illegally working) granting us a three-month grace period to right all wrongs for guest workers.

Let me clarify and state for the record that though the grace period has been perceived as solely addressing guest workers to modify and legalize their residential statuses, this is not accurately so. This grace period is addressed to us. Yes it is down and up to Saudis to ensure the facilitation of this modification and legalization.


The relevant process and related procedures accommodating guest workers’ requirements, which ensure and guarantee the legality of their statuses or their safe exits, are in Saudi hands.

Somayya Jabarti

The task, responsibility and mission of modifying guest workers’ statuses is entirely ours. Yes, the relevant process and related procedures accommodating guest workers’ requirements, which ensure and guarantee the legality of their statuses or their safe exits, are in Saudi hands.

Question is: Can we accomplish the task at hand to serve all guest workers and address all issues in due time, keeping in mind the reality and state of our national manpower and work-pace? Can we?

Can we follow this “grace period” to the “T” making it a true period of grace? A period during which we behave or at least attempt to behave gracefully and cooperatively with guest workers — which would hopefully extend into becoming an official premise? Can we?

So what is the action plan? The clock is ticking and the countdown has already begun.

They want to know

Imtiaz, an Indian engineer, wants to know. He has been working for the past years iqama-less (without a visa) because his employer, who also has his passport, initially neglected then later on groundlessly refused to renew his iqama (residence permit). What happens to him? Why should he be deported and banned from working here when his sponsor is negligent?

Abdul-Haq, a Bangladeshi clerk, wants to know. His iqama as well as those of his five native co-workers are valid but their employer (also sponsor) has not paid their salaries since December 2011. Plus when Abdul-Haq attempted to transfer his sponsorship elsewhere, his employer threatened to deport his other fellow countrymen working at the company. Currently this employer, his company being in the red, is gearing up to give them an exit from the country. Are they to leave unpaid and return to their families empty-handed?

Karminti, an Indonesian housekeeper, who has ‘free-lanced’ her services for the past seven years, also wants to know what the action plan is. It would also be interesting to know, what was it that compelled her to flee her sponsors in the first place? She worked for them for two years during which she was not paid a dime, not allowed to contact her family back home. They also refused to hand over her passport and iqama when she asked to return to her country. Is her situation her fault? Are the “tar heel” dungeons her fate and only way out?

Justice could have had its day and plenty more had the Nitaqat system been in full gear on Nov. 27, 2011 as the Labor Minister stated. Had it been as such we all, host-workers and guest workers alike, would have been spared a big portion of the dilemma at hand today along with the frustration and humiliation.

What was it you said Mr. Labor Minister in 2011 regarding guest workers’ sponsorship transfer from red-ranked companies? Oh yes “job switching will take place without the consent of their initial ‘noncompliant’ employer and through a regulated mechanism to safeguard the rights of workers and owners.”

Well here’s a news flash: As far as most, if not all, of us know that to date the sponsorship transfer process remains color blind and guest workers still cannot transfer their sponsorship without a sponsor’s consent.

Let’s see what else did you say? “Before the year’s end there would be a wage protection system...and emergency 24/7 multilingual hot lines for complaints”. Right.

Lost in translation?

The Nitaqat website itself, which hosts all relevant information for guest workers, remains to date in Arabic and Arabic only though we were reassured then that “someone is working on making an English version and hopefully in less than three months it will be up and running.” That was 2011 folks.
So again I ask, what is the action plan?

What about the pending dues, months of unpaid salaries, owed to guest workers which Saudi employers are yet to cough up? The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) has said pay the worker before his/her sweat dries, yet many of a guest worker’s sweat has been falling for free and the process is repeated before they are grudgingly paid, that is if she/he ever gets paid at all. Will all guest workers having to exit the country be paid all their dues in due time?

What about the guest workers whose valid iqamas were clipped because they were found to be working for employers other than their sponsors which was permitted at the time: will their iqamas be re-issued in time for them to transfer their sponsorships or at least enable them to legally exit the country? And will those deported be returned and the detained be released?

And what happens to guest workers whose sponsors have wrongly reported them as “huroob” i.e. runaways? How will this be monitored and rectified?

Then there are the numerous expatriate women whose husbands legally reside and are employed here: how are they to be reinstated now that they too are officially permitted to work? And since the wives are allowed to do as such why not stretch the permit a little logically further to include daughters as well?

Many questions to be answered. Much more even to be done. All in n-i-n-e-t-y days.

Ninety days for us to redeem ourselves, to do what we have not done before and right the wrongs for guest workers. Even if I believe in miracles. Do you?

This article was first published in the Saudi Gazette on April 14, 2013.
Somayya Jabarti is the Deputy Editor of Saudi Gazette. Previously, Jabarti was the Deputy Editor of Arab News, a Saudi English newspaper based in Jeddah. Jabarti worked for Arab News for over nine years, where she started out as a local desk editor and advanced to become the Deputy National desk editor, then Executive Editor and later Managing Editor. She is currently the first Saudi woman to make Managing Editor and Deputy Editor of a Saudi daily publication. Jabarti has participated in various media focused trainings and workshops such as the 2008 MENA Media Emerging Leaders Fellowship, London Middle East Institute & the Commonwealth Journalists Association reporting course. She was also involved in planning and organizing the Women’s First Media Forum held in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 2006.

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