x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Saudis to work with India to halt migrant worker abuse

Tens of thousands of illegal foreigners given 180-day amnesty to leave the kingdom without penalty.

South Asian labourers work outside Riyadh. Many labourers in the kingdom live in small rooms, with five or six people sharing a kitchen and bathroom. They generally work 10-hour days for two years without vacation for a salary of about Dh1,500 a month.
South Asian labourers work outside Riyadh. Many labourers in the kingdom live in small rooms, with five or six people sharing a kitchen and bathroom. They generally work 10-hour days for two years without vacation for a salary of about Dh1,500 a month.

RIYADH // Labour issues were high on the agenda of a top-level Indian delegation during its recent visit to Saudi Arabia, where officials have just announced a six-month amnesty permitting illegal foreigners to leave the kingdom without penalties. 

The Indian minister for overseas affairs, Vaayalar Ravi, was pleased with his discussions with Saudi officials, according to the Indian ambassador, Talmiz Ahmed, who said the Saudis promised increased enforcement of their labour laws to ease difficulties faced by an estimated 1.8 million Indians working here.

"The minister returned [home] with great happiness," Mr Ahmed said, adding that his visit was part of "an ongoing interaction we have at the ministerial level". Mr Ravi's visit reflects the renewed attention by both countries to their bilateral ties, which got a huge boost in February when Manmohan Singh made a three-day visit here, the first by an Indian prime minister in 28 years. Indira Gandhi visited in 1982. Mr Singh, who was reciprocating King Abdullah's 2006 visit to India, said his trip "reflects the strong mutual desire of both countries to reinvigorate our relations".

This mutual desire arises largely from geo-strategic concerns, said Theodore Karasik, director of research and development for the Dubai-based think tank Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma). "There are different hot spots that they would like to coordinate on, including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan," he said. And "as we move into 2011, when there might be big changes in South Asia," he added, it is in the interest of both countries to have enhanced relations.

Saudi Arabia's "move to the East", exemplified in its greater attention to both India and China, is meant "to make Saudi foreign policy more dynamic", Mr Karasik said. A by-product of closer Saudi-Indian ties could be better working conditions for Indian expatriates in the kingdom, Mr Karasik added. Mr Ahmed said that in bilateral talks, Mr Ravi briefed the Saudis on a new Indian government programme to computerise and make accessible through Indian embassies in the Gulf all the details about each Indian worker in every Gulf country.

Called E-Migration, the programme will be tested first in the UAE starting in about a month, and then spread to other Gulf countries, Mr Ahmed said. Mr Ravi, who met the vice governor of Riyadh, Prince Sattam, and the deputy minister of labour, Abdulwaheed al Humaid, also raised the problem of Saudi sponsors who falsely inform the government that their foreign labourer has absconded to get a new visa to bring another worker into the country. This abuse, called haroob, is harmful to the labourer because he then winds up having illegal status.

"Our workers complain that sometimes an employer is dissatisfied and rather than send his employee back to India, he declares that he has escaped," Mr Ahmed said. "The Saudi government is familiar with the problem and they told us that if a worker is declared missing now, the employer will not be issued a new visa automatically. [Instead, officials] will look into these matters in greater detail … So we were quite satisfied with that."

As for the six-month amnesty announced on September 21, Mr Ahmed said his government is still waiting for "clarifications" on how it would work and most importantly, whether it would apply to expatriate workers, as well as to those who have overstayed visas given for pilgrimage to Mecca. Mr Ahmed said Indians working illegally in the kingdom "would not be more than 30,000 to 40,000". "So far, they have not set out details of any scheme, so we have to see the small print of how they intend to handle this," Mr Ahmed said of the announced amnesty. One of the main questions his government has, he said, is whether an illegal worker who comes forward can get his status adjusted and remain here working.

When the UAE offered an amnesty for illegal workers in 2007, about 100,000 Indians returned home and a further 40,000 were permitted to regularise their job status and stay working, Mr Ahmed said. The embassies of other countries with large expatriate populations in the kingdom also said they were waiting for details of the programme. Paulo Saret, a vice consul at the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh, said: "We haven't heard a word from the Saudi authorities yet," said . "We want to know the parameters of it before we disseminate any information to our nationals."

A spokesman for the interior ministry, which is responsible for passports and visas, said he would try to get details of the programme for The National, but had not called back by yesterday afternoon. Although efforts are being made by the Saudi government to correct some abuses, critics say the fundamental problem is kafala, the sponsorship system. This system, which is widespread in the Gulf region, makes foreign workers vulnerable to abuse because it deprives them of their autonomy: they must surrender their passports to their sponsors, who also must give permission for the worker to change jobs or leave the country.

Bahrain abandoned its sponsorship system last year and on Sunday Kuwait announced that it would follow suit beginning in February. cmurphy@thenational.ae