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Are foreign missions doing their job?
Published in The Saudi Gazette on 09 - 01 - 2017

SINCE my last article on the need to abolish the sponsorship system, I have been receiving a variety of messages and emails, every now and then, from workers who are still suffering at the hands of their sponsors. The emails range from the inhuman treatment, they claim, meted out by their sponsors, non-payment of salaries, made to work overtime sans payment and withholding of their passports. It is really ironic that such issues are seemingly revisited by people despite its exposure and remedial actions by authorities. I remember writing many articles in the past against abusive sponsors, delayed salary payment or nonpayment of dues and releasing the passport to the holder by the companies as mandated by law.
It seems like these problems are continuing no matter how many times the issues are highlighted. This could either be because of the lack of strict punishment, poor implementation of rules and laws r abject coordination between missions and government departments or dismal communication between the expat victim and his embassy or consulate. If things need to improve all of these lacunas need to be rectified, and sooner it is done the better.
I received a mail from an expat worker of Asian descent in his 20s working in a small company. He suffers at the hands of his kafeel (sponsor), who is making him work for over 11 hours a day. He said that he works for these long hours, seven days a week without any day off — not by choice but because his employer is forcing him to work like that. He claims in his email that his sponsor is holding his passport and is refusing to give it back to him while also not providing him a copy of the work contract. In his email he sought help because he does not know where to go or what to do.
Another mail revealed a different type of suffering where an engineer employed in a factory was brought to the Kingdom on a labor visa, under the promise that the company would rectify his status within months. This type of visa deprives him from many rights including applying for a family visa for his wife and children or visit visas for his parents. This highly qualified engineer is always embarrassed when he shows his iqama (resident permit) to anyone while having to explain the whole situation over and over to people who doubt his credentials as an engineer.
He did mention in his letter that: "There are so many abnormalities in the system and these need to be addressed in order for these niggling problems from cropping up. While the Ministry of Labor is frequently making inspection to industrial areas to review proper implementation of rules and regulations in various industries, the same cannot be said of scrutiny of medium scale companies with workforce of 100-500 that aren't following the norms in letter and spirit, which becomes very problematic for laborers because they lack education and communication skills. Due to that they are being continuously exploited by sponsors with threats when they muster the courage to seek their rights like overtime or delayed salaries."
Another email from an expat worker, who was not paid for many months while on top of that his passport being held by his sponsor, too showed that the complainant was clueless on where to go for recourse when he beseeched for help from the media while seeking to find out what his options were and who he can approach to alleviate his situation. Almost all the letters and emails I have been receiving are from people asking for help and guidance on where to go and whom to approach.
After the series of mails, I got to thinking whether the foreign diplomatic and consular missions in the Kingdom provide expert advice and help for expat workers who are desperate for help? If yes, then how come many of the expatriates are still facing these issues? The government did set the law against those holding passports of expat workers putting the squeeze on abusive companies and sponsors, who have been mistreating their employees, especially blue collar expats, who are the weakest link.
Do the missions follow up with their workers or intervene when their expat residents complain that their sponsors are holding their passports? Do the missions actively tackle these problems or just react when the issues go out of hand? Does the expat worker reach out to his mission by voicing his problems? If he does, what action the missions have taken and have they put a system in place to tackle these problems?
As for salary delays we all understand the current economic situation has taken its toll on many small and medium companies. Even big companies are finding it difficult to pay the salaries of many employees. It is sad to see stranded workers, both Saudis and expats, demanding their payment and I wish their problem would end soon.
I know that when I was abroad studying in the US, our embassy or consulate provided us help and guidance when we needed it. If there was a problem, the first place I would call was my embassy or consulate. The same should be the case here. Sometimes I have a feeling that missions that are officially responsible for their labor force need to do more to increase awareness on their worker's rights and to intervene when they call for help.
What is needed is to classify the most common problems that expats face and coordinate with the government authorities to come up with a mechanism to fix it. It is about time that the problem of employer victimizing a worker and forcing him to work for longer hours without pay and nonpayment of salaries is stopped.
Our system is so connected to a level that an abusive person can get his "Absher" account frozen if it was proven by law that he was abusive. The missions should see to it that a victim is directed to the right channel in the government department and a translator is provided if that person does not speak Arabic to get justice.

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