Saudi crackdown on illegal workers sparks heated debate

Foreign workers hold up their passports outside a labour office in Riyadh (4 November 2013)

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For Abu Osama al-Qeithy, starting up a small business in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, has been difficult.

He has paid for his operators' licence and insurance, and met all the conditions set by the ministry of labour, but his fast-food outlet is still standing idle as workers have become something of a rarity.

"I applied three months ago to get visas for foreign workers and am still waiting," Mr Qeithy says.

"The usual government reply has been: 'Your application is still being considered.' Every single day counts, especially because I have to pay the monthly rental to keep the shop."

Clashes

On 4 November, the Saudi authorities started rounding up and deporting foreigners who were working illegally in the Gulf kingdom, as part of a campaign to enforce new labour laws.

The clampdown has made it harder for some businesses to operate.

Foreign workers carrying suitcases in Riyadh (4 November 2013) Thousands turned themselves in voluntarily, some with luggage in hand

Dozens of shops and restaurants across the country were forced to close as illegal migrants went into hiding or returned to their home countries to avoid being arrested or prosecuted.

Labour ministry officials say as many as 60,000 foreigners who had been violating the residence and employment regulations have so far been deported.

The start of the campaign triggered riots in some of deprived areas of Riyadh, with several Africans reportedly killed in clashes with police.

Start Quote

We have to admit that we were taken unawares by the massive figure of two million illegal migrant workers”

End Quote Adnan Mandora Jeddah Chamber of Commerce

In the holy city of Mecca - some 875km (545 miles) west of the capital - 6,000 street cleaners went on strike for five days to protest against harassment by the immigration authorities as well as non-payment of wages and poor working conditions.

The cleaners, most of whom are from Bangladesh, only ended their strike after their Saudi employer agreed to renew their contracts and legalise their status.

Stigma

Mr Qeithy's problems have been compounded by the corresponding sharp rise in wages sought by the foreigners working legally in the country. Demand is suddenly far outstripping supply.

Furthermore, it costs about four or five times more to employ fellow Saudis, many of whom are unwilling to do jobs seen by the majority as menial, such as cleaning and shop-keeping.

"They would not accept 2,000 riyals ($533; £327) a month," Mr Qeithy says. "A friend told me he would not take the job even if he was offered 7,000 riyals."

Foreign workers at a construction site in Riyadh (30 October 2013) The crackdown is meant to lower the kingdom's unemployment rate

In recent years, laws have been toughened in an attempt to regulate Saudi Arabia's estimated nine million foreign workers, who make up about a third of its population.

"The overwhelming majority, which is about seven million, are working legally in the kingdom," Adnan Mandora, the secretary general of Jeddah's chamber of commerce, told the BBC.

"However, we have to admit that we were taken unawares by the massive figure of two million illegal migrant workers, who created a black market."

Start Quote

Greedy and corrupt sponsors should be held accountable for selling visas to brokers”

End Quote Hassan al-Sobhi

Mr Mandora rejects accusations that the government is being impatient and reckless.

"The new measures actually came into force in December 2012, but we put them on hold after the turmoil created by deporting tens of thousands of such workers," he says.

"Then, King Abdullah issued a decree to grant all private companies and businesses operating in the kingdom up to seven months to put their illegal workforce in order. That ultimatum, which expired in July, was followed by a four-month notice to either leave the country or face arrest and deportation."

Unemployment

The main aim of the crackdown has been to create new jobs for Saudi citizens.

The official unemployment rate hovers around 12%, perhaps surprisingly for an oil-rich country that is considered to have one of the strongest economies in the Arab world. Unemployment among the young is believed to be twice as high.

The government has also begun imposing penalties on companies whose workforces do not include a certain percentage of Saudi nationals. It has also imposed a ban on foreigners in some professions and restrictions on firms that supply imported labour.

Filipino workers arrive at Manila airport after being deported from Saudi Arabia (November 2013) Nearly half of those detained and then deported have been women

Other Gulf states have introduced similarly tough legislation in recent years in an attempt to reduce their reliance on foreign workers.

Some argue that the Saudi authorities are partly to blame for having helped create a parallel labour market that operates on the wrong side of the law.

"Red tape, the expensive process to get expatriates, and the limited quotas of visas for foreign workers that are largely secured by well-connected companies, have all contributed to creating this world of clandestine workers," says Hassan al-Sobhi, an economist and journalist at the al-Madina newspaper.

Mr Sobhi says the illegal migrants have also been victims of violations of the visa-sponsorship system used in several Gulf states, which requires immigrants to be employed by a kafil, or sponsor, which could be an individual or a company.

"Greedy and corrupt sponsors should be held accountable for selling visas to brokers, who in turn take charge of foreign workers and impose a monthly levy on their salaries. The illegal levy continues after their visas expire in return for not reporting them to the authorities," he adds.

The system gives the kafil the right to cancel the contract with a migrant worker at any time, and there is no way of challenging such a decision through official channels.

Void

The crackdown on illegal workers has sparked a heated debate both on the streets of Saudi Arabia and on social media networks.

"It will have a positive effect on our country security-wise, socially and economically. It is also a historical opportunity for the sons of our country to replace the illegal workers," Khalid al-Ammar wrote on Twitter.

But his compatriot, Abu Azouz el-Shamail, argued that Saudis would not be able to fill the void created by the exodus of migrant workers, skilled or unskilled.

"The government will deport 100,000 workers and two million will come in to replace them. They leave via the immigration gate and re-enter via the new workers gate," he explained.

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