No labour of love: Unpaid Pakistanis soldier on in desert kingdom

Overseas Pakistanis remitted $5.9b; total inflows were $19.9b, up 6.4%. PHOTO: AFP

Overseas Pakistanis remitted $5.9b; total inflows were $19.9b, up 6.4%. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: Khalas Khan from Mianwali took a loan of Rs0.5 million to arrange for the necessary documents so that he could work in Saudi Arabia. Holding a degree in electrical engineering, he worked as a technician in a gas company in the kingdom till now.

However, his arrival in Saudi Arabia from day one turned out to be a bed of thorns. Khan has yet to be paid a single penny. His problems have been compounded by the fact that he is the sole breadwinner of his family and also because he has to pay back his loan.

Now he has decided to leave the company working on the Midyan gas field in Tabuk and join another one. Some 15 of his colleagues have already left their jobs in the gas field, while 30 others have made up their minds to make a decent earning elsewhere.

Khan is not the only one stranded in the kingdom without a paycheck in sight. Nobody seems to be interested in addressing the plight of thousands of workers whose employers have left them in the lurch.

Under a system of sponsorship known as kafala that leaves many workers at their employers’ mercy, they’re also not being given the exit visas they need to leave the world’s largest oil exporter. In Saudi Arabia, it’s up to employers to arrange such visas, but before doing so they’d have to pay back wages and end-of-service benefits.

As Saudi authorities slash spending and delay payments to contractors to cope with the plunge in oil prices, an austerity drive is exacerbating the woes of private businesses that have, for decades, relied on government spending for growth. Casualties include the thousands of foreign labourers who helped to keep the economy humming with low-paying jobs in construction.

According to the Foreign Office, there are some 8,520 Pakistani workers stranded in Saudi Arabia. They face the grim uncertainty of how long their plight will continue. They have been dealing with non-payment of salaries, expiry of visas, non-renewal of Iqama or Muqeem card [identity card/ residence permit for expatriates] and exploitation at the hands of employers/contractors.

The Saudi Oger construction company is one of three companies that have delayed salaries and cut thousands of construction jobs, according to media reports. It is a conglomerate owned by the family of a former Lebanese prime minister, Saad al-Hariri. The company along with other two has not been able to pay workers’ salaries for over six months while several hundred are unpaid for over a year.

The situation got worse when about 500 employees went on a strike and refused to work. The employers not only fired them, but also denied them food, water, etc. At King Salman’s order, stranded workers will be given food and medical services, and can receive exit visas directly from the state, the Labor Ministry said in a statement Monday, pledging to safeguard their rights and resolve their problems. Legal representation will be furnished pro bono, the ministry said. Workers have said they don’t want to leave without their money.

Ahmed Saleem lives in Dammam. He has been stranded there since 2011. He told The Express Tribune that he was holding an independent visa and after getting a decent offer from another company sought permission from his kafeel or guarantor but he had demanded 10,000 Saudi riyals.

“The kafeel had not paid us the salary of three months (approximately 10,000 Saudi riyals) and I asked him to cut the amount from my dues but he demanded more.

Saleem then approached the court, but nobody from the other side showed up and prior to that the guarantor blacklisted him. When he approached the court again, they said they did not have any data about his case. Trapped in an uncertain situation, neither can he work anywhere else, nor leave the country.

The majority of workers The Express Tribune talked to denied receiving any help from the Pakistani embassy or the relevant officials and stated that only a reference could give them access to them.

The Foreign Office, however, claimed that the mission offices in Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam and Ta’if reached out to around 8,520 Pakistani workers including 520 associated with Saad Trading Company and 8,000 associated with Saudi Oger Limited.

Two parliamentary bodies also blamed the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development for ill-planning and mishandling the whole issue. They have also demanded to raise the issue with Saudi companies through the International Labour Organisation.

Besides, a delegation of the business community of Pakistani origin in Saudi Arabia, attending one of the meetings, said that the performance of the embassy was disappointing.

Meanwhile, PIA’s CEO Bernd Hildenbrand has directed the airline’s management to offer PIA’s services to the government, in case the Pakistanis stranded in Dammam, are required to be brought back to Pakistan, a PIA spokesman said.

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