Saudi king steps in to resolve foreign labourers dispute

Sunday 14/08/2016
An Indian worker arrives at the office of construction firm Saudi Oger in Riyadh, on August 3rd.

London - King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud has issued direc­tives to settle the cases of thousands of stranded migrant workers in Saudi Arabia.

About $266.5 million will be allo­cated to resolve unpaid wages and the government will provide food and medical help to the workers, La­bour Ministry officials said.

Labour and Social Development Minister Mufrej al-Haqabani de­tailed policies to be put in place to avoid similar problems, including withholding of payments to firms that do not provide proof of salary allocations.

The kingdom’s national carrier, Saudi Arabian Airlines, will provide transportation to stranded workers, with their employers responsible for the airfare.

“What happened was an indi­vidual act carried by one company that made a mistake,” Haqabani said in reference to Saudi Oger Ltd. Riyadh-based Saudi Oger, owned by the family of former Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, is, according to local reports, among the companies in serious debt.

A downturn in the kingdom’s construction industry has been due to the government scaling back on contracts because of low oil prices, resulting in cases of delayed pay­ments and financial difficulties for some firms.

A report in the Jeddah-based Saudi Gazette said Saudi Oger owed $800 million in back pay and em­ployment severance. That figure does not include money owned to contractors and exporters or to be repaid on loans from local and inter­national banks.

In comparison to other construc­tion firms, Saudi Oger’s situation has been exasperated with addition­al administrative issues. In an inter­view with Bloomberg News in April, Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Moham­med bin Salman bin Abdulaziz who is also chairman of the kingdom’s Council for Economic and Devel­opment Affairs, highlighted issues concerning Saudi Oger.

“We have paid them many instal­ments but they have debt in and out of Saudi. So as soon as money is transferred to their bank accounts, the bank withdraws it,” Prince Mo­hammed said.

“Saudi Oger can’t cover their own labour costs. That’s not our prob­lem. That’s Saudi Oger’s. The con­tract between us and Saudi Oger, we will honour it but if the bank with­draws our instalments and Saudi Oger can’t pay a thing to its own contractors and workers, that’s their own problem. They can take them to court,” he added.

Recent video footage from within Saudi Oger’s Jeddah labour com­pound known as Highway Camp 77046 showed an evacuated waste­land, at least during the day. “The entrance to the compound is heav­ily secured, with a significant police presence,” Jeddah-based journalist Asem Muntasser said.

He said a marked police car was present because some workers, protesting because they did not have food or money and that they wanted to go home, were involved in a riot in which buses were set on fire. Muntasser described the inside of the compound as resembling a scene from the Indian movie Slum­dog Millionaire.

“There was garbage everywhere. Toilets were overflowing and they had no electricity. The only water they had was from a tanker that was brought from outside and from the local mosque,” he said.

“The workers I spoke to had no hope, they felt abandoned by their employers and that nobody cared. They were happy that they got some food from the Indian consulate but had to share it with workers from the Philippines and Pakistan and other nationalities, so it didn’t last long. For the most part, they really didn’t care about the money any­more and just wanted to go home.”

Muntasseri said the compound appears abandoned during the day because labourers were following up on their cases or doing odd jobs to survive, believing that if they were caught, the worst that could happen was that they would be de­ported home.

The kingdom’s highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Sheikh Ab­dulaziz Al Sheikh, issued a religious decree stating that “Businessmen have to pay workers’ salaries on time.” He quoted a hadith from the Prophet Mohammad, which states: “Give the worker his wages before his sweat dries.”