Saudi women seek more employment opportunities
Jeddah - Bassma al-Harbi had what she thought was a dream job. A rising star in a major Saudi Arabian private company that owns and operates a string of high-profile restaurants and department stores, she was groomed for quick advancement.
Harbi, 25, and a university graduate, rapidly moved up and became a regional supervisor but her dream soured almost as quickly. Her workload doubled to two shifts daily, six days a week. Although she worked as a regional supervisor for a year and had significant responsibilities, a salary increase never materialised.
It became clear, the Medina woman said, that she was one of many women who were being exploited in the private sector.
“By hiring women the company is making tonnes of money because more and more conservative women trust us (female sales representatives),” Harbi said. “These customers stay longer in the shop because they are dealing with knowledgeable saleswomen and not leaving quickly because they must talk to men. Revenue is up because they are hiring more girls.”
Harbi said she quit after three years of exhausting work and no prospect of a salary that reflected her management skills and education. She remains unemployed.
Her experience serves as a warning that business practices in the private sector have not caught up with the explosive growth in the number of women working in Saudi Arabia.
Long accustomed to hiring compliant expatriates, mostly who work in retail and restaurants at modest salaries, the private sector is under pressure from the Saudi Ministry of Labour to hire Saudi women to maintain quotas of Saudi employees under the government’s Nationalisation Programme.
Now in the position where employing women is a consideration to maintain nationalisation numbers or face fines, private businesses are discovering that female applicants are less likely to accept jobs that require long hours and low wages.
Businesses have been slow to adjust to the new dynamic of the female employee.
“I see frustrations on many levels,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi women’s rights activist. “They need women to work but don’t know how to negotiate their salary.”
Harbi said Saudi employers are not considering the difficulty women face in taking a job.
“A woman taking a job is a family decision and usually not everyone in the family agrees to the job,” she said. “The family’s priority is marriage. If you’re working two shifts and have time for nothing else, no one in the family will agree to you taking a job.”
In many instances, Saudi women are desperate to find employment because it means financial independence. Many work long hours for low pay and do not complain. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the Labour Ministry reported there was a 76.08% increase in female employment in private business in the previous year. The year before that, the increase was 23.92%.
During the previous year, an estimated 174,827 Saudi women were working in private business in the Riyadh region while the Mecca region had 114,173 women and Eastern Province employed 68,000.
The increase in female employment is a step in the Labour Ministry’s attempt to reduce the 34% unemployment rate cited by the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information.
The increase in privately employed women is also due to the Labour Ministry’s aggressive campaign to reduce the number of male expat workers in lingerie and beauty shops. Virtually every mall in Saudi Arabia’s urban centres now employ all-female staffs.
Fassi cautioned that the Labour Ministry’s statistics may be misleading. She said the increase in the number of women entering the workforce is likely in the retail sector with significantly fewer university-educated females finding work in professional fields.
“It’s a good number because it shows a need for low-income women to find work. It’s filling this gap,” Fassi said. “But the high number in the Labour Ministry’s statistics are explained by women entering retail jobs and not reflective of women’s contributions to the economy. We still need a stronger level of protection.”
One weakness in the government’s efforts to employ women in the private sector is the lack of enforcement and follow-through on a wide range of rights the Labour Ministry granted to women. Rights granted include women are no longer required to obtain permission from their male guardians to work. The ministry also gives women maternity leave, mourning periods up to four months and ten days if a husband should die and paid leave for marriage.
“The Labour Ministry should be stronger in implementing its rules that protect women and preserve their dignity,” Fassi said. “The religious police still breach some of these laws by harassing these women by coming into shops and just standing there because they don’t like the way they dress.”
She said regulations against mixing between men and women and fines for women who violate the Islamic dress code target female workers and not men. “It’s accusative of women, a bit hostile,” Fassi said.
“The reforms like [mourning] are a very good step towards more rights,” Fassi noted. “But it’s not very clear companies will follow the rights imposed by the Labour Ministry.”
A Labour Ministry spokesman was unavailable for comment.