It has been 12 months since Khalil ur Rehman last received a pay cheque. For the past 22 years, Rehman has worked for the Saad Group, a Saudi company involved in industries as diverse as construction, medical facilities, and information technology. Now 59, and sporting a gray beard, Rehman speaks emphatically when talking about the hardships he and other workers face being denied wages. But, as he talks about wanting to visit his family and five children in Mansehra for Eid-ul-Adha, his sentences are punctuated with emotion. The holiday is one of the rare occasions Rehman is able to spend with his family and the children that have grown up while he has been away, he tells me, holding back tears.
“I cannot remember a time that he was living in Pakistan,” says his cousin Siddiq who has been active in protests organized by workers’ families in Pakistan. “He sends money home every month,” says his brother Rafiq who works in Islamabad and is in contact via WhatsApp messages with Rehman everyday (WhatsApp calls are banned in Saudi Arabia). “[But] some 10 months ago they didn’t receive any money and when we called him [Rehman] we learnt that he was not being paid.”
Across Saudi Arabia, migrant workers are being denied wages as construction companies face economic downturn after a decline in oil prices. Like other large Saudi companies, the Saad Group employs a large pool of workers largely from South Asia and the Philippines who live in camps across the country. Saudi companies have been drawing migrant labor from South Asia to meet the demands of a growing oil industry since the 1970s. Over the past year, companies involved in the oil and construction sectors have come under financial strain due to decreasing oil prices and reduced government contracts. Many have been withholding wages for the past year and terminating employment contracts for migrant laborers as a way to cut costs.
Legal protection and basic rights for foreign workers in Saudi Arabia have historically been lacking and abuse and harassment by employers and law enforcement authorities is fairly common. In addition, workers do not have the right to leave the country without their sponsor’s permission and often have to hand over passports to their employer. Migrant laborers endure these conditions for the higher wages offered by Saudi companies compared to their countries of origin.
“More than the year’s salary are the [retirement] benefits he has accrued over 22 years,” says Siddiq. This was supposed to be his final year at the company. After over two decades of living in Saudi Arabia, Rehman decided to cash-in his retirement benefits and return home to his family. That plan has now been put on hold and he is stranded at the workers camp in Dammam, the capital of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, waiting to recover his overdue wages and benefits.
“There are 550 Pakistani workers in the Dammam camps,” Rehman tells me. “We are living in deplorable conditions. It is like living in a jail.” Rehman is actively trying to draw Pakistani media attention to workers living in the Saad Group’s Dammam camps and their salaries, unpaid by the company for nearly a year. Actively following the news back home, Rehman feels that the issues faced by migrant workers are not being taken up by those elected to represent them. “The politicians are running dharnas [sit-ins] and marches but not once has anyone mentioned us,” argues Rehman. “They just care about their seats and getting elected.”
Workers have been gathering at the Saad Group’s Dammam camp every night to stage protests and record videos in an attempt to generate as much worldwide attention as possible. “The Pakistani ambassador, Manzoor-ul-Haq, came to our camp and he gave us a 20-day timeframe [to resolve our issues],” says one protester. “Not one of our demands has been met. One Eid came and went and he said your issue will be resolved before the next Eid, but that Eid has arrived and we have no information. We are living on boiled [rotten] rice and then getting sick.… People are falling sick every day because of the food,” says Rehman.
Asking for the assistance of people in Pakistan, a protestor at the Dammam camp sardonically remarks: “so many people have bought cows, goats, and camels for lakhs of rupees this Eid. Yaar, hum insanon ko bhi khareed lo, hamaray dil khareed lo [My friend. Buy us humans as well. Buy our hearts.]” In the days leading up to Eid, many workers spoke about being stranded during the holiday and being unable to spend time with or provide for their families. They felt betrayed that because of lost wages neither they nor their families would be able to celebrate the holiday and that the Pakistan government was not doing enough to help them.
For Khalil ur Rehman, after 22 years of working in Saudi Arabia, the loss has been a bitter pill to swallow. He is still waiting, protesting, and trying to get his message out there. “The Saudi government has given us the approval to leave,” he says, alluding to strict exit laws, which require the sponsor (most often the employer) to grant permission for an exit visa before a worker can leave the country. For now, Rehman seems adamant on recovering his dues but at the same time, lowering his voice and taking a deep breath, he admits: “I want to go home.”
The Official Version
Nafees Zakaria, a spokesman for the Pakistan Foreign Office, does not agree with this portrayal. Trying to put the crisis in perspective, he points out that “these are private companies that have come under financial difficulties; these people are not working for the Saudi government.” Zakaria claims that despite this “the Saudi government has been cooperating with us fully and our embassy in Jeddah has been providing assistance to the workers.” He admits that the Pakistan Embassy is ill-equipped to handle the situation given the scale of the unrest–over 8000 workers are affected. “The embassy has provided medical assistance and food for the workers,” he says. In addition, the Pakistan Embassy has agreed to file paperwork and collect overdue wages for workers who choose to return home although there have been complaints about this process by the workers themselves.
Zakaria describes two categories of workers stuck in Saudi Arabia: those with valid work visas who are looking for new employment, and those without work visas who want to stay and collect their overdue wages. He says the Saudis are willing to accommodate both groups and are allowing workers to stay after their permits have expired . However, he says, “some workers began agitations over there and this is not acceptable. They are living and working in a foreign country.” Zakaria adds that the Saudi government has helped file paperwork and that the Saudi and Pakistani governments are working together to accommodate all claims and grievances. Despite these accommodations, Zakaria argues, workers are protesting and accusing the Saudi government of being inhospitable. He ends glibly, saying that “there are companies all over the world, even in Pakistan, that treat their workers very poorly.”
Perhaps at the forefront of the Foreign Office’s concerns is the actual scale of Pakistani migrant labor dependent on Saudi pay cheques. There are 2.8 million Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia according to Foreign Office estimates. “There is a bigger picture which we cannot jeopardize,” says Zakaria. “Close to 100,000 people go there every year to work.”
According to the Pakistan Remittance Initiative (PRI), set up to ensure that funds are sent into the country via official channels, Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia sent home nearly 6 billion dollars in the last fiscal year, which accounts for more than a quarter of all foreign remittances. Sources within the PRI estimate that the figure is potentially three to four times that amount. These remittances are considered a huge boon for Pakistan’s economy and poverty alleviation and experts fear that the government does not want to jeopardize the larger inflow of cash from the Middle East.
Protesting their plight
However, firsthand testimonies from Saudi Arabia continue to tell a story about neglect, maltreatment, and hardship, with workers insisting that they have no rights or legal recourse. Khalil ur Rehman recalls a story of one worker who left the camp and was arrested and kept in jail for nine days. “We are not allowed to leave the camps at all. They arrest us on the streets for not having valid iqamas [work permits].” Rehman says that the workers’ papers have been expired for a year now as the companies have not helped with the renewal process. “If we get caught outside the camps, they arrest us and make us pay a 1,000 Riyal [266 US dollars] fine,” he says. “We are trapped inside the camps waiting for our cases to be resolved … How are our families supposed to survive when we have not sent money home for over 10 months?”
Asad Kayani from Rawat, who works as a civil general foreman for Saudi Oger Limited in Dharan, another city in the Eastern Province, corroborates that workers are not allowed out of the camps. He says that Saudi Oger workers have “not been paid for 11 months.” The company employs over 50,000 workers across Saudi Arabia of which between 8,000-15,000 are estimated to be Pakistani. On September 20, according to Kayani, the Saudi government gave approximately 1,000 workers airfare to return home . “These workers will land in Islamabad. They are not getting any money or any benefits. Nothing!” He believes that for the Saudi government, paying for workers to return home is a way of sending the problem elsewhere. Kayani is determined to collect his outstanding salary and end-of-service benefits for 15 years of work before returning to Pakistan. “Our embassy has not given us any letters or paperwork about the benefits we are owed. They have just submitted something to the courts but we have no information,” he says, talking about the embassy’s offer to collect overdue wages for those who choose to go back to Pakistan.
Apart from being affected by the economic downturn, Saudi Oger Limited’s top executives also stand accused of corruption and mismanagement. To limit the damage, large companies worth millions of dollars are withholding the wages of migrant laborers who have little recourse to justice and due process. Despite the dire circumstances, worker protests have largely remained peaceful, belying the Foreign Office’s criticisms about worker “agitations.” However, with patience wearing thin, in June employees of the Oger group burnt company vehicles during large-scale protests at Jeddah. Similar demonstrations took place at offices of the Bin Laden group in Makkah, which terminated 77,000 workers earlier this year. These protests may not have resolved the financial problem but they were successful in generating greater attention for the issue.
Officially, the Pakistan government has taken up the cases of three sets of workers–employees of the Saudi Oger Company, the Saad Group, and the Saudi Bin Laden Group–leaving those working for other organizations without representation or compensation. Raja Imran Farooq works for International Building Systems (IBS) in Jeddah. “This will be the second Eid festival that our families will not celebrate since we cannot send them any money,” he says referring to the 200 workers who have not been paid for 11 months. “One hundred and fifty of us are Pakistani and the others are from Bangladesh and India.” Of the 200 workers, 50 collectively filed a case against IBS in the Saudi labor courts in March. “At that time we were told that things will be resolved in 45 days but it has now been six months.”
The Foreign Office insists that if workers follow the proper procedure and “lodge a complaint” with the Pakistan Embassy their grievances will be addressed. Yet, most of those waiting to paid are finding that things are not so clear-cut. And for Farooq and his colleagues, things are even more complicated: “We went to the embassy in Jeddah and asked for their help but they are not listening to us […] They say the government of Pakistan has instructed us to only help [employees of] three companies. They told us we have to lodge our complaint in Islamabad.” The feeling of being let down is strong amongst Pakistanis trying to recover their wages and benefits in Saudi Arabia: “Sorry to say, the role of the Pakistani Consulate, in this case, is shameful…. [The] counselor promised that he will visit our head office to address our issues with the owner of the company. But everything is confined to verbal promises. Practical measures are not being taken.”
Those in Saudi Arabia’s corridors of power seem to forget that the kingdom in the middle of the dessert was built by migrant labor. Meanwhile, Pakistan appears unconcerned with the treatment of its citizens as long as the exchange of labor and the billions of dollars sent home each year continues to maintain Pakistan’s economic lifeline.
Saad Sayeed is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Islamabad. He is a former assistant editor at The Herald and a political columnist at The News. His academic research focuses on religious and liberal identity formation in Pakistan.