Friday, March 16, 2012

New developments for laborers in KSA

It was only a matter of time before what everyone was expecting actually happened. The recently implemented Nitaqat program has caused so much of confusion and  heartburn. This was already covered in my earlier post (click here). All expatriates working in Saudi Arabia were categorized into red, yellow, green and 'excellent' groups with red and yellow groups officially ceasing to exist from February 23, 2012. What resulted was a predictable acute shortage of manpower in both skilled as well as unskilled categories.

To add to the confusion was an extremely large number of expatriates whose profession in the iqama was mentioned as 'Labor' but who were actually working in other professions. Once the Nitaqat program was announced, there was such a scramble by people in these categories to change their professions (click here to see the related post). Unfortunately the conditions imposed were so severe that not many were successful in doing so.

Those who really were working as laborers had a different problem. Most of them being illiterate and poor, they were taken royally for a ride, being promised one salary back home and being paid (or not at all in some cases) upon arrival in the kingdom. One just has to take a look at the pending cases in the Labor Court to see the reality.

The Ministry of Labor has issued a statement yesterday. It says that there will continue to be a ban on domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines. So far so good and every country has a right to frame their own policies. What follows next is shocking. It says the ban will continue "until these two countries change their conditions that demand improved rights" for employees coming into the kingdom. How much more blatant can one get in the Kingdom of Humanity? What is wrong if these employees are given improved rights? Are they not human beings? Or do they deserve to be treated as worse than slaves?

Countries like India and Sri Lanka had already banned house maids from being employed in the Gulf. Very recently, Sri Lanka has imposed strict conditions for supply of house maids - minimum pay, compulsory insurance (whose premium would have to be prepaid by the sponsor), compulsory vacation days, etc.

The labor shortage has forced the Ministry to relax its visa policy for certain categories. The statement by the Ministry of Labor says that any Saudi citizen with 50 camels or 100-150 sheep or cows will now be granted a shepherd visa. Those owning farms with 100 palm trees, they would be issued a farmhand visa. The statement says that there are no other conditions to issue such visas. What on earth happened to the infamous red and yellow categories?

The statement from MoL says that in case a Saudi citizen wants two shepherd visas, he must have either 50 camels or 500 cow or sheep heads. His monthly income "must be SR3500 and each worker's salary has been set as SR800 per month". Poor guy, he is rich enough to own 50 camels or 500 heads of cows or sheep, but with a monthly income of only SR3500 he cannot pay his expatriate worker more than SR800 per month. Believe it or not, the figures quoted here and this salary are not set by any poor sponsor but by the Ministry of Labor!

Now assuming that a sponsor does pay his employee SR800 per month, the worker has to spend money for his own living expenses in the kingdom and with whatever little is left, he has to remit the savings back home for his family, most of whom are already in debt. You don't need to be a genius to figure out why these poor workers abandon their sponsors (officially branded as "runaways" as though they are criminals) to work part time illegally elsewhere. 

It is not just unskilled laborers who are in shortage. I was talking to a senior official of a huge upcoming power plant in the Eastern province. He was quite frustrated about the shortage of skilled manpower. He said there was enough money in the kingdom to buy world class equipment, but not enough heart to open up the labor market. Agreed, each country has priority to employ its own citizens but when you have mega multi billion riyal projects coming up, you just cannot afford to have outdated rules and even more outdated thought processes if you need progress. 

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Traffic control in Saudi Arabia

Statistics say that Saudi Arabia has one of the highest fatalities in road accidents all over the world. Hundreds of people get killed each year and the sad part is that most of it could have been avoided. I had covered this topic in an  earlier  post (click here), but with the recent introduction of 'Saher', the so-called automated traffic control system, some updates need to be done.

Probably Saudi Arabia is the last of GCC countries where speed cameras are being installed. In places like the UAE , Bahrain and Qatar, these have been there for quite some time and were quite effective in traffic control. Being fully automated, it is next to impossible for a vehicle which is jumping the red light or overspeeding, to go undetected. In these countries, penalties are extremely severe which explains to a large extent on the relatively more disciplined traffic. For example, Qatar slaps a fine of 6000 Qatari Riyals on those who jump signals. There simply is no escape as everything gets registered in the camera and before you realize what happened, you would have got the sms - all automated. A similar arrangement exists in the UAE.

However, despite all that is being said and written about the Saher system in Saudi Arabia, there are always people who break the rules. Whatever be the extent of automation, they have something more powerful to save them, called 'Wasta' (i.e., influence). Saudi Arabia is probably one of the few countries in the world where, if you have the right connections or are from the right tribe, can actually bargain with the police for reduction of your traffic fines - believe it or not, this is a routine thing which happens each day in the kingdom's police stations! The sooner we get rid of this practice, the safer the kingdom's roads would be from these morons.

No sooner was the Saher system introduced than came the spate of "tricks" in the internet on how to cheat the system. One website boasted of a "simple trick" on cheating the Saher system by tying a small piece of bare copper wire in the bottom of the car and letting the other end touch the ground. The website claimed that it was impossible for the speed cameras to detect overspeeding cars with this arrangement. What a stupid claim. Smart cameras these days work on the principle of movement of objects and not whether the object is "grounded" or not. I would advise drivers not to be misled by such false claims. The safest and surest way is to drive within speed limits. This way, you would not be endangering yourself as well as others on the road.

Certain precautions always need to be taken. Never take out your car without a valid driving license as well as car insurance. Always keep important documents with you safely (like original istamara, iqama, etc.) and do keep one set of photocopies of these at home. Please refer to my earlier post (click here) for refreshing yourself about these.

I would also advise readers to immediately register themselves with the traffic police. The procedure is simple. Just send an sms to 888993 (STC), 623333 (Mobily) or 709445 (Zain). The format for sending the sms is as follows: Star followed by Iqama number followed by Star followed by the Hijri year of expiry of your istemarah. For example, let's say the iqama number is 9876543210 and your istemara expires in the Hijri year 1434. You must send your sms in the format *9876543210*1434 to one of the three numbers mentioned above. Note that you will be charged SR 2.50 for this sms. You should get a confirmatory sms from the traffic police within 24 hours. After this, you will be automatically notified by sms whenever there is a traffic violation registered against your name. Please note that registering yourself is extremely important, because if you do not pay the fine within one month of the offence, the fines would go up exponentially reaching its maximum value (sometimes more than double the amount). Claiming that you did not know that a ticket was issued to you, would not protect you from paying the amount, please register yourself right away if you have not already done so.