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.