Sunday, September 2, 2012

Frozen bank accounts

Much has been written about the infamous sponsorship (kafeel) system in Saudi Arabia. I would like to highlight one specific long-pending grievance which expatriates working in Saudi Arabia have been facing, because of this system.
Everything in the kingdom is linked with the residence permit or Iqama. Keeping your iqama renewed is the responsibility of your sponsor, whereas keeping your passport renewed is your own responsibility. In case your sponsor defaults in any kind of Government-related transaction, immediately his national ID number is flagged in the system. The Saudi national ID is something analogous to the Iqama. Just like the iqama, everything is linked to the national ID for Saudis.
So, let's say your Saudi did not pay his electricity or telephone bills on time. Or worse still (and more commonly), let's say he did not bother to renew his car's registration.  Unlike expatriates where there is a high risk that the police would be at your door for every flimsy default, Saudis can roam around freely inside the kingdom without any fear of being caught by the law. The only time when they would face some kind of problem is when they try to leave the kingdom.
Expats wouldn't be so much bothered about whether their Saudi sponsors have fulfilled their statutory obligations or not, but for one major catch. In case the Saudi sponsor's national ID is flagged in the system, he would not be able to renew the Iqama of any of his expatriate employees.
Now, where else in the world would you find such a stupid and absolutely outrageous law that expatriates get punished when their sponsor defaults? But this is the stark reality.
The problems for expatriates do not end there. The moment their iqamas are not renewed, immediately their bank accounts are frozen and hence they would not be able to withdraw money from their accounts. In short, they are left to fend for themselves. All for no fault of theirs.
I know several cases where bank accounts of expatriates have been frozen because the sponsor did not bother to renew his commercial license - something which the expatriate employees have no control over. What do you do in such cases?
To be honest, nothing much. But you can always anticipate certain things and take precautionary measures. First of all, please immediately withdraw all your money from your account before your iqama is given for renewal, because you never know when or whether it would be renewed. In fact, it is safer to keep your money as cash in your home rather than keeping large amounts of money in your bank account, because the moment your account is frozen, all your money is gone - at least until your sponsor clears his dues.
The moment you find that your iqama is not renewed due to your sponsor's default, and you see no sign of it being renewed, immediately file a complaint with the labor office. In my earlier post (click here), I had given the contact phone numbers of labor offices in the kingdom. When you find that your bank account is frozen due to a default by your sponsor, you must immediately file a complaint with the local labor office. There is no guarantee that you will get relief immediately. But doing this helps you in two ways.
First, you officially notify the Ministry of Labor that your iqama is not being renewed because your sponsor has defaulted and that you are not to blame for it. Second, you will get legal protection and will not be put behind bars for being an illegal resident of the kingdom, because your case is now officially flagged. So, always carry the receipt from the labor office which proves that your iqama is not renewed because of litigation and show it to the police at checkposts when asked for.
The moment you file a complaint with the labor office, they will try to arrange a meeting between you and your sponsor for an amicable settlement. How long this would take is anybody's guess, but ultimately it will definitely happen. In most cases, your sponsor will pressurize you to withdraw your complaint. You are the one to decide whether it is okay to withdraw your complaint or not. My advice is that if you have already taken steps to get your dues legally and if you see no sign of any respite from your sponsor, do not withdraw your complaint. In case no agreement is reached with your sponsor, the issue will then be raised to what is known as Primary Commission.
The Primary Commission is the next level in the labor court. If the Primary Commission rules in favor of any one party, i.e., either you or your sponsor, either of you have a right to appeal to the Supreme Commission which is the highest level of labor court. But you must appeal within 30 days. The decision of the Supreme Commission is final and binding on both parties. Do not forget to keep your country's embassy informed at each and every stage.
I would like to caution expatriates that resorting to labor court would most likely spoil the relationship with your sponsor and it is highly unlikely that he will treat you kindly whether you withdraw the case or not. But, if he is stopping your salary and you have no other option, do not be bothered and straightaway go and file a complaint in the labor court. Never take a step backwards unless you get your dues. The worst case scenario is that your dues will be paid and also he will put an exit stamp on your passport. In fact, if this happens, you must consider it as a welcome relief because you can leave the kingdom with dignity and a clear conscience.
I really wish that things do not come to such a situation, but it always helps to be informed.