Wednesday, July 17, 2013

New rules for domestic workers

It happens every time. There is anticipation of a big bang and finally when it does come, it comes as a whimper.

The Saudi Government has now announced new set of rules for domestic workers as well as those who hire them. There is nothing new in the announcement other than that it has now formalized private agreements between the domestic helps and their sponsors. As expected, the new rules stipulate that employers "must pay their domestic helps a monthly salary without delay". Fantastic! Okay, don't bug us, we give you the freedom to breathe so no more complaints, get back to work! Workers are to be provided a one-month paid vacation after every two years and an ESB of one month's salary after four years. Now there is a big list of "obligations" too. Take a look at this table (courtesy: Saudi Gazette)

You could take all of this with a pinch of salt, but what raises eyebrows is the penalties which are as expected, totally one-sided in favor of the sponsors.

There is a probation period of three months for the sponsors to "assess his or her performance or behavior". In other words, it can be hire and fire in these three months for the domestic helps. The worker has no such right to assess his sponsor's behavior. In fact, the new rule specifically states that the worker "has no right to reject a work or leave a job" without "a valid reason". No definition of what a valid reason would be. A nine-hour rest period is assured by the new rule. How generous. It just means that the worker is supposed to be on the job for the remaining 15 hours. The worker must "not harm the employers or their family members". No such restrictions on the employer. He can go ahead and smash the maid's head on the wall or hammer her finger nails until she becomes camatose, and still get away with just a fine of SR2000. That is, if at all he is convicted. But any violation by the worker means he or she has to not only pay SR2000, but also pay his or her return ticket back home. That is if the sponsor graciously returns the worker's passport. Welcome to the Kingdom of Humanity!

As more and more countries become aware of this modern-day slavery, it is getting difficult for sponsors to hire new slaves. On the one hand there is a propaganda of the number of jobs made available by Nitaqat and the billions of riyals being repatriated by the expats, while there is such a scarcity of domestic helps. Why can't the people making decisions at the top Saudize these jobs, if they really dare to? What is wrong in hiring people from your own country? What is so degrading in working as janitors, tea boys, barbers, plumbers and sanitary workers? Or are these jobs reserved only for those whom you consider as inferior races, from countries where there is no oil and who are so poor that they simply cannot fight back for their rights?

Who says there is unemployment in the kingdom for Saudis? What is lacking is not employment but the will to work, the courage to do any job honestly, the grit and determination to sweat it out and toil the hard way. And unless this happens, this country will still have a long way to go to be part of civilized world.


Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Temporary relief

The announcement of extension of the grace period until November 3, 2013 by the Saudi king has come not a day sooner. This practical and wise decision has given a big relief to thousands of stranded 'illegal' expatriates working in Saudi Arabia. 

What an ordeal it had been for the past three months. When the reckless raids by the Ministry of Labor started, small businesses could not cope up and simply shut down. Then came the hue and cry and finally the initial grace period of 3 months within which all those without legal papers could either opt to go on exit or to change their sponsorship and become legal expats. What resulted was something which even the labor ministry did not imagine in their wildest dreams.

There was a scramble and even panic among the thousands of workers to get out of the kingdom, who thronged their embassies in droves. Hard to imagine, but only now we come to know that there were such a huge number of people working in Saudi Arabia without legal papers. While it is the right of any country to give priority to its own citizens, the way in which this scheme was haphazardly implemented without proper arrangements is truly a lesson to be learnt by the authorities.

At one point of time, it appeared hopelessly desperate for these poor expats that they even resorted to violence. Just look what happened to the Indonesian embassy. Whatever said and done, it is no doubt that Saudi Arabia is on the threshold of a turning point in the way it is going to deal with expatriates. Things will not be the same again. Certain interesting facts came to light.

First, the number of people without proper papers ran into not just hundreds but thousands, cutting across all nationalities. Second, the most common reason for people without proper papers was that they escaped from their sponsors and were working for others. Isn't it time to ponder why these people did so in the first place? It is not normal human character to go against the law - nobody is born a criminal, it is just circumstances which force them to be so. This just shows that although slavery was officially abolished in the kingdom four decades ago, it still exists in practice in different forms. No wonder these people chose to run away. One cannot gloss over the fact that the vast majority of these 'illegals' chose to go back on exit rather than transferring their sponsorship to another employer. Isn't this something to ponder by right thinking Saudis? Is it not pointing to a deeper malice within the society?

Embassy officials of various countries swung into action and I must put in a word of appreciation particularly to the staff and ambassador of the Indian embassy who made special arrangements. Thank God for small mercies. Humanity is still alive and kicking.

Now is not the time to relax. Even though the last date is 3rd November, don't forget that we have Ramadan and Haj coming in between, which virtually takes away 2 months out of normal Government work in Saudi Arabia. Which means that for all practical purposes, we have effectively only 2 months more. It is next to impossible to expect a further extension, so it is either now or never for those who missed the bus the first time. This is certainly a relief, but only a temporary one and is not a time to be complacent. 

If the lessons are learnt, hopefully we can expect a better organized exit by the Ministry of Labor for these poor guys. After all, they are not beggars, but just expats who came to eke out a living - they deserve to be sent out with dignity. More number of counters need to be opened and there should not be restrictions on certain days for certain nationalities to get their papers. Why not just hire more people to cope up with this huge demand to get out of the kingdom? 

It would be interesting in the days to come to see the effects this is going to have on small businesses. But for the moment, this has come as a welcome relief for thousands of expats.