Sunday, September 15, 2013

Finally, a deadline for labor disputes

The announcement by the Ministry of Labor on a fixed timetable for resolving labor disputes in Saudi Arabia is to be welcomed. The ambitious program, which will come into effect after the Eid Al Adha holidays, details a 3-step process.

The announcement is nothing new. I would like to remind readers of my earlier article (click here) where I had listed out the details of the 37 labor offices all over the kingdom. A 2-stage dispute-resolving procedure is already in place, in case any dispute is not amicably settled between the employer and employee. The Preliminary Commission and the High Commission, about which I had described in the earlier article, were precisely meant for the same purpose. Today's announcement more or less repeats what is already in place.

I would say that the only positive outcome of this is that at least there is now official recognition that labor disputes are a big problem in the kingdom. Today's announcement says that in the first step, the employer and employee have to resolve their dispute within 2 weeks. If it does not get resolved, the case gets elevated to a preliminary committee (oh no, not again!) who are supposed to resolve it within 4 weeks and give a judgement. If no solution is obtained, the case gets further elevated to a "supreme" committee, who will come out with a ruling within 4 weeks. I have absolutely no idea on the need for this "preliminary" and "supreme" committees when the existing Preliminary Commission and the High Commission have miserably failed to resolve disputes which have been dragging on for years together.

The biggest problem is the Wasta system. Influential sponsors often misuse their power and browbeat poor expat workers which is why the existing system is fundamentally flawed. Embassies of countries from the subcontinent, from where the majority of workers are employed, are simply powerless to even take up this problem seriously at the highest level. The story is the same for workers from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philipines. As an example, when a non-governmental organization called FOKASA, who have been doing a fairly good job in assisting expats in the kingdom, filed a writ petition in India on the plight of laborers who are convicted without a fair trial and without even knowledge of the charges against them (which is a fact), the Indian embassy lost its spine and simply branded this organization as "illegal" (click here). Pity, considering that the Indian embassy has otherwise been doing a fine job in assisting its nationals.

On a related note, the deadline for the grace period for regularization of status is fast approaching. Most international schools in the kingdom are facing a panic situation as a large number of expat teachers simply stopped attending school. Which puts a big question mark on the future of kids studying in these schools. As per a recent announcement, daughters of expatriates working in Saudi Arabia are baned from working in the kingdom. November 3rd is fast approaching and one only hopes that things will turn for the better after this date.