Friday, November 22, 2013

Relief for female teachers?

Since the beginning of the campaign to regularize "illegals", one of the worst affected were female teachers working in Saudi Arabia, particularly in International Schools. This blog has repeatedly cautioned (click here) about the idiocy of excessively stringent regulations, which were to such an extent that the practicality of implementation had been completely ignored. As predicted, female teachers who were sponsored by their husbands preferred the best way out. They simply stopped going to work.

No doubt this caused some inconvenience to the family incomes, but the worst affected were schools and the children who suddenly found themselves facing empty blackboards with no one to teach them. The fears of these "illegal" teachers were genuine. As per the regulations, these teachers had to transfer their sponsorships to the schools in addition to giving a test by the Ministry of Education and getting all their certificates attested. The contentious part was in the transfer of sponsorship. What would happen if their husbands suddenly lost their jobs due to any reason? The female teachers would be left totally at the mercy of their schools. Remember, the passport is always with the sponsor, so theoretically the schools could easily stop their female staff from leaving the kingdom, even if their husbands and kids had to leave on exit. Why would anyone subject herself to such a situation, a primitive and atrocious form of modern-day slavery not found in any civilized country across the world?

Despite the local media gloating about how private schools had fully complied with the regulations and that the sponsorship of all "illegal" teachers were regularized, the fact was that teachers simply kept away bringing work to a grinding halt. Finally, as with all previous haphazardly created regulations, a work around has now been announced by the Ministry of Labor. According to the newly issued statement, female teachers who are under the sponsorship of their husbands / fathers are being issued annual work permits. These permits have information about their sponsors including the sponsor's Iqama number, the name of the school and the expiry date of the permit. Such permits are issued only to those who possess a license to work. What this implies is that the rest of the regulations, such as getting their certificates attested and undergoing a test are all still there except for the transfer of sponsorship.

While this might seem to be a big relief (in fact, it is a heavily watered-down version of the original rule), questions still remain. Will employing female teachers with annual permits be counted in the Nitaqat system for Saudization? There is a risk that if enough Saudis are not employed by these schools, they may fall into red category. Why not put an end to this confusion and simply say that the campaign for "illegal" teachers does not apply to females who are under the sponsorship of their husbands? But then, it would be too much to ask for, isn't it?  

Time and again, rules and regulations in Saudi Arabia were announced with much fanfare and rhetoric, only to be quietly withdrawn later as a whimper. This blog had mentioned numerous instances of the same in the past (click here). The first step towards diluting its own rules has now already been made by the Ministry of Labor. It would be interesting to see the fate of the regulations and the raids a few months down the line. 

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Amnesty ends, Uncertainty begins

It was bound to happen. For thousands of "illegal" expatriates working in Saudi Arabia, the only lifeline to get out of the kingdom gracefully or to transfer their sponsorships to someone else has now expired with the end of the amnesty period. It has been a traumatic year indeed for most of these expats.

To begin with, the raids which followed the Nitaqat scheme became hugely unpopular, not because of the raids themselves but because of the nature in which they were carried out. Iqamas were routinely seized and cut into two in front of the expats just on the basis of suspicion and if the persons concerned were not able to immediately provide proper documents. Overnight, these poor people who helped shape this country, who built its infrastructure - roads, ports, buildings, power stations - were all branded as "illegal". One newspaper used the word "escapees" to refer to those who ran away from their original sponsors which I find totally disgusting and degrading.

The embassies of Pakistan, Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh and SriLanka have appealed for an extension of the amnesty period and going by the statements of the Labor Minister, this seems unlikely unless there is a royal decree. The Indian embassy has done a commendable job though. However, what is worrying is the fate of people who are left out and who could not complete their paper work on time. The levels of fine are so high that these people might have to stay behind bars for the rest of their lives, if caught.

The "inspectors" have been "trained" by the Labor Ministry. No one knows on what. Will they revert to the old practices of physical manhandling, cutting of iqamas and reckless raids? Time alone can answer this. It is still not clear what is going to happen to people who are caught and do not have the means to pay the hefty fine. It is also not clear what and whether there is going to be a similar punishment to greedy sponsors who sell visas by the dozen without even bothering to find out what these people are doing, as long as they get the money - the root cause of the present problem.

Meanwhile, the regulations for domestic helps have already come into force. As usual, there are ambiguous rules. Domestic workers are entitled for 9 hours rest per day. The regulations do not clarify how many hours of work per day, which means that they can be made to work up to 15 hours a day and sponsors can get away with it because they have not broken any rules. There is supposed to be a paid sick leave, but who certifies whether the domestic worker is sick or not? Will they be allowed to visit the doctor in the first place? A one-month paid vacation is assured as per the law, but how many domestic helps even get to go home once every three years? How many are even literate enough to know their so-called rights?

The "obligations" required from domestic workers are even more ambiguous. These workers cannot reject any work without any "valid reason". Now you can imagine how loose this term is. Who decides whether the reason is valid or not? The worker is supposed to "obey the employer and his family members" and "should not disclose household secrets". Please, give me a break. If the matter was so secretive, the employer must have enough common sense not to discuss it in front of his domestic help.

With such vaguely framed rules, I do not expect miracles to happen for the welfare of these poor workers. What needs to fundamentally change in the Kingdom of Humanity is the attitude. Rest everything else will fall in place. The coming days are going to be crucial and a period of testing times indeed.