Eleven days before Union Minister of State for External Affairs VK Singh arrived in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Tuesday to take stock of the workers’ crisis there, the South East Asian nation of the Philippines had given India valuable lessons on managing issues that affect migrant labourers in the Gulf country.
Several thousand Indian and Filipino workers have been stranded in Saudi Arabia since at least November, after several companies, including construction firms Saudi Oger and Saudi Bin Ladin Group, laid them off without paying wages for months.
Even as workers had neither the money nor exit visas – which require their employers' approval – to return, the crisis worsened over the last week or so as the employers cut off food, water and electricity supplies to their company-provided accommodation facilities.
The food shortage came to light only on July 30, when External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj appealed to the Indian embassy in Riyadh and the consulate in Jeddah, along with the three million-strong diaspora in Saudi Arabia, via Twitter to feed fellow-Indians. In all, about 10,000 Indians are stranded in Saudi Arabia.
There have been large-scale layoffs in the oil-rich Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia, after the fall in oil prices have impacted their economies.
Study in contrasts
However, even as Swaraj was tweeting about the food crisis, Manila had already reached out to the 10,000-odd Filipino citizens in distress. While no one cast aspersions at the minister’s intention to help the labourers, many noticed the Philippines scoring a point over India thanks to its quick response to the crisis.
The Filipino government sent a delegation to meet workers’ representatives and assess their needs on July 21. The panel checked whether the Saudi companies that retrenched labourers were able to meet their obligations to the Filipinos.
It began to distribute financial assistance to its citizens on July 31. Those who were stranded at the job site received 1,590 Saudi rials (Rs 30,000 approximately) while their families back home were given 500 Saudi rials (Rs 9,000 approximately) as one-time assistance. The government distributed 1,590 Saudi rials to those who are already repatriated to the Philippines.
The alacrity with which Manila took up the issue showed its concern for migrant labourers.
The Philippines introduced the Migrant Workers and Overseas Filipinos Act of 1995 to protect the rights of millions of Filipinos working abroad. Section 4 of the Act, which deals with the deployment of migrant workers, states that: “The state shall deploy overseas Filipino workers only in countries where the rights of Filipino migrant workers are protected.”
The country also reportedly suspended its contracts with four Saudi companies, while President Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday ordered the repatriation of Filipino workers stranded in Saudi Arabia.
Waiting for assistance
Many Indian labourers, who are now cooling their heels in camps where they have been put up by their companies, felt that the Indian consulate officials did not take up their complaints seriously.
“We had complained about non-payment of salaries at the Indian embassy as early as in January, but nothing has happened thus far,” an employee with Saudi Oger, who asked to remain unidentified, told Scroll.in over the phone from Riyadh.
Saudi Oger, owned by Lebanon’s Hariri family, has huge stakes in the country’s construction, facilities management, and real estate development throughout the country.
The Arab News reported on Monday that 31,000 Saudi Arabian citizens and foreign workers with Saudi Oger had lodged complaints with the labour office about the delayed wages.
“The company terminated the contracts of Saudi engineers and foreign workers in all of its branches without settling their dues,” reported the newspaper. “Some engineers have not been paid salaries for the last nine months. The workers cannot leave the country as the labour ministry has stopped the employer’s services such as social security insurance and access to the passport department’s portal.”
Swaraj informed Parliament on Monday that she is monitoring the food shortage in the camps and would evacuate the workers stuck in the Gulf country. “No Indian worker rendered jobless in Saudi Arabia will go without food,” she said.
However, many social workers in Saudi felt that Swaraj should have sent Singh immediately after the labour crisis came to light. “It is an issue that affects thousands of Indians,” said a social worker involved in food distribution at the camps who requested anonymity. “The news has been out for three days, but our minister arrived late.”
Labourers, meanwhile, are happy to be evacuated but have demanded that the Indian government intervene to get their salary and other benefits. “Hopes of getting the salary arrears and final settlement fade by the day,” said Mahroof (name changed on request), who has been working with Saudi Oger for the last five years. “I cannot afford to lose these, because it is my blood and sweat. I lived without wages for the last seven months. I have a big family to take care of. I pray to the Indian government to take up the issue seriously.”
His colleague, Jaikumar (name changed), thanked the Indian consulate in Riyadh and social workers for providing food and essential items. “I haven’t sent a single penny to my home for the last three months,” he said. “If the government could provide us the financial assistance, as done by the Philippines embassy, my family back in Kerala would have lived happily.”Shabeer, who works in the administration department of Saudi Oger, said the Indian consulate officials were not ready to take responsibility of their pending wages and other benefits. "They promised us to take us back home, but didn't give any assurance on our wages," he said. "How can we go home without a penny in our pocket? Why do government officials treat us like second-class citizens?"