Unpaid and Stranded: The Plight of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia

People stand in front of the Indian embassy in the Saudi capital Riyadh on 2 August 2016. New Delhi was working to feed more than 10,000 Indian labourers stranded in the Gulf with no wages after losing their jobs, in what Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj called a food crisis. STRINGER/AFP/Getty Images
06 August, 2016

Jobin George Thomas is one among the 10,000 Indian workers who have been stranded in the city since Saudi Oger Limited, a construction firm, stopped paying them their salaries. In the last week of July, it also stopped providing meals for its workers situated across five different camps due to a falling out over the catering company over non-payment.

According to the International Monetary Fund, oil-exporting countries in the Middle East have lost $390 billion in revenue due to a dip in oil prices since 2015. The IMF estimates that this amount would be as high as $500 billion by the end of the year. IMF Director for Middle East and Central Asia Masood Ahmed, said these losses translate into budget deficits and slower economic growth, particularly for countries such as Saudi Arabia that are still heavily dependent on oil to finance their spending. Struggling companies, such as Saudi Oger, have postponed the payment of salaries, hoping to ride out the economic slump.

The company’s workers, both blue and white-collar ones, hope that the company recovers from the financial crisis and pays them. However, ceasing the supply of food for workers in the different camps has abjectly worsened the situation.

On 30 July, workers from one of the company’s camps in Jeddah, the port city of Saudi, staged a protest on the streets. A protest is a rare sight in Arab countries, and it prompted the media and the countries with the most migrants in the gulf, including the Indian government, to acknowledge the situation.

The Indian mission house made arrangements for food for the protesting workers. On 1 August, Sushma Swaraj, the External Affairs minister announced in parliament that stranded Indians will be evacuated. Her deputy, VK Singh, would oversee the rescue operation in person.

MJ Akbar, the minister of state for external affairs, tweeted on 31 July that the governments of both countries held talks to facilitate an “Exit Pass”—a document required to leave the country—for the stranded workers, even those that did not have passports. The Exit Pass is required even for those workers that did not possess a valid “Ikkama”—a resident or work permit, which has to be renewed every two years. The Saudi government, Akbar said, had also offered to waive the fine for overstaying without a valid Ikkama.

However, the evacuation plan initiated by the Indian government has not been received well by many of the stranded workers. None of the workers I spoke to were ready to leave the country without receiving their unpaid wages and end of service benefits.

“I appreciate the Indian government’s efforts in the matter. But I won’t agree to get evacuated through exit pass. I have worked and I want that money.” Thomas said. He added that while being evacuated was simple enough, once he landed in India, he wouldn’t even have enough money to go home.

Pius Sebastian, an IT professional who has been working for Saudi Oger for 19 years, said that the time had come for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to step in. Sebastian, who had sent his family back to India as the situation worsened, went on to add, “More than evacuation, we need government level talks to be held to get us our unpaid salary.”

Ullas Abass Podiyabba, an administration staff member of the company for 20 years, faces the added challenge of coping with the funds for his four children’s education in Riyadh.

“The school fee is also pending. For the last few months, I was under presumption that crisis will be over.” Podiyabba also feels that leaving the country without his due remuneration is not an option.

In Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, it is the responsibility of the employer to renew the employee’s Ikkama. The police can jail migrant workers who do not possess a valid resident card. Moreover, this card is needed to access medical care as well as other services such as travel outside the country.

“I fell sick last week. As I didn’t have a valid Ikkama, I couldn’t go to hospital. I thought that I will die here in the camp,” Iqbal Khan, a mason with the company, told me. Lack of funds also meant he couldn’t afford to renew it on his own. He, too, refuses to leave until he receives his due wages.

“I had to pay a recruitment agent in India to get a job here. The amount was arranged by taking a loan. I have not closed it yet. I can’t go back empty handed. It’s beyond imagination,” Khan said. The unpaid loan as well as the cost of caring for a seven-member family weigh on him.

The unpaid wages are despite the fact that Saudi Arabia has a wage protection system, which is supposed to ensure that migrant workers are paid every month. If complaints of unpaid wages are registered with the ministry of labor, punitive actions can be levied on the company, such as suspending its government-related services—social security, access the passport department, and so on. On 2 August, Arabnews, a local daily in Riyadh, reported that 31,000 Saudi and foreign employees had lodged complaints with the Labor Office about regarding wages.

Part of the problem for the stranded workers is that the Saudi government had initiated such measures against the company early in the year. This resulted in some cases of workers unable to renew their Ikkama, even on their own, leaving them at the mercy of the police. While some white-collar workers were able to circumvent the fines and renew the Ikkama, many blue-collars workers could not.

“The company didn’t renew our Ikkama. As we didn’t want to become ‘illegal,’ we tried to renew it ourselves by paying money and the fine. But we couldn’t do it as Saudi government had blocked all services to our company,” Kyum Ali, a construction site helper, said.

In March 2016, the Saudi Labor Ministry had taken some measures to address these concerns. A panel within the ministry was formed to resolve the crisis; with the ministry promising to settle the salary dispute either by paying off the employees or clearing the arrears in installments. However, it has not turned out to be of much help for the workers.

Rumours in the camp abound that Ikkamas will be renewed, employees will also be given a change of employer document and will be allowed an exit pass. But the matter of the unpaid salaries is still not clear.

William Gois, Regional Coordinator of the Migrant Forum in Asia (MFA)—a regional network of organisations which stands for the rights of migrant workers—said that in repatriating workers without addressing their claims the Indian state is complicit in the exploitation of workers.

“The Indian government must work with their Saudi counterparts to ensure that workers receive their dues or compensation that is agreeable to them,” Gois said, adding that the MFA fully agrees with the position of the workers. The chief of the International Trade Union Confederation, the largest trade union, Sharan Burrow echoed this statement.

According to economic forecasts, as global oil prices fell sharply, the Kingdom's income has dropped by more than $88 billion. “The oil prices are affecting job security throughout the world but unpaid wages constitute theft and companies must be liable for both wages and compensation in times of job reduction,” Burrow said. She stressed that the Indian and Saudi governments should ensure that the company fulfills their obligation.

According to Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch official in Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s foreign worker sponsorship leaves workers few options if companies fail to pay them for their work or break their contract, and workers cannot escape the country and go home because of exit visa requirements. Earlier this year, videos of workers of the Bin Ladin group, which had laid off 50,000 people, allegedly setting fire to a bus were circulated online. However, the company had paid outstanding salaries before dismissing the workers.

“This leaves workers stranded at the mercy of charity and embassies for basic survival. It is past time for Saudi Arabia to allow workers to change jobs without employer approval and abolish the exit visa requirement,” Coogle said.

The overall effect of these laws, and of the accompanying government narrative, reinforces the marginalisation of migrant workers and immerses them in a society ever more hostile to their presence.

Though Saudi officials claim confidence in overcoming the oil price slump with $750 billion in their foreign exchange reserves, the private sector does not seem to reflect the same.

Rejimon Kuttappan is an independent journalist, migrant-rights researcher, and author of Rowing Between Rooftops (2019) and Undocumented: Stories of Indian Migrants in the Arab Gulf (2021). He is also an ILO, Reuters, and NFI fellow on labour migration, modern-day slavery, and forced labour. He is also a consultant of ILO and ITUC.