Saudi Arabia: A concentration camp for immigrant workers

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The kingdom of Saudi Arabia, one of the foremost allies of the USA in the Middle East, brutally exploits its migrant workers. The visa regime keeps the workers in a state of permanent dependency on their employers and abuses are common. At the other end of the spectrum members of the royal family, including the king himself, are among the richest people in the world with billions of dollars in wealth. This contradiction has revolutionary implications.

Workers in a bottled water plant Photo: Mohammed Adow/ Al JazeeraWorkers in a bottled water plant Photo: Mohammed Adow/ Al JazeeraOn the 10th February 2013 the plight of seven hundred Pakistani workers, who have been stranded in Saudi Arabia for a year, was highlighted when one of them died in an accident at work. One year ago MAPA, a Turkish construction company, issued visas to seven hundred Pakistani workers. Upon arriving in Saudi Arabia they learnt that not only their visas but also their signed employment agreements were bogus. The workers were furious with the company but due to the pro-capitalist laws of Saudi Arabia they had to live in the company’s camps like prisoners for a year.

According to Saudi law workers can only work for the company that has issued the visa, otherwise they must purchase a new visa for thousands of dollars and are forced to leave the country and re-enter it with the new visa. Having been defrauded of thousands of dollars for the MAPA visas, the workers waited for justice from the Saudi authorities for a year. Despite the filing of dozens of applications against the company in the labour courts, the Saudi authorities took no notice. It was only after the death of one of the workers that the fraudulent activity was exposed. Subsequently Saudi officials intervened and prosecuted the company officials involved in the fraud and freed the workers from the labour camps. The workers were allowed to find work somewhere else or return home and the forged visas were declared legal.

Exploitation

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The sufferings of immigrant workers in the scorching heat of the Arabian Desert are far worse than this. The imperialist media is criminally silent about the barbarity of the reactionary Saudi regime. Saudi Arabia is the largest producer and exporter of oil in the world, boasting seventeen to twenty per cent of all known oil reserves. The petroleum industry contributes 80% of the budget revenue, 45% of GDP and 90% of export revenues in Saudi Arabia. Immigrants make up 60 to 67 per cent of the total labour force and that figure rises to 90-95 per cent in the private sector. The majority of the foreign workers are from Pakistan, Bangladesh and India (1.5 million from each country) as well as from Egypt, Sudan and Philippines (1 million from each). There are hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrant workers from Yemen and many other countries too.

According to the labour law of 1969, a visa can only be issued to a foreign worker through a Saudi citizen sponsor who provides a guarantee for the immigrant - such a Saudi citizen is called a ‘Kafeel’ in Arabic. In other words the Saudi government plays no role in issuing visas and thus takes no responsibility for the workers. As a Saudi labour minister once said “There are no foreign workers in our country. We have contract workers”. Due to the ‘Kafeel’ law, the Saudi government is indifferent to the point of negligence regarding the kafeels’ atrocities, while the business of buying and selling these visas is a very lucrative one by which the Saudi travel agents make millions. There are more than ten million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia working on visas issued by big companies. On top of that there are those who are employed in small and medium scale companies and workshops as well as workers operating on independent visas. The fourth and most brutally exploited section of workers is comprised of domestic servants. Most of the housemaids are from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. These women stay imprisoned in their masters’ homes for years because, according to Saudi law, in order to go out a woman has to be accompanied by a male relative. Physical and sexual abuse is a routine affliction for them but according to the Sharia laws, a woman needs four female or two male witnesses to prove sexual abuse. How can these oppressed women find these witnesses? For female workers Saudi Arabia is a horror without end.

Open Visas

A large number of workers in Saudi Arabia have been issued with open visas and work for small businesses. But under Saudi Law an open visa cannot be issued without a Saudi sponsor (kafeel) or a company. These open visas are an invention of the Saudis who make millions out of the visa business. Of course the foreign workers themselves are content with the arrangement because they have the luxury of finding work for themselves rather than being dictated to by their sponsor. Those Saudis engaged in this practice navigate the law by applying for visas on the basis of ownership of a company that exists only on paper. These visas are then sold for 12,000-20,000 Riyals, along with an agreement that when the worker finds a job the Saudi sponsor would issue permission document so that the worker can get his ‘Aqama’ (residential card) and labour card with details of his new employment. However the worker invariably has to pay 2,000-4,000 Riyals to the sponsor for him to uphold his end of the bargain.

According to Saudi law a worker cannot change his kafeel or sponsor company without buying a new visa. Despite this there is a big and growing business in the issue and transfer of open visas. Recently the Saudi government has been fervently implementing the law which makes it illegal for workers to work for someone other than their kafeel and action is being taken against workers who fail to do so, up to and including deportation.  According to Saudi law every foreign worker should get a residential card (Aqama) and a labour card upon arrival in Saudi Arabia - this is the responsibility of the sponsoring company or individual. These cards can be renewed each year upon payment of a fee, previously 701 Riyals but this has recently been raised to 2400. Unable to cover this additional cost, small and medium businesses have refused to renew the cards for their workers and as a result thousands of workers have become illegal for not having the residential card resulting in the forcible deportation of these people. The big companies are making the workers themselves pay for this increase, either partially or completely.

The government has also started to implement another law which requires all the big private companies to ensure that at least half their workers are Saudi citizens otherwise they are required to pay 200 Riyals per month for every additional foreign worker over that amount. The government has divided the companies into categories. Green companies are those meeting the condition and Red companies are those that do not. The visas of those working in red companies are not being renewed. The number of such companies and businesses is estimated to be 250,000 and so the number of workers being affected by this is astronomical. Then there is a yellow category of companies that are required not to employ foreign workers for more than six years with the visas of those who have worked for more than six years also not being renewed.

Class divide

On the basis of the country’s huge oil wealth and the vicious exploitation of immigrant workers, the native Saudis had been convinced that they were born to live a life of luxury. But in past three to four decades, the rising population, a growing royal family and the plunder of the state has changed the situation. The Saudi royal family and their imperialist masters are rattled by the global crisis of 2008 and the Arab revolution. The Saudi regime is terrified by the overthrow of Egyptian and Tunisian rulers. As a result the Saudi army is brutally crushing the movement of workers in eastern province of Qatif and neighbouring Bahrain and they also played a major role in propping up the sectarian divide in order to sabotage the movement in Syria. Although Saudi Arabia was struck by the waves of Arab revolution from all sides, no mass movement was seen inside the country. But the rulers have seen their future in the streets of Cairo. A plan of reforms starting in 2003 with completion date in 2013 is being implemented hastily which is creating yet more problems. In fact there is an obscene wealth gap in Saudi society with a handful of very wealthy individuals from the royal family while the mass of people are deprived of basic necessities. Officially the unemployment is 12% and youth unemployment is 32%. Deputy Minister for Labour Dr. Abdul Wahid Bin Khalid told the Observer in June 2011 “we need to create 6.5 million new jobs. People don’t like the jobs that we have at the moment”.

Two thirds of the population is below the age of 30 while three quarters of the unemployed are around the age of 20. Contrast this to the obscene wealth of the royal family. It is estimated that the oil wealth is shared by 15,000 parasites of the royal family but 2,000 of them have the lion’s share of the loot. For instance Prince Waleed bin Talal was at number 26 on Forbes list of wealthiest individuals this year with assets of 20 billion dollars. The Prince actually complained that the magazine had underestimated his wealth and said that the actual worth of his assets was 29.6 billion dollars and he was in the top ten richest people in the world. This shows the plundering of the Saudi economy undertaken by the royal family. Similarly the incumbent King Abdullah owns 17 billion dollars making him the third wealthiest king in the world. A Saudi economist who has worked in the finance ministry told the New York Times, on the condition of anonymity, that no one knows how much money the royal family takes from the oil revenues. All we know is the amount given in the budget. It is also never revealed how much the Arab American Oil Company (ARAMCO) takes. A cable sent from the US Embassy in Riyadh in 1996 was published in Wiki Leaks which exposed the behaviour of the royal family. “The stipends range from $270,000 per month on the high end to $800 per month for the lowliest member of the most remote branch of the family. The US embassy estimated the stipends system put an annual drain of about $2 billion on the $40 billion government budget… five or six princes control the revenue from 1 million barrels of crude oil production a day out of the nation's total production of 8 million barrels a day…Another method by which some Saudi princes obtain money is by borrowing from the banks and not paying them back…a small group of the most senior princes enrich themselves by controlling several billion dollars in annual expenditures in “off-budget” programs… princes also use their clout to confiscate land from commoners, especially if it is known to be the site for an upcoming project and can be quickly resold to the government for a profit”.

In 1996 Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal had assets worth 13 billion dollars that have now grown to 29.6 billion. In order to double his wealth the Prince must have doubled the rate at which he is plundering the oil and other wealth of Saudi Arabia. In December 2011 three journalists Feroz, Hassam and Khalid were imprisoned for several days for releasing a ten minute film about the poverty in the kingdom. According to the filmmakers 22 percent of the Saudi population is forced to live below the poverty line and 70 percent don’t own a house. According to a report on Ahram website two million are unemployed and unemployment amongst women is 30 percent. The global economic crisis, growing wealth disparity, and unemployment and the revolutionary upsurges are troubling the Saudi Royal family their Imperialist masters and a section of the Saudi ruling class is making a half-hearted attempt to carry out some reforms which serve only to intensify the crisis.

Reforms

The recent changes to the law and increases in the fees for permits are part of a plan to reduce the number of foreign workers and create jobs for the Saudis, lest unemployment leads to revolutionary explosions of the kind seen in Tunisia and Egypt. Immediately after the Arab revolution the Saudi rulers announced a reform package of 76 billion dollars. This reflects the shallow mentality of the ruling class who think that revolutions are mechanically linked with the economic situation. These measures cannot stop revolutionary movements but simply exploit the immigrant workers to the last drop of blood by forcing them to work for very low wages in inhumane conditions. Simply because the bosses and kafeels in small and medium enterprises refused to pay the increased permit fees, most of the workers automatically became illegal because the workers earn too little to pay for themselves. This means that these people will be deprived of their livelihoods. The restrictions on so called open visas will result in hundreds of thousands of workers losing their jobs.  In the companies where native Saudis are employed, the foreign workers will have to do the work of Saudis as well, since the locals don’t work. Or if the companies don’t give half the jobs to locals, two hundred Riyals will be deducted from the salaries of immigrant workers. This will only make their lives more miserable. These laws are contradictory and can never be fully implemented because all the private companies exploit the cheap labour of foreign workers to sustain their rates of profit.

The immigrant workers in Saudi Arabia have no basic political or democratic rights. Unions are illegal and in case of mistreatment the workers can only write an application to the labour court. In many cases if one party in a dispute is a Saudi citizen, the foreign nationality of the other is enough to prove him guilty. The private sector is based on this exploitation and the Saudis will not be able to replace ten million foreign workers. That is why on 9th April King Abdullah put on hold the crackdown against the immigrant workers for three months. These workers have to suffer in silence over these attacks as any protest will lead to their immediate deportation. The threat of losing their job and being deported keeps them working. By contrast the laws that the royal family has made for the Saudi citizens at least guarantee economic survival including a minimum wage and other benefits. But these benefits are incompatible with the profits of companies who have already protested against the requirement that they employ 50% Saudi citizens.

The inclusion of the local population in the economy will strengthen the political power of the working class which will play the decisive role in the impending movement but this law could be amended, and even if it is not, there will not be very strict implementation due to the opposition of the bosses. But the crackdown against the workers having the so called ‘open visa’, few of whom work for their official kafeels, will continue for some time and hundreds of thousands of workers will be sent home unemployed. A large number of workers will be made illegal, thus permanently facing the threat of arrest any time. On the other hand expulsion of such large number of workers will slow down the economic activity and the passion to implement these laws will subside. The result will be that the business of visas will revive but with much higher costs and more brutal exploitation of the workers. As the crisis deepens the Saudi rulers’ trust in this system will dwindle thus intensifying their plundering activities. They will become more and more afraid of a revolt from below. This will make them introduce reckless and irresponsible reforms and measures to an even greater extent. Although a combination of vicious oppression and a few reforms has prevented a movement from erupting so far, the simmering anger in Saudi society cannot be contained for long. After the beginning of the Arab Revolution, the protest by female teachers, telecommunication workers and numerous other sporadic incidents exposed the growing discontent in the society. There are many factions within the royal family fighting for a bigger share of the loot. The rule of the Saudi royal family is based on vicious capitalist exploitation and reactionary despotism. To maintain their rule they use primitive, barbaric repression which resembles that of slavery and cover all this under the sanctity of Islamic laws.

A revolutionary outlook

Saudi Arabia is not only a horrific concentration camp for the workers of the Middle East, Central and South Asia, but also a bastion of reaction and obscurantism. The rulers of Saudi Arabia support all kinds of counter revolutionary forces including religious fundamentalism, terrorism and sectarianism and aid them financially at the behest of US Imperialism. Their backwardness is reflected in the introduction of grotesque reforms like execution by shooting instead of beheading. The royal family would be out of power within days without such methods of oppression but it is also true that this cannot last for long. The royal family and their Imperialist masters are terrified of a revolutionary explosion. Their desperate actions show that even the most vicious oppression is failing to keep society under their control. They are getting more brutal in their attempts to extend their rule and every reform results in more ruthless oppression. On the other hand, slowly but surely the Saudi workers and youth are coming out of this fear. The movements around the world are inspiring them. Saudi workers and youth will surely enter the arena of history to overthrow the vicious tyranny of the royal family. Although immigrant workers are not in a position to initiate a movement in Saudi Arabia at the moment, when the ferment in Saudi society explodes in a revolutionary movement these foreign workers will fight shoulder to shoulder with Saudi workers for the ultimate emancipation from exploitation, oppression and barbarism.

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