Guest Workers in Saudi Arabia Struggle to Get Their Papers in Order

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: On the other side of the Persian Gulf from Iran, Saudi Arabia, and in Saudi Arabia right now, immigration woes. Different from immigration woes here. The kingdom has given its undocumented immigrants until July 3rd to get their papers in order or risk deportation. We're talking about millions of people. Nearly half of Saudi Arabia's labor force is made up of foreign workers. Authorities issued the order to free up jobs in the private sector for the kingdom's under-employed nationals.

Adam Coogle: It's essentially thrown the entire foreign labor sector into complete chaos.

Werman: Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch.

Coogle: Really the reasons for this go back to the way in which Saudi Arabia regulates its foreign work force to begin with. First of all, before coming to Saudi Arabia, workers often are forced to pay exorbitant recruitment fees to agencies in order to come to Saudi Arabia. Once they get there, they are subjected to the strictures of the kafala system, and under the kafala system workers are tied specifically to one employer who they are forced to work for. They can't change jobs if they are being exploited or if their conditions are not good. This employer often, in cases that Human Rights Watch has documented, confiscates workers' documents and passports. And then Saudi Arabia in general, their labor dispute mechanisms are very inefficient and they take way too much time and resources on the part of the person making the complaint, so a lot of times workers don't even try to take their employers to court for non-payment of wages, other things like that.

Werman: What happens on July 3rd, and is this just going to get more chaotic leading up to then? We're talking millions of people.

Coogle: Well, what the Saudis had originally done in early April was they had started sort of mass deportations, and they had been trying to arrest foreigner workers with incorrect paperwork or without residency. They put a stop to that after the, sort of, the chaos started, and they announced the grace period. By all indications, if they resume the deportations, it's going to create a huge headache for foreigh workers. It's going to put many of them on the run from the police. In Saudi Arabia one of the most exploitative things about the way that they regulate the foreign workers present on Saudi soil is they force them to procure an exit visa from their employer before leaving the country.

Werman: Walk us through the story of someone who's negotiated this difficult business.

Coogle: Yeah, so essentially, if a worker comes into the country, say, and they work for an employer. The employer confiscates their passport. Because of the conditions they're subjected to, they often will flee to a different employer and work under the table or work on the black market, and they can go on like that for years and have incomplete paperwork or not have residency and just continue working that way. Then when this announcement comes and they have to correct their residency status, even if they can get an employer to agree to be their sponsor, they still can't switch to that employer without their initial sponsor's approval, which may have been years ago. And on top of that, a lot of times they don't have a passport or their passport has expired, and they have to request a new passport from their embassy, and then take that to their initial sponsor to get his approval, who they may not have spoken to in years. It's quite a nightmare and it's quite a burden on the worker just to leave the country.

Werman: I mean, just this week, apparently, at the Indonesian embassy there was a riot that broke out.

Coogle: That's right.

Werman: With people trying to get their documents in order to get out of the country.

Coogle: Yeah, that's right, news sources and all of the labor-sending countries, particularly in Southeast Asia, so this would be sort of India, the Philippines, Indonesia, countries like that, essentially their consulates and their embassies inside Saudi Arabia are completely overwhelmed with document requests.

Werman: Now, kind of the motivation behind all of this is an assumption that when these people leave it will free up jobs for Saudi nationals. I mean, if these guest workers all leave, are Saudis prepared to do what is quite often menial labor?

Coogle: I couldn't comment on that. I don't know. From our perspective, it's extremely important that Saudi Arabia, in its efforts to accommodate the unemployment issue among Saudi citizens, also take into account the human rights of the migrant worker population already present in the country. And we would call on them specifically to overhaul their labor regulation system, the kafala or sponsorship system, to allow workers to change employers without permission and we would also call on them to abolish completely the exit visa requirement.

Werman: Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher with Human Rights Watch. Thanks for speaking with us.

Coogle: Thank you for having me.