Wednesday, May 5, 2010

My driver's tears

Most expatriate workers come to Saudi Arabia for the good salaries. University educated Westerners work for some of the largest Saudi employers in technology, education and medicine. Not only are their salaries far better in the Kingdom than in their native countries, they are allowed to bring their families and live residential compounds that provide most of the comforts at home.

The same can’t be said for non-university educated South Asians, Africans and other workers from developing countries. These expats earn a wage that is far better than home, but they are not permitted to bring their families to Saudi Arabia and they live in dormitories or cheap housing, often with a group of other workers.

The policies of the Saudi government in which unskilled workers are not permitted to bring their families to the Kingdom make sense for the most part. If a worker is earning less than SR 1,500 per month – which is still a better wage than at home – the Saudi government isconcerned that the worker’s family will dependent on free government services. As it is, the Ministries of Social Affairs and Interior are
burdened with dealing with illegal immigrants who often come to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visa and then stay.

To think for a moment, though, that these unskilled workers are content with their jobs, pleased with their earnings and happy living thousands of miles away from their families is naïve. These workers – the taxi driver or the housemaid – live away from their families for years, sometimes decades. Depending on the employer, the unskilled worker gets a plane ticket home once every other year for a 30-day visit with the families. I know of Bangladeshi tea boys who earn so little that collections by the better paid employees are taken at the end of each month to supplement the tea boys’ income. An extra collection is taken to finance their annual trip home. That is if the employer permitted the trip in the first place.

An estimated 51 percent of the workers in Saudi Arabia are foreign. This is not unusual in Gulf countries where the number of foreign workers in Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and other countries far exceed the native workers.

While there are many benefits for the unskilled laborer to work in Saudi Arabia, there is an inherent unfairness of how some workers are treated. A worker’s salary usually determine whether family dependents are permitted to live in Saudi Arabia with the worker. This is a non-issue with skilled professionals, such as physicians, teachers, technicians, journalists and others. These people are paid high salaries and there is no threat of their families becoming dependent on Saudi Arabia for financial aid.

The inequity occurs when an unskilled worker also earns a high salary but is not permitted to bring his family to Saudi Arabia. My driver is an honorable man working in Saudi Arabia under a Saudi sponsorship.

His primary employer is a company and his days are filled driving the company’s employees to and from work and to run errands. His sponsor permits him to take on extra clients. One of these extra clients is me.

My driver, a Pakistani with a wife and two young sons at home in Pakistan, earns an excellent wage between SR 4,000 and SR 10,000 a month. That’s a wage more than many Saudis earn. In a good month, he earns about $3,500 in U.S. dollars. That’s better than what many Americans earn in their own country. Yet my driver is not allowed to
have his family in Saudi Arabia. I couldn’t tell you the exact reasons for this, but at the end of the day to the Saudi government he is simply an unskilled Pakistani worker.

What is troubling to me, however, is that there are simple solutions to his plight. He can afford to place funds in government-approved account that guarantees his family has return airline tickets for home. A specific amount can be added as a bond to guarantee that his family does not become a burden to the Saudi government. Most
unskilled workers can’t afford to have a bond or provide guarantees for a return airline ticket. But if they earn their money legally, as my driver does, why shouldn’t they be permitted to have their families live with them?

Recently my driver brought his wife and two boys to Saudi Arabia on an Umrah visa. He found living quarters for them and I could see that these were the two happiest little boys in the world. My driver often works seven days a week, but with his family in town, he worked only six. Thursdays was family day. The boys knew that their dad reserved that day for them. Each Thursday morning, they were dressed and ready for the big day long before their dad arrived to pick them up for a trip to the Corniche, an amusement park, the mall or a fine family restaurant.

From a practical standpoint this visit is good for Saudi Arabia. The money that my driver earns is being spent in Jeddah. It’s not being sent to Pakistan. He is contributing to Saudi Arabia’s economy.

At the end of the holiday, the family returned to Pakistan and my driver will probably not see them for another year. It’s not often that I see a grown man cry, but I can’t fault his tears for the unfairness of being forced to find work in a foreign country to provide for his family. And even when that wage is exceptional, the labor laws in Saudi Arabia keep that family separated. Further, millions of Saudi Riyals leave the Kingdom each day. Saudi banks and Western Union offices are jammed each day with expatriates sending money home with little being spent in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia would benefit better if it changes its policies to allow unskilled expatriates earning a good income to have their families live with them.


immicomments said...

I commend your yet another thought provoking opinion “Allowing all expats to bring families may help economy” (May5th) by citing the economic and non economic reasons for allowing family status to all the expatriates workers who are engaged in unskilled jobs.

I agree allowing all expats family status will give a tremendous fillip to Saudi economy. More than $20 billion worth of money which is equivalent to four percent of its GDP is going out of Saudi economy as remittances to abroad. Undoubtedly expatriates are contributing immensely to the Saudi economy both by service providers as well as consumers. If unskilled labours in different occupations are given family status, their contribution would have been further more to its GDP. It will stop the money flight from Saudi economy and hence resources may be used for the development of the economy. If the workers are given family status then demand for housing and other goods will also rise which is another good indicator for the economy.
Hope the people like you come forward and convinced the authorities to bring the reforms in this important area as well for the benefits of Saudi Economy and motivating the expatriates to spend earned money in kingdom itself.

Fatima said...

I think the main problem unskilled migrant workers face in Saudi Arabia isn't the fact that they are apart from their families (which is unfortunate, of course). The main problem is the lack of enforcement and legal protection to workers: the sponsorship system is flawed because it creates dependence, and domestic workers aren't even included under the protection of the labor laws. Workers can be abused, deprived of pay, driven into suicide, and nothing will happen to the sponsor. These stories happen in Saudi Arabia way too often.
You can see some reports here:

Dr. Elangchezhian said...

a very interesting and valid piece of information.

The idea if implemented would benefit the Kingdom very much towards economic prosperity.

This would also motivate the millions of immigrant work force to improve their productivity.

Malaysia has this formula in place and hence it is able to harvest this idea.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful idea.....biggest reform would be making sure the sponsors started to actually pay them once a month or even at all. Many have their pay withheld four to six months at a time. And, they are promised a certain salary but when arrive in Saudia, they are forced under duress to sign a new contract for less salary and different working conditions. What can they do? They borrowed money for visas and medical checkups, they could come to Saudia. Then the unscrupulous sponsors cheat them out of pay. There are other deductions out of their meager pay, too. What I can't understand is how sponsors expect them to also pay for lodging and food and medical care on their own, too. The workers become desperate and sometimes end up stealing for necessaries. The entire system is nothing but slave labor and human trafficking across the Middle East and China, too. If one more M.E. person tries to brag about all the new infrastructure to me but doesn't take into consideration that slaves are building everything. Other countries may not have as much but at least they paid real salaries for what they have. I am disgusted by these so called or should I say self called pious Muslims who are nothing more than slave labor human traffickers who should be put in jail.