The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 8/4/2013
King Abdullah's instructions to the Ministries of Interior and Labor to give employers and expatriate workers a 90-day grace period to get their house in order is a welcome decision.
Although some expats and Saudi businesses say that three months is not long enough to straighten out sponsorship issues, the orders pretty much eases the tensions between expats, their employers and the ministries until cooler heads can prevail. This cooling off period allows expats in particular to assess their future.
If expats decide to leave the country, the reprieve allows them time to serve notice of termination and to receive their end of service benefits. Hopefully, for those workers who want to stay in Saudi Arabia, the grace period gives them time to return to the sponsors, move their sponsorship to the appropriate employer, or at least start the paperwork that allows them to stay in the country and continue to earn a living.
Although the king warned expat workers that “action will be taken in accordance with the law against those expatriates who fail to correct their status within this grace period,” there also was another message: Saudi Arabia is the land of the Two Holy Mosques and no person should be frightened in this land, even if it means carrying out the law of the land.
This should serve as a message to employers to fear Allah and to stop frightening their workers. If employers need workers, then by all means bring that person in to work, but don’t do it just to make another SR 500 profit.
Workers should be employed to give them a living wage and keep the company profitable, but to allow employers to get greedy.
The recent Ministry of Labor raids on businesses should also serve as a reminder that recruiting agencies and expats coming to Saudi Arabia should be aware of the rights of workers before they arrive. Admittedly, some Saudis are not the best in handling domestic workers, which has led to thousands of cases of runaways. But the recent law that establishes eight private companies to be directly responsible for all domestic workers should go a long way to protect workers, and to protect employers who are victimized by maids and drivers who run away for higher salaries or to join their families already living in the Kingdom.
Many Saudis have had experience of paying up to SR 8,000 for maids’ visas only to have a maid run away to join her family or to use a broker to find her a better paying job.
Then there are the maids who fall victim to scams because of their illegal status. They lose their legal status and medical benefits and have no where to turn. They are the perfect target for exploitation. I know of one illegal maid who was kidnapped by a taxi driver and forced into an illegal marriage with a man 30 years her senior.
He exploited her illegal status by threatening to turn her in if she didn’t submit to the marriage.
The grace periods allows maids such as the one I know to think about their status and decide whether return to her native country or finding a way to become legal again. It’s a fix-it period without fear and pressure.
Yet, having said that, and given the realities of just how much — or how little — can be accomplished in just 90 days, the ministries and employers should consider that because we do indeed live in the land of the Two Holy Mosques that we proceed with the sponsorship issues with humility and compassion.