To any worker anywhere, a pay cheque is everything. The earnings represent what possibilities can be availed of in the future, what debts can be discharged from the past. It determines what will be eaten, what will be worn, which child will go to school and which one will stay at home. The workers employed by the Saudi Binladin Group (SBG) have waited in vain for the past four months for these coveted pay cheques.
Recently, the group, which is one of the biggest employers of expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, issued exit visas to nearly 77,000 foreign workers of its estimated 200,000 workers (both Saudi and foreign). According to reports published in Al Watan, nearly 55,000 of these workers have not been paid for several months.
On the weekend, these workers who waited in vain for their missing pay cheques took to the streets of Makkah. According to CNN, the unpaid workers were protesting in front of the SBG offices. Later that night, and after not receiving any response from company representatives, the disgruntled workers took to the streets of Makkah and burned down at least seven buses.
The restructuring of the Saudi economy means that many Pakistanis working in the kingdom will no longer have jobs.
Their frustration is understandable; even while the Saudi government has barred SBG from any future construction contracts, the government has issued exit visas. As per Saudi immigration requirements, the vast majority of the unpaid workers who have been issued exit visas will have to leave. Once they have returned to their home country, and for many this is Pakistan, the chances that they will actually get paid for (in some cases) four months of hard labour become quite slim.
A problem for Pakistani workers is a problem for Pakistan. According to the State Bank of Pakistan, Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia sent back $9.7 billion between July and December of last year. Remittances from Saudi Arabia make up the lion’s share of the over $18bn dollars that overseas workers sent to Pakistan in that period. The fact that a large number of expatriate construction workers have not been paid (and have been fired) by the largest employer in Saudi Arabia could well have significant impact on Pakistan’s economy.
The issue becomes even more complicated when one considers that the SBG layoffs are part of a larger restructuring of the Saudi economy. According to the recently released Saudi Vision 2030 plan, the kingdom’s vision for a post-oil economy includes diverting their assets from oil (and hence drilling of oil) to investment income. This in turn means that many Pakistani workers who currently work in the oil industry in the kingdom will no longer have jobs. The unpaid wages and lost remittances are signs of the hard times to come.
The Pakistani workers who have not been fired (estimated to be nearly 500,000 by immigration authorities) are also going to face new constrictions. Reportedly, these include a stipulation that says that Pakistani workers may only visit home once a year, and then after getting approval from employers and Saudi authorities. This is likely to have an impact not simply on the economy but also on the families of workers.
Currently, many of those working in the kingdom leave their wives and children behind in Pakistan, visiting them more than once a year. These satellite family arrangements already pose problems for those who have to endure them. The greater burden imposed by a lone permitted visit is likely to make conditions even worse. For some, this will mean moving their immediate family to the kingdom, a fact that will also reduce remittances to Pakistan.
Plummeting oil prices and greater reliance on non-oil based sources of energy all augur financial and economic challenges for Saudi Arabia. The contents of the Saudi Vision plan reveal just how Saudi Arabia hopes to deal with this altered future. The expatriate work force of the kingdom must be transformed from the unskilled labour required for construction to a skilled workforce of professionals that will help the Saudis manage their investments.
To attract these better-educated workers (without granting them citizenship) a new ‘green card’ programme is being considered. This green card programme (unlike ones in the West that lead to citizenship) will permit workers and their families to stay in the kingdom for longer periods.
The Saudi plans for the future, predictably self-serving as they are, do not of course take care of the miseries they are imposing on the present.
The thousands of workers of the SBG who remain unpaid, protesting on the streets of the holiest city in the Muslim world, are perhaps the most helpless in the world. Their plight, the uncertainty of their futures, the injustice of their present, is not enough to mobilise the Muslim masses, otherwise so flammable, to take up their cause. Even as Saudi Arabia drops bombs on Yemeni civilians and leaves Pakistani workers unpaid, its injustices remain unquestioned, unable to irk the collective Muslim conscience. Millions of Muslims eager to pray in Makkah remain unaffected by the plight of those who protest on its streets.
It is a tragedy to have to look abroad for employment, yet this is the reality of many Pakistanis, particularly those lacking inheritances and connections to pave their way to prosperity at home.
The workers returning from Saudi Arabia represent the most vulnerable of this group, those who have no one to turn to for resolution. The amount of their lost wages equals millions of dollars and affects hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis dependent on the livelihood of these workers. Even while it may be difficult to eke out some justice for them, the government of Pakistan must take up the issue more forcefully with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia may well consider its poor workers expendable and ignorable; Pakistan must not consider its citizens so.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, May 4th, 2016