A workforce to reckon with

A workforce to reckon with

For lakhs of families whose breadwinners toil in harsh working conditions and weather in Saudi Arabia, the news that the kingdom will repatriate a...

For lakhs of families whose breadwinners toil in harsh working conditions and weather in Saudi Arabia, the news that the kingdom will repatriate a large number of guest workers under a new labour policy is devastating. As the news started filtering in from the last week of March, panic gripped the expat families living in India and the workers in the kingdom are reported to have been living in fear that at any moment they will be rounded up and bundled out or thrown into prison as illegal stayers.

There is serious concern at the Central and States' level over how to deal with the influx of Indian workers if they lose jobs. Overseas Indian Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi has even offered airfares to 'deserving' workers who want to return and instructed the Indian missions in Saudi Arabia to extend all help to job-losers. Kerala which sends the highest number of people among all the States in the country to Gulf countries for employment has set up a ministerial committee to prepare a rehabilitation package for the Diaspora.

The minister has promised to convene a meeting of nine chief ministers of labour-exporting States, including Andhra Pradesh, to discuss the impact of Saudi law on the Indian workforce there. Among the worst affected are the three South Indian States of Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, in that order. And, efforts are afoot to send a high-level team to Saudi Arabia to discuss the issue with officials concerned.

In other words, there is paranoia about the new Saudi labour law called Nitaqat under which every Saudi employer has to compulsorily appoint one Saudi citizen for every 10 foreign workers. On the face of it, the law is not a tall order. But given the composition of the Saudi labour market, for that matter any country in the six-member Arab Gulf Cooperation Council bloc, it is, because of acute labour shortage. Nearly 90 per cent of the Arab Gulf population is imported from other countries, notably the Indian sub-continent and Asia, and Yemen and Egypt from the Arab world.

Interestingly, the workers coming from each one of these countries are known for their skills and hard work and they are employed accordingly to get maximum output out of them. Even among Indian workers, they are chosen State-wise for their work skill or lack of it. For instance, Punjabis are selected for machine-related jobs while workers from the Telangana region for construction jobs. These are all recruited by Saudi-based companies with Indian recruitment agencies and taken there on group visas for a specific period � until the completion of the project.

According to the laws of these countries, once the project work is completed, the company that sponsored and brought the staff is supposed to send the workers back home or if they find any other job just before completing their work, their employer/sponsor can give a No Objection Certificate (NoC) allowing the worker to join another company. Since the procedures are cumbersome and time-consuming, a number of workers desert their original employers and join some other company, often on lesser salary than the minimum wage prescribed by the government. In the process, the workers may even lose their passports as they are generally kept by the employer. In their keenness to save as much money as possible during their overseas stay, the poor, semi-literate workers forget the fact that they are unwittingly falling foul of the local laws and one day they will be detained and deported or sentenced to long imprisonment.

Illegal workers, including those who cross borders or land in boats, are only part of the problem the Gulf States face and these are given amnesty once in a while as a sort of honourable exit from the country and the process will be facilitated by the respective countries' diplomatic missions. In the case of Saudi Arabia, it is not amnesty, though there will be a crackdown on unlawful workers, but large scale nationalization of workforce, called Saudiisation.

Providing jobs to local population is universal. But in the case of Gulf States they are in a piquant situation created by oil-fuelled economies that encourage high spending on infrastructure and industrial development, necessitating massive import of skilled and unskilled workers from various parts of the world. Since the Asian continent is the source and powerhouse of all kinds of skills, Gulf is the magnet for millions of youths seeking jobs and a hassle-free life. The currency parity makes a Gulf job more attractive as the expat workforce can save and repatriate as much as ten times their earnings in their home countries.

Saudi Arabia is estimated to have 2.75 million Indians, making it the largest community in the kingdom, employed in every sector from lowly manual labourers to advisors and consultants. Whenever there is a move to employ locals, not many blue and white-collared workers are affected since they are the backbone of economic sectors. Middle and low level staff become victims. Incidentally, they are also the biggest chunk of expat population that repatriates large amounts of money.

The Nitaqat norm is seen as badly affecting this segment; if it does, our remittances from Saudi Arabia will dwindle. But what is little understood is pressure on localization of jobs is very high not only in the kingdom but everywhere else. With an increasing population and unlimited educational incentives to locals, thousands of youths graduate in different streams and demand jobs. They can't be denied for the sake of guest workers. As a result, the governments set quotas for private and public organizations to absorb local youths and the percentage of localization is generally decided �and reviewed � at the annual Gulf States' conference.

Despite their best efforts, they have not been able to achieve their targets for the simple reason that local youths prefer high-paid jobs with perks rather than the low-paid ones with long working hours which expats pick up. Moreover, none of the locals is prepared to do manual work, which, they think, is mean and below their dignity. A Whether it is Saudi Arabia or any of the other five Gulf States -- the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the Sultanate of Oman � the story is the same. They want to replace expats as early and as fast as possible. But they are unable to do so because of heavy dependence on the expat workforce.

However, the pressure has gone up post Arab revolutions. Suddenly they have realized a large unemployed young population is a powder keg that needs to be defused if the monarchical power is to continue. The street demonstrations, earlier unheard of, demands for democratic reforms which include a say for people in running the state and a fair share in oil income have forced the sheikhdoms to expedite localization of jobs from 2011 onwards. The current Saudi law is part of that process.

Nevertheless, how far the kingdom can push it is questionable. Somayya Jabarti, Deputy Editor of Saudi Gazette, in an article titled "An expat-less Saudi Arabia? Think hard and think again!" asks in a tongue-in-cheek manner: "Saudi unemployment is not due to or the fault of expatriates in the Kingdom. Saudi unemployment is due to ourselves. There are countless jobs out there for Saudis earnestly seeking jobs. However, the number of Saudis with the skills, the work ethics and the willingness to work hard is scarce.

Our education sector does not produce Saudis, or enough of them, to satisfy the rising needs of the job market, not in skills, not in discipline, not in attitude or with work ethics. Instead of looking in the mirror, questioning and examining ourselves, what do we do? We pinpoint guest workers as the cause of unemployment.

"The homes we live in were built, and are mostly maintained well, thanks to the guest worker. The roads on which we drive and are driven, leading to centers, hospitals, companies, etc. were built by guest workers. Our first teachers, in higher and earlier education, were mostly guest workers. Our first doctors, nurses, electricians, plane captains...again guest workers.

"In overdue justice we ought to be shaking the hands of guest workers in appreciation for their past and current contributions to our country. Instead, there are those of us who have grabbed these hands and cuffed them." Meanwhile, Saudi King Abdullah has ordered a three-month delay in crackdown on expat workers allowing them to sort out their papers. A reprieve, no doubt, but it is also a chance for Saudi authorities to look at Nitaqat afresh.


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