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Migration & Refugees

Saudi Arabia Arrests Thousands of Illegal Migrant Workers

DOHA. Qatar, Nov 6 2013 - Saudi authorities rounded up more than 4,000 illegal foreign workers at the start of a nationwide crackdown ultimately aimed at creating more jobs for locals, media reported on Tuesday.

Hundreds of thousands of workers have already left the kingdom following a grace period of seven months during which authorities told expatriates that if they did not fix their legal status they had to leave the country or face jail.

Many workers stayed off the streets to avoid checkpoints looking for invalid labour papers as a special task force of 1,200 Labour Ministry officials combed shops, construction sites, restaurants and businesses. Police manned roadblocks to enforce the kingdom’s strict labour rules that make it virtually impossible to remain in the country without an official employee-sponsor.

The campaign reflects a wider drive to trim reliance on foreign workers across the Gulf Arab states, whose rulers fear the changing demographics of the region. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other countries have aggressively supported proposals to open more jobs for their own citizens, worrying that chronic unemployment could feed dissent and challenges to their power.

“We want more Saudi men and women to work in the private and public sectors,” Saudi Deputy Labour Minister Mufrej Al-Haqbani told reporters Sunday just before the end of an “amnesty” period for the estimated 1.5 million foreigners — about 16 percent of the total nine million non-Saudi work force — who are believed to have violated residency and labour rules by leaving their sponsors, sneaking into the country or simply staying after making the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca. Workers had until Monday to comply with the law or face arrest and deportation.

A petition in support of a Saudi woman’s right to drive has attracted more than 16,500 names in advance of a weekend campaign in which female motorists are expected to defy the kingdom’s rulers and take to the roads

While some Gulf countries have plentiful oil and gas resources to lavish on relatively small local populations — foreigners outnumber natives about 5-to-1 in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — the pressures on Saudi Arabia stand out. Its 27 million people are more than the populations of all the other Gulf states combined, and its vast oil wealth has not trickled down enough to prevent impoverished areas and slums.

Unlike other places in the Gulf, low-income Saudis are willing to work the types of jobs that have long been held by Indian, Egyptian, Pakistani and Filipino migrant workers, though perhaps not for the same low wages that can be the equivalent of just several hundred dollars a month. Yet unemployment among Saudi nationals has remained stuck at 10 percent for several years, according to the International Monetary Fund. Unemployment among Saudis under 30 years old — about two-thirds of the population — is about three times the national average.

Saudi Arabia promised 120 billion dollars to fund job creation, debt forgiveness, higher public sector wages and social programmes that help young Saudis buy homes, a prerequisite for marriage. It also accelerated its so-called “Saudisation” programme, which seeks to require businesses to ensure that Saudi nationals make up at least 10 percent of the workforce.

But numbers tell another story. Only one-third of the seven million new jobs created over the past decade went to Gulf nationals, according to the International Monetary Fund.

A report in the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National said at least 51 million more jobs are needed by 2020 to avoid a rise in unemployment among Arab Gulf nationals.

Rights groups attack ‘irony’ of Saudi Arabia alleging Security Council double standards as kingdom cracks down on rights.

The Saudi crackdown may whittle down the number of foreign workers, but it may fail to address deeper issues that touch all Gulf nations such as allegations of abuses of domestic help and employment rules that have been harshly criticised by rights groups.

Nearly every worker in the Gulf — from construction sites to board rooms — is directly “sponsored” by an employer who has say over exit visas, residency and work permits. Groups such as Human Rights Watch and the International Labor Organisation have accused employers of violations such as withholding workers’ passports or ignoring their demands. In May, hundreds of construction workers in the United Arab Emirates were sent back to Bangladesh, Pakistan and other countries after waging a strike to protest meal costs deducted from their pay.

Any worker who leaves a sponsor without permission to find another job is considered in violation of labour rules.

“The problem on one level is that the migrants keep salary levels low,” Saudi expert and author Karen Elliott House said. “Another problem is that Saudis are either not qualified for the jobs they want or do not want to accept the low salaries of jobs they are qualified to do.”

*Posted under an agreement with Al Jazeera.

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