JEDDAH: IRFAN MOHAMMED
Published — Sunday 23 June 2013
Last update 23 June 2013 6:53 am
The government has introduced new rules to provide further protection for expatriate farm workers and shepherds that include a limit on work visas issued to employers.
The rules also allow these workers to legalize their status, get new passports and change professions under the grace period ending on July 3.
A Saudi farmer who owns 200 acres of land can apply for four farm worker visas. The same number of visas is allowed for a Saudi owning more than 700 camels or 2,500 sheep or goats.
These farmers must produce bank statements to prove they can pay their workers and provide social insurance cover.
Farm workers have often complained about working conditions and nonpayment of salaries. The vast majority work in remote areas away from their fellow nationals and other expatriates.
This situation was highlighted recently when an Indian farm worker in Hail, Periya Swamy, said he had not been paid for 18 years. This resulted in an intervention by Hail Gov. Prince Saud bin Abdul Mohsen, who ordered his sponsor to pay what was owed to Swamy and send him home.
The agriculture and livestock sectors in the Kingdom are dominated by individuals not companies. This means workers fall into the domestic worker category where laws are murky.
Living in rural areas means that many of these workers do not have access to diplomatic missions to renew their residency cards and passports. Their working conditions have made many labor-exporting countries reluctant to allow them to work on farms.
A black market in visas has also sprung up, with some Saudis selling visas. As a result, some of these expatriate workers have been found working in industrial jobs in various cities across the Kingdom.
Raids on farms in Hail and Al-Kharj have seen several hundred expatriate workers arrested for not having proper documentation. This created a shortage of workers on some farms and a subsequent rise in potato and tomato prices. Prices have stabilized since the announcement of the grace period.
Several thousand farm workers in Hail, Al-Kharj and Buraidah have now successfully applied to change professions and sponsors, after not being allowed to do so earlier.
Mohammed Sabi Al-Din and Shaikh Nazeer, two Indians who worked as farm workers in Hail and Al-Kharj respectively, have now been able to change their professions, they told Arab News.
Most shepherd jobs in the rural areas are held by Sudanese nationals. There are also workers from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Egypt working on farms.