The working man’s burden?

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By Mohammed Al-Khereiji, Arab News Staff

Published — Tuesday 9 April 2002

Last Update 9 April 2002 3:00 am

JEDDAH, 9 April — Steve is a manager in a major chicken fast food outlet, which emerged a few years ago to become one of the dominant players in the industry here in the Kingdom.

He has just been promoted to a managerial position within the successful franchise. But he is not a happy man.

Why?

Because, he told Arab News yesterday, of what he considers to be unfair and illegal treatment of him and his fellow expatriate workers at the hands of their company.

Steve — not his real name; he was too afraid to give us that — said that they are being made to pay SR1,000 for their iqamas (residence permits). He and his fellow workers are also being told to deposit SR200 in the company’s bank account. Only after they have provided proof of the transaction will their application for exit/re-entry visa be processed.

Despite it being stipulated in their contract that the company will pay for their iqamas and exit/re-entry fees and all other official visa expenses, the fee for the iqama renewal is being deducted from the workers’ salaries in five monthly deductions. It is taken automatically, even before they receive their income in their own bank accounts.

A number of the employees have, according to Steve, complained to their superiors about these issues — but to no avail. “We’re at the mercy of our sponsors. The only reason we’re not speaking openly in public about this situation is that we fear that our job security may be threatened if we do, or there may be other ramifications,” Steve told Arab News.

A source in the fast food outlet, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said: “The company generally is fair with its workers. But this is ridiculous. I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual sponsor knows nothing about it. It’s possible that the people who manage staff affairs are pocketing the money while pretending to charge it to the company.”

What, you may ask, is a few hundred riyals to someone in a managerial position? Well, quite a considerable sum, if he only earns SR1,100 a month. If the reader of this article earns SR15,000 a month, then he might imagine how it would feel if that amount was taken without his consent and against the letter of the law.

Steve can be taken as a representative of what may be many millions of expatriate workers in the Kingdom who are being made to pay for all their visa requirements despite it being stated in their contract that it is the sponsor’s responsibility.

Last year, the Law Court ruled in favor of a group of workers and fined their sponsor for just such a violation.

However, as with many such decisions reached by this legal entity (which in the vast majority of cases find in favor of the aggrieved employee), no legal precedent is set.

In practical terms, this means each and every employee must present their own case. The process can take a very long time indeed, and most expatriates do not have that kind of courage and resources.

Arab News has been swamped with letters and emails from disgruntled workers who are fed up with what they term an infringement of their basic rights.

They go so far as to accuse their Saudi sponsors of being morally corrupt.

One local Saudi businessman, however, offered a different perspective.

He explained that a large company is one thing, but a small, private enterprise is a different beast altogether.

“Iqama fees, health insurance, plane tickets, car insurance, housing: taken together, it is enough to put you in the red,” he said.

But that is small consolation to Steve and his fellow workers.

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