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Author: 
MOHAMED A. RAMADY
Publication Date: 
Mon, 2011-02-21 23:35

Human rights awareness and economic development...Last year, Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King
Abdullah gave the go-ahead for a landmark project that aims to raise awareness
about human rights throughout Saudi Arabia, with important implications for the
Kingdom's future economic development. The king's approval will allow the Human
Rights Commission (HRC) to fulfill one of its constitutional obligations. How
this is managed will set the agenda in the manner the Kingdom deals with its
migrant labor force to ensure a more harmonious relationship between employers
and employees to the benefit of both parties and Saudi Arabia. Nothing is worse
than for employees to feel that they have been mistreated, and in return, do
their jobs grudgingly and half heartedly, thus diminishing the efficient
working of the national economy.
The aims of the new HRC body are laudable enough. The
commission is also authorized to spread values and a basic understanding of
human rights, which correspond with Islamic law. The HRC, through its
specialized divisions, will organize courses for personnel of all human
rights-related bodies in the Kingdom, and for those who are interested in the
field. It also aims to enable both government and nongovernmental sectors to
effectively implement relevant policies in line with Islamic values and
international treaties and agreements. The project aims to introduce
regulations, laws and procedures in the Kingdom that protects human rights. It
will also raise awareness about the dangers of human rights violations.
Saudi Arabia has come in for a lot of criticism over
cases of mistreatment of mostly domestic labor, extensively highlighted by this
newspaper, and has tried to investigate these and punish offenders, maybe not
with the speed that some wish for at times. Common humanity and decency should
drive it to do so and not international criticisms. What should be noted
however is that not everyone in the Kingdom is a menial domestic laborer or
maid, against whom these vile mistreatments are meted out, but that Saudi
Arabia is also a magnet to all levels of professionals working across many
industries, often residing happily in Saudi Arabia for many years. It is rare
to hear of abuse cases in these professions, unlike domestic employee cases.
This is because Saudi Labor Law is more stringent with companies, and employers
are often taken to task through Labor Courts in case of disputes, or maybe
because some professionals have better access to lawyers to defend them or
counter-sue Saudi employers overseas once they leave the Kingdom.
Just like anywhere in the world, it is the errant cases
and the slow bureaucratic decisions that capture the headlines, and not the
fact that for many years the Kingdom has been able to manage, in a fairly
efficient manner, one of the largest labor migrant movements seen for a country
with the population size of the Kingdom. This compares well with countries with
far larger populations who seem to have problems of their own, be it disguised
racism and discrimination against migrant labor, or the growth of nationalistic
elements calling for the outright removal of "foreign" elements from
the country.
The Kingdom's ambitious planned mega projects call for
more foreign workers coming into the Kingdom to share in this new wealth
creation, at a time when many parts of the world are suffering from budget
cutbacks, layoffs and a rise in youth unemployment. The 2010 Saudi population
Census has confirmed such an increase in the number of foreigners in Saudi
Arabia to over 7 million, despite a fairly youthful Saudi population, and a
large number of new Saudi labor entrants into the market. How the two groups,
underemployed or unemployed Saudi nationals, and foreigners holding on to fixed
contract jobs interact in a more harmonious manner that understand the needs of
the other, will determine the outcome of how ambitious national projects are
executed, and that Saudi Arabia remains a country of career choice for the
international professional worker.
One area that can be immediately looked at to stop labor
abuse is the issue of subcontracting projects, where the sub contractor often
fails to meet his obligations as the recent labor walk out in King Abdullah
Financial City bravely highlighted by this newspaper. The principal contractor
seems to absolve himself of any responsibility for sub contractor's failings,
without realizing there is a strong moral and reputational association of his
name with the sub contractor. International companies of repute operating in
the Kingdom make expressly sure that the sub contractors they hire can fulfill
their tasks, financially and operationally, and the prime contractor takes over
moral responsibility for any shortfalls. The fiasco of Jeddah's infrastructure
shortfall so vividly exposed by the recurrent floods, illustrates the moral
bankruptcy that some prime contractors have sunk to through sub-contracting
their work, but without taking any moral responsibility. This is why it seems
the Kingdom is now turning to international companies to address Jeddah's
infrastructure problems.
In time more stringent government bi-lateral agreements
governing the hiring and rights of domestic labor will be implemented, as
already happened with some Asian countries, and awareness programs will
hopefully reduce the cases of maid abuse, but can never eliminate it, as there
are always bad apples in any society. This should not detract from the fact
that Saudi Arabia is still a country that workers voluntarily come to work in,
and the Kingdom has introduced regulatory changes to meet its international
obligations, as the establishment of the HCR demonstrates.
In a perfect world, there would be no need for such
commissions. Let us pray that day comes soon, as the basis of Islam is a just
one. Who can forget the glorious hadith that expressly requires an employer to
pay the dues of a laborer before the sweat dries on his forehead?
 
— Mohamed A. Ramady is a former banker and currently a visiting
associate professor, finance and economics, at King Fahd University of
Petroleum and Minerals, Dhahran.

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