Editorial: Give expats a ray of hope

Editorial: Give expats a ray of hope
Updated 13 June 2013

Editorial: Give expats a ray of hope

Editorial: Give expats a ray of hope

Every government has the right to take action against illegal workers and protect the interests of its nationals. The reasons behind the Nitaqat cleanup are entirely right. The Kingdom’s campaign to clamp down on foreigners living and working illegally is a move appreciated by all law-abiding persons. The grace period granted by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah for illegal foreigners to correct their status speaks volumes of his leniency and benevolence.
There are said to be more than 2 million illegal expats in the Kingdom. So far, according to the Ministry of Labor, half a million have successfully regularized their status either through a sponsorship transfer to the current employers or by moving to a new sponsor. With just 21 days left of the three-month grace period, it will require an extraordinary effort to complete the exercise.
Indeed, given the speed with which the regularization process has been taking place, it is clear that the grace period needs a further extension. With the holy month of Ramadan beginning only a few days after the deadline, it seems likely that the Labor Ministry will be unable to handle the immense remaining workload.
Consulates are still struggling to process the documents of illegals, who must then seek exit permits. The appalling behavior of Indonesian citizens in torching their country’s consulate in Jeddah, killing one unfortunate woman, is unforgivable. Nevertheless, it indicates the level of frustration, if not indeed panic, that is being felt by expatriates who fear fines and imprisonment when they are caught in the promised dragnet, after July 3.
The Nitaqat program is right. Red category jobs should be made available to Saudis. It is ludicrous that we should have a jobless rate in excess of 10 percent when there is work aplenty, which has until now been done by foreigners. Moreover, despite the Kingdom’s great wealth, there must be questions about the wisdom of seeing billions of riyals leaving the Kingdom every year in the form of workers’ remittances. A good portion of that money could be earned here by Saudis and used to strengthen our economy and the all-important growth of our nonoil sector.
And yet from the start businessmen have been complaining bitterly at the disruption the enforcement of the laws is causing to their enterprises. The impact has been notable in the service and retail sectors. Economists have also warned of the overall effect on the economy, especially in the run-up to Ramadan, which is traditionally the busiest period for the retail sector.
The Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s initiative to try and help foreign workers regularize their status reflects the widespread private sector concern at what this upheaval is doing to trade and commerce.
There are two points that need to be taken on board. First of all, it is important that when there is a law, it is enforced, fairly and efficiently. The danger with the current drive to sort out the illegal labor problem is that it could fall short of its goals by the very immensity of the task. Scooping up hundreds of thousands of illegals and deporting them on thousands of flights to their home countries will be a huge task, and a daunting logistical challenge, which could involve the creation of extensive detention centers.
Moreover, in their rush to stay in the Kingdom, some expatriates are being exploited by unscrupulous people, who are selling iqamas, which very probably once again do not have real jobs behind them. It should not be forgotten that we got to where we are because labor brokers flouted the system so blatantly, for so long with many businesses conniving at their law-breaking.
Starting over, with a clean sheet; getting illegals to leave and apply to return with proper visas and residency permits, is a very proper ambition. However, the danger is that with the present too-tight deadline, the whole project will flounder in confusion and will fail to achieve its targets. There is no point in drawing a line in the sand, unless absolutely everyone can be made to cross over it.
The danger is that a year from now, the old ways will have crept back. We have too many foreign workers. Gentle persuasion with employers did not work. The crackdown is therefore entirely appropriate. What needs to be done is to extend the July 3 deadline.