DAMMAM, 21 May — The 200 workers living in a labor camp near Dammam railway station, whose plight was brought to light last week by Arab News, had a pleasant surprise on the day the article appeared: a team from the company came to inspect the substandard accommodation, and started the process of making it fit to live in.
And yesterday the chairman of the company himself visited the camp to personally promise the workers that their living conditions will be improved without delay.
“We have been assured that the generators will be switched on during the daytime as well,” an Indian laborer working at the maintenance and cleaning company in Dammam told this reporter.
The company has a contract for Dammam Industrial City I.
Arab News had discovered that the management was switching on the generators, the sole source of power at the camp, only during night hours, and that the laborers who work the night shift and so sleep during the day were having to do so in what amounted to a furnace.
The temperature in Dammam during the summer can reach 50 degrees Celsius.
On Saturday morning, following the Arab News expose, a company inspection team visited the camp and made detailed inquiries about the living conditions there. They even asked the residents to list their grievances, and to suggest how their problems could be remedied.
And then the cleaning began.
An inside source at the company told Arab News that the chairman had only learned about the appalling living conditions after he read about them on this page.
However, when asked for an official comment, the company refused to discuss the camp or any of the related issues.
When this reporter revisited the camp yesterday, the residents were in an almost festive mood, and were themselves seen helping their colleagues who had arrived to initiate the cleanup.
“We never expected things to change so dramatically after approaching your newspaper. It shows that our boss is a good man. I was always convinced that we were living like animals only because he was unaware of the fact,” said Minhajul, one of the residents.
The article provoked a wave of telephone calls, faxes and e-mails from laborers suffering similar exploitation.
In one of them, workers at an industry in Dammam Industrial City II complained that their company has distributed only four air conditioners to 65 Indian workers, who share four rooms in groups of 16.
In the Ahsa region, the vast majority of agricultural workers have not visited their native countries for years.
One Indian worker told Arab News that he has not seen his home village in the north Indian state of Bihar for the past seven years.
All these laborers claim to be victims of greed and cruelty on the part of their Saudi sponsors.
And as if to add insult to injury, a number of them have not even been provided with iqamas, which means that their miserable stay here in the Kingdom is on an entirely illegal footing.
Passport officials have arrested many of the laborers, but their sponsors got them released by using their wasta (influence).
“To me, going to jail was a blessing in disguise. I prayed that I would be deported. But we were released to our sponsors after they promised they would provide us with an iqama,” said Ansar, a laborer working in a village, 27 kilometers from Ahsa.
Many of the agricultural workers have not been paid their salaries for months, and in some cases for more than a year.
“To whom can we complain? We sent a number of letters to the Indian Embassy, but they didn’t even bother to respond,” said Haji Ahmad of Kerala, who has been working at a farm for three years.
The swift action by the manager of the camp near Dammam’s railway station has nevertheless given some hope to these exploited laborers, who are again appealing to the concerned authorities to take action against their sponsors.
The passport office has been taking action against defaulting sponsors, and many of them have been heavily fined. It has also handed down verdicts in favor of laborers deprived of their salaries.
In a number of cases, the labor courts advised the sponsors to release their staff so that they can search for a better job.
And on certain occasions the police have even been instructed to make sure the defaulting sponsors pay outstanding salaries.
Now the authorities need to do their utmost to keep up the momentum.