ADHRB Deeply Concerned over Migrant Food Crisis in Saudi Arabia

More than 10,000 Indian workers have recently lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia, and many of them had previously gone months without payment. Vikas Swarup, a spokesman for the Indian foreign ministry, has estimated that over 7,700 workers living in 20 labor camps are food insecure. The workers were unable to leave Saudi Arabia upon being laid off as Saudi law stipulates workers obtain their employers permission to before being issued an exit visa. Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB) remains concerned for the workers involved. We call upon the Saudi government to address the wider issues of the employer-based sponsorship system and restrictive visa laws known as kafala, which helped to cause the food crisis.

Many Indian officials and activists have voiced their concerns about the workers’ plight, and have vowed to help their compatriots. In order to alleviate the immediate problem, Indian officials have begun passing out food rations and emergency aid to those affected. Asim Zeeshan, a representative of the Indian Community of Jeddah, stated “Imagine the workers’ plight — many of them were just surviving on water and salt when we reached [them] with the food packets.” The Indian minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, has been vocally calling for the Indian government to aid the stranded workers. On 30 July, she tweeted “I assure you that no Indian worker rendered unemployed in Saudi Arabia will go without food. I am monitoring this on hourly basis.”

The Indian consulate in Jeddah is currently attempting to repatriate the workers and force Saudi companies to pay the workers back wages. On 31 July, Ambassador of India Ahmad Javed and Deputy Minister of Interior of Saudi Arabia Ahmed Al-Salem met to discuss Saudi companies paying the pending salaries of all of their workers. On 3 August, Vijay Kumar Singh, India’s junior foreign minister, arrived in Saudi Arabia to negotiate the repatriation of the workers, and make an “on-the-spot assessment of the ground situation” for the possible evacuation of the workers. In response to the crisis, the Saudi Director-General of the Labor Ministry office in the Mecca region promised officials would take “swift and immediate” steps to secure the workers’ back wages.

Saudi Oger Ltd. employed many of the stranded workers before and continues to hold their passports. Saudi Oger Ltd. is just one of many companies that have laid off workers recently due to the dropping price of oil. As these companies close, most workers are unable to obtain the necessary documents to leave Saudi Arabia or find another employer. Without their passports and without their employers’ permission, the Indian Embassy could not issue the workers emergency exit visas.

“Saudi companies should not be able to restrict a worker’s right to mobility and must be able to guarantee workers wages on time,” said ADHRB Executive Director Husain Abdulla. “The international community needs to get tough on the Saudi government to reform the kafala system and ensure these workers are paid.”

Many Pakistani and Filipino workers are also affected by the closures of Saudi companies, and face food crises as well. The Philippine Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello visited Saudi Arabia earlier in July to discuss stranded workers who were unpaid for months. Pakistan has also made efforts to help its stranded citizens. The office of the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif issued a statement saying, “the (Pakistani) embassy has further informed that Saudi King has issued a decree for urgent payment of dues to workers by the concerned.”

Millions of foreign migrant workers have travelled to Saudi Arabia for employment. This current crisis exemplifies the physical danger of the repressive labor conditions these workers face every day. Migrant workers’ governments need to create a united front in their fight for their workers’ rights and safety. The international community must take steps to support these governments, and ensure that Saudi Arabia respects the human rights of all those within its borders.