Why did India need to intervene to help foreign workers in Saudi Arabia?

Low oil prices means the construction industry has taken a hit. Saudi Arabia and India work to find adequate food and health care for laid-off migrant workers.

Faisal Al Nasser/Reuters
A laborer looks on as he works at the construction site of a building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Aug. 4, 2016.

Saudi Arabia has stepped forward to aid the thousands of Indian workers stranded in the kingdom without money or food after being laid off and denied wages by ailing companies. The workers got the attention of India’s minister of external affairs, Sushma Swaraj, who has begun coordinating efforts with the Saudi Arabian government to provide the workers with food, health care, and transport.

The situation, involving nearly 8,000 Indian foreign workers, is a symptom of an economic slowdown that has befallen the oil-rich nation as barrel prices have more than halved since 2014. Companies that rely on payments from the government and a strong Saudi economy have been facing financial turmoil. This has had repercussions for some of the 9 million foreign workers employed in the country, 3 million of whom are Indian, according to Ms. Swaraj. The construction industry, where most of the stranded workers were employed, has been particularly hard hit.

Saudi Arabia has long come under scrutiny for the treatment of foreign workers, who usually work in transportation, construction, and domestic industries. Saudi employers have fielded accusations from rights groups, governments, and employees of mistreatment ranging from economic exploitation to physical and verbal abuse. The country’s decision, however, to work alongside the Indian government to aid this group of stranded workers may be another sign that the country is working to honor the significantly strengthened code of labor rights that the kingdom rolled out in 2015.

In a Wednesday meeting in Riyadh with India’s junior foreign minister, V. K. Singh, Saudi labor minister Mufrej al-Haqbani said that providers had been contracted to get the thousands of workers in camps in Riyadh and Jedda food, health care, and transportation back to India, The New York Times reports.

Mr. Haqbani also pledged that the government would ensure that the workers were paid what they were owed, even offering lawyers to help workers file claims. The majority of the workers had been laid off by indebted construction company Saudi Oger, which a Lebanese paper reported that the Saudi government is moving to buy.

The Indian workers are not alone in the crisis. Roughly 8,000 Pakistani workers are affected by the Saudi Oger and other construction lay-offs, Bloomberg reports, also noting that the Saudi government is lagging on paying some of these construction companies.

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said his government will aid these workers “in all possible ways.” France, the Philippines, and Bangladesh have also been pressuring Saudi Arabia to ensure that workers are paid, The New York Times reports.

The Saudi response to the situation comes directly from King Salman of Saudi Arabia who urges protection of workers’ rights and help at the government’s expense, Mr. Haqbani said.

Progress in the rights of foreign workers was made last October when 38 amendments to the Labor Law went into effect.

The primary focus of the amendments was economic accountability for the employers of foreign workers. The reform both increased fines for violations of existing regulations and added new ones, according to Human Rights Watch. The package included prohibitions on confiscating workers’ passports so that they can’t leave and failing to pay salaries on time. It set standards for paid leave and compensation for work-related injuries.

Just days after those regulations went into effect the Ministry of Labor closed 1,441 firms for not protecting workers’ wages or failing to respond to employee complaints, Arab News reports. The government was looking into 121,000 cases of complaints against companies, an increase of 91 percent from the previous year, and 530,000 cases in the private sector, where workers were largely left untouched by the new protections.

Indian missions received 11,195 complaints about exploitation in Saudi Arabia, according to 2016 government data cited by Indian news site First Post.

Earlier in the week, India’s minister of external affairs indicated that there are complications in helping Indians who want to return home both because of the system that Saudi Arabia uses to regulate foreign labor and the economic crisis facing employers.

“When the employer is no longer around, then where will we get the ‘no objection’ certificate?” she asked. Swaraj has been keeping the country and its nationals abroad abreast of progress in the situation via Twitter, where she was first alerted to how dire the situation was by a Tweet from a man without food in a camp in Jedda, the Indian Express reports.

Despite these concerns, it appears that in this case, diplomacy between India and Saudi Arabia will ensure that transport for those who want to return home is expedited and nascent worker protections are upheld.

Speaking from Riyadh, Indian junior foreign minster Singh said: “Things are very fine. We are in constant touch with all the officials and the various departments of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

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