Foreigners Work a 100-hour Week, While the Locals Are Unemployed

The maltreatment of imported workers is part of the huge labor problems facing the Gulf states and other Arab countries.

The column "Ask about the law" is a regular feature in the English-language newspaper Gulf News, which is published in the United Arab Emirates. Over the years, it has served as an address for foreign workers in distress, supplying advice on how to act when wages are not paid, they can't find out how many vacation days they have coming, or rights are withheld - they may not have time off to visit home.

Thus, for example, one engineer who worked in the Emirates and moved to a job in England, asks how he can get salary still owed to him. Another engineer relates that he started working for a local company as a mechanical engineer, but after a few years was given the title of construction engineer. Now the company wants to start his contract as if from the beginning with a six-month trial period. "Is it possible for the company to again employ me on probation after I already went through a similar trial period years ago?" he asks. The paper's experts responded that it is illegal to employ a worker on a conditional basis more than once at the same company, and that the employer must pay the man a full salary with no restrictions. In other cases, the experts suggest that the inquirers seek legal assistance.

However, it seems that this is actually the tougher route to take. The courts in the Emirates, as in the rest of the Gulf states, tend to rule in favor of the employers, even though all of those countries have carefully formulated laws intended to protect workers' rights.

Foreign women who come to work in the Gulf states are in a particularly difficult position. In most cases, they are not even recognized as workers because they are employed as domestic help, and a home is not in law considered workplace, just as those who employ them in their homes are not considered employers.

The phenomenon of abuse of foreign laborers, who come to the UAE from India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Pakistan, is almost never reported in the Arabic press. Only blatant cases such as the murder some 10 years ago of an employer by a Filipino worker, because he had raped her, or the murder of a Saudi worker by her employer, make it to the headlines. But workers rights organizations can cite thousands of cases where employers in Arab states injured foreign workers. In most cases, the workers are willing to accept court rulings quietly, and there is hardly any organization among foreign workers. But there have been some unusual cases during the last year, and particularly in the last month.

In Kuwait in March, some 450 workers from Bangladesh employed by a Kuwaiti cleaning company protested outside their country's embassy because they had not received their wages for months. Last year, workers at an oil facility in Kuwait stopped working because they had not been paid in 18 months.

In October 2004, some 750 complaints were filed in Kuwait against local employers, and a year ago, a worker in the Gulf Emirates committed suicide after his employer refused to loan him $13 so he could go see a doctor. The man had not been paid for five months.

In Saudi Arabia, it was reported that some 19,000 workers had run away from their employers because of maltreatment and withholding of their rights. According to recently released government data in several Arab states, it seems that the dream of getting rich quickly in the Gulf Emirates is far from being materialized, and that the economic prosperity of the 1970s and 1980s has disappeared. The average salary of a foreign worker (and this does not include engineers, technicians, doctors or teachers who come from the West) is around $200-$400 per month. In countries such as Libya or Yemen, the sum is a lot smaller, and a worker from Sudan working in Libya manages at best to send home $300 to $800 annually.

Ignoring the law

Close to one million foreign workers work in Kuwait and in Saudi Arabia. A huge percentage - 89 percent - of the workers in the private sector are foreign workers. There is a similar percentage working in the Gulf states, and not just there. In Jordan, the number of foreign workers is estimated at 400,000 and in Lebanon there are more than 1.5 million, most of them Syrians. The Yemeni government spends approximately 15 percent of its budget on employing foreign workers, and Libya, until recently, employed workers who came from Sudan. On the surface the employment laws and arrangements seem rigid and strict. According to the law, in some Gulf states, foreign workers may not be employed unless there is no alternative local option. However, in 1999, the Saudi labor minister explained that there is nothing wrong with employing foreign workers because the state cannot provide local manpower given the boon in industry and construction. This is primarily because the private sector prefers to employ foreign workers, and in most cases non-Arab workers, over local workers. The latter usually do not want to do menial labor and local employers report that there are numerous absences from work and a disrespectful attitude on the part of local workers. The locals prefer to work in government offices, where the work ethic is low, the salary is fixed and there are no special professional demands. To get around the laws, a whole industry has developed to forge work permits and visas that put the workers in a trap.

Frequently, a worker is forced to sign an agreement in Arabic - a language he doesn't speak - and often he is not even asked to sign a contract. After having paid a huge sum, often as much as $5,000, to an intermediary in their native country, the foreign workers arrive at the employer, who, in the eyes of the state, is their guarantor. This means that the employers must ensure the worker's return to his own country the minute the employment contract ends and in the meantime, he must see to it that the worker has a fair salary and conditions. Without such a guarantee, which is a prerequisite for getting an employment permit, there is no way of bringing in a worker.

When a worker arrives, he hands over his passport to his employer, so he is prevented from leaving. A worker who has run away will be arrested by the police, deported to his own country and not be allowed to get a work permit for two years after his deportation, even if he fled from his employer due to intolerable conditions.

Such difficulties are not only the fate of non-Arab workers. Lebanese workers who moved to the Gulf states to evade compulsory military service in the Lebanese army related that their employers did not pay them their wages, mistreated them and made them work long hours. In one case, an employer confiscated the personal television of one of the Lebanese workers because he claimed the worker did not arrive on time for work. These workers report that they work 100-110 hours a week, seven days a week. Legally the workers are entitled to vacation days as well as a special vacation to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, but overlooking these laws is a widespread occurrence.

The governments in the workers' native countries prefer not to publicly protest against such treatment. They do not want a situation, for example, of a country ceasing to employ Thai workers because of a dispute with their country. Workers going abroad provide huge sums. Bangladeshi workers, for example, send home around $2 billion annually. It's also a convenient solution for the problem of growing unemployment.

Unemployment is also a problem in most Arab countries. The official pan-Arab average is 18-20 percent, but unofficially there is talk of a 25 percent unemployment rate. The attempts of the Gulf states, primarily, but also of Jordan and Lebanon, to nationalize the market and expel foreign workers have not been particularly effective. The Saudi government expelled thousands of Sri Lankan workers, including many who did have work permits and in practice were not employed. In effect, every year after the hajj period, the authorities in these countries send the police to check and search every pilgrim who has decided to remain in the country and try his luck in finding a job there. Special directives issued before the hajj call for the razing of every temporary structure, hut or unfinished storage space, or even large delivery containers in which a person could conceivably live. This is the period of the big hunt for those without work permits.

Lack of economic growth

In Arab countries, economic growth is not keeping up with population growth. In 1998, the overall rate of economic growth in these countries was less than 1 percent (compared to 3.7 percent in 1997) and the population's average growth stood at around 2.9 percent. To these figures, add the fact that over 40 percent of the population in Arab countries is under the age of 15, so each year millions more job seekers join the labor market, which lacks the means to absorb them. Egypt alone adds some 450,000 new people to the job market each year, and even though official data cite an unemployment rate of 5 percent, UN agencies estimate that the figure is much higher, closer to 15 percent.

According to the Arab League's Council for Economic Union, in 2010, there will be some 25 million unemployed people in Arab states. These are huge numbers threatening the economies of Arab states. This is the case even as the Gulf states alone employ close to eight million foreign workers. The key question in the coming years will be, to what extent will most of the regimes be able to claim legitimacy when millions of unemployed will be roaming the streets.