External Affairs

Unpaid Indian Workers in Saudi Face Food Crisis, Swaraj Takes Action

Workers in Saudia Arabia. Credit: PTI/Files

Workers in Saudia Arabia. Credit: PTI/Files

New Delhi: Over 10,000 Indian workers in Saudi Arabia are facing a severe shortage of food. They have either lost their jobs or not been paid by Saudi firms, who have been closing down projects since kingdom’s economy is shrinking due to falling oil revenues.

Foreign affairs minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted about the crisis in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait multiple times on Saturday. This crisis has been in the making for the last six months, with Saudi firms letting workers go and the economy going south.

She estimated that the number of Indians “facing food crisis in Saudi Arabia was over ten thousand”. The Indian consulate in Jeddah has been asked to distribute food to Indian workers in need.

Sources said that since M.J. Akbar has been put in charge of the Gulf portfolio, he will be looking after the political aspect of reaching out to officials and ministers to mitigate the crisis. V.K. Singh, who has been given the responsibility of overseas Indian affairs, will be travelling to Saudi Arabia early next month to gauge the extent of the problem on the ground.

Based on Singh’s assessment, the ministry will take a call on further steps to be taken on providing food and even assistance in returning home to India, if required. This could require dipping into the Indian Community Welfare Fund, according to Indian officials.

Officials said that the most foreign workers let off from Saudi firms, who are still awaiting their salaries, were employed with the large construction company Saudi Oger. It is owned by the family of the slain Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Even after they were laid off, the foreign workers remained in the kingdom as most of them were waiting to collect their unpaid wages.

The downward spiral of oil revenue has forced the Saudi government to adopt fiscal restraint, which has hit large construction groups disproportionately.

A Reuters report in March depicted how the situation was becoming desperate, with foreign governments lobbying to ensure that their workers got their dues. An unnamed Oger executive was quoted as saying that the recovery plan would resume payments within that month. The promised money never appeared.

With no signs of salaries being repaid for over six to eight months, there have been periodic cases of employees protesting and setting fire to company vehicles.

On June 9, Saudi Oger employees burned buses and heavy equipment vehicles in front of the company’s branch office in Jeddah. Earlier in May, employees of Saudi Binladin group had also undertaken a similar protest in Makkah.

According to Saudi news reports, after the firm stopped paying wages, the Saudi labour and social affairs ministry rescinded all services in March 2016 (in accordance with the law), like security and passport affairs.

On Saturday, frustrated Oger workers took to the streets of Jeddah and tried to disrupt traffic, but were dispersed.

The Philippines government is also having to scramble for resources, with over 11,000 Filipino workers stranded in Saudi Arabia. Earlier this week, Manila announced that the displaced workers will get one-time assistance of Saudi Riyal 1590 or $424. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration also blacklisted four firms, including Oger and the Saudi Binladin group, from hiring Filipino workers.

The French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault had raised the matter of French employees of Oger with the Saudi deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman on June 29. According to a press release from the French embassy in Saudi Arabia, the crown prince had assured him that a solution would be found “in the next few days”.

The Indian consulate in Jeddah also has been talking to the firms to release the workers’ wages at the earliest. On June 29, there was good news when the company Advanced Vision agreed to pay salaries, with the consulate posting photo of employees with cash and cheques in hand.

But, as the comments on the photographs made clear, the consulate’s biggest challenge would be the Oger group.

Meanwhile, the complaints kept on coming thick and fast.

With the ministry still firming up a long-term response, the immediate action taken was to provide food materials to the workers living in various camps around Jeddah, with the help of volunteers from the Indian community

Late on Saturday night, Swaraj took to twitter again to appeal to the diaspora in Saudi Arabia to also help their fellow nationals. “There is nothing mightier than the collective will of Indian nation,” she added.

On Sunday, the Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ahmed Javed met with the Saudi deputy minister, Ahmed Salem. At that meeting, the Saudi government has reportedly assured that exit visas for the Indian workers will be processed, as per a tweet posted by M J Akbar on Sunday night. However, there was no explicit assurance on when the wages will be paid, with the Saudis only stating that the claims will be registered.

If the exit visas are issued, then New Delhi could make arrangements for their return to India, sources indicated.