World Economy

Thousands of Expatriate Workers Stranded in Saudi Arabia Desert

Thousands of Expatriate Workers Stranded in Saudi Arabia Desert Thousands of Expatriate Workers Stranded in Saudi Arabia Desert

First they had no pay, and then no work. For a time, there wasn’t even food in the squalid, concrete camps where they had been abandoned to live in the searing heat of the Saudi Arabian desert. Medical supplies dried up two months ago.

Owed weeks and weeks of back pay from construction companies squeezed by the kingdom’s economic slowdown, thousands of foreign laborers from South Asia face the grim uncertainty of how long their plight will continue, Bloomberg reported.

“They don’t give us any answers about our salaries,” said Mohammed Salahaldeen, a duct fabricator from Bangladesh.

As Saudi authorities slash spending and delay payments to contractors to cope with the plunge in oil prices, the austerity is exacerbating the woes of private businesses that have, for decades, relied on government spending for growth. Casualties include the thousands of foreign laborers who helped to keep the economy humming with low-paying jobs in construction.

At Employers’ Mercy

Abandoned laborers, including nearly 16,000 from India and Pakistan alone, according to their governments, haven’t seen a paycheck in about eight months. Under a system of sponsorship known as kafala that leaves many workers at their employers’ mercy, they’re also not being given the exit visas they need to leave the world’s largest oil exporter. In Saudi Arabia, it’s up to employers to arrange such visas, but before doing so they’d have to pay back wages and end-of-service benefits.

Calls made to the Saudi Oger Ltd. and Saudi BinLadin Group construction companies weren’t returned.

The conditions in which the workers from Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Philippines wait are fetid and cramped. They sleep eight to a tiny concrete room and share dirty toilets with feral cats. Temperatures soar to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Farenheit) in the summer, and the electricity powering air conditioners often goes off. Some of the laborers are so destitute that they only own one set of clothes.

Mohammed Khan, an Indian nurse from Mumbai at the Saudi Oger camp, is left to treat patients suffering from diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol without medication.

“They can’t go to a hospital because they no longer have insurance,” said Khan, 45. “They have no money.” Workers said Saudi Oger stopped paying their medical insurance policies.

The Indian Foreign Ministry says more than 4,050 workers alone are stranded without pay at Saudi Oger camps.

For three days last week, at a camp near Diriyah, the original home of the Al Saud royal family, the company abruptly stopped providing free food at the canteen, according to workers interviewed there.

Nowhere to Go

“They have nowhere to go,” a 46-year-old worker said. “They will have to move onto the streets.’’

Prince Mohammad, a deputy prime minister, said in March that the government had started paying companies for work done. People briefed on government plans said later that authorities were considering using “I-owe-you” notes to pay outstanding bills to conserve cash.

Outside Riyadh, at a camp for Saudi Binladin Group employees, some haven’t been paid in 10 months, including Egyptian and Saudi security guards who were still working at the front gate.

Bleak Prospects

Prospects look very bleak. Construction companies don’t have the money to meet their commitment to their employees, said John Sfakianakis, director of economic research at the (Persian) Gulf Research Center.

“They can’t get additional financing from the banking system because they are close to their limits,” he said by phone.

Construction contracts shrank by about 65% in the second quarter from the same period a year earlier, according to data published by Jeddah-based National Commercial Bank. The government didn’t award any contracts during the previous three quarters, the bank said.

Spending cuts will slow economic growth this year to the lowest level since the global financial crisis, according to a Bloomberg survey of economists.

With no income, some of the workers have turned to relatives or friends for loans.