Investigate and Act to Resolve Labor Violations against Foreign Workers at Saudi Firm
May 28, 2010
Saudi labor authorities need to make sure that companies can't get away with violating workers' rights. These workers are trapped, and the authorities apparently aren't looking out for their interests.
Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Saudi Arabia's labor office should immediately investigate labor violations at Jadawel International's Dhahran and Riyadh compounds, whose workers say they have not been paid for months, Human Rights Watch said today. The residency permits for many foreign workers, who are from Arab and Asian countries, have expired, trapping them at the compound.

Human Rights Watch in April 2010 revealed the plight of workers at the company's Dhahran residential compound, which houses US citizens who work on the nearby airbase. But neither the company nor Saudi authorities have remedied the situation. Jadawel International is owned by MBI Al Jaber, whose chairman is Sheikh Mohammed bin Issa Al Jaber, one of the world's richest people.

"Saudi labor authorities need to make sure that companies can't get away with violating workers' rights," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "These workers are trapped, and the authorities apparently aren't looking out for their interests."

Under Saudi Arabia's sponsorship, or kafala, system, migrant workers are tied to a Saudi sponsor, either a company or an individual, who must consent to transfer of sponsorship and to the granting of an exit visa in order to leave the country, issued by the Passports and Immigration Department of the Interior Ministry.

Jadawel International has failed to deliver on promises to pay workers more than six months worth of salaries owed them. At a meeting on April 12 with the foreign workers at the Dhahran compound, most of them from India or Nepal,   managers told workers they were working toward a solution for paying the back salaries and  renewing their residency permits, known as iqama. Without these permits, workers cannot leave the compound for fear of arrest, cannot access medical treatment, and are not allowed to leave the country.

The managers asked workers to keep working until May 21 while the company resolved the issue. Workers stopped work after the company failed to meet the deadline.

A worker at the Dhahran compound told Human Rights Watch on May 28 that full-time colleagues at the Riyadh compound had also stopped work, because they had not been paid and the residency permits had not been renewed, although part-time workers had not. He said that the management summoned the full-time workers in Riyadh one by one and threatened them with jail and deportation, and to withhold food, if they failed to return to work. Dhahran workers had not received such threats, he said.

Minutes of the April 12 meeting, seen by Human Rights Watch, state that the compound manager had several communications with Sheikh Mohammed bin Issa Al Jaber about the situation at the Dhahran compound.

Forbes magazine in 2010 listed Sheikh Mohammed bin Issa Al Jaber as the 93rd  richest person in the world. Al Jaber is also the UNESCO Special Envoy for Education, Tolerance, and Cultures in the Middle East and UN Spokesperson for Global Forums on Reinventing Government. UNESCO's Catalogue of the 2010 International Festival of Cultural Diversity describes the "ethos of hospitality, which the MBI Al Jaber Group raises to the uppermost standards of refinement, [as] one of urbanity, civility, and hence civilization."

UNESCO did not respond to a Human Rights Watch inquiry on May 20 about its relation with Al Jaber, in light of the situation of workers at Jawadel International in Dhahran.

The Saudi Labor Ministry, under which the labor courts are housed, has  not contacted the workers or initiated proceedings against Jadawel International for breach of the country's 2005 labor law. Unable to leave the compound, the workers have not been able to file complaints. Article 40 of the labor law obliges the employer to incur costs of renewing a foreign worker's work permit, and article 61 prohibits the employer from withholding wages due the employee.

The Interior Ministry, which supervises the immigration status of foreigners, and where the Saudi criminal prosecution service is housed, has also not investigated Jadawel Interational's apparent failure to abide by its obligations to renew the workers' residency permits. The work permit is linked to the residency permit, a Jadawel International worker explained.

On May 22, Arab News reported that 30 Nepalese workers at a different company who also had not been paid for a long time, were able to return home following the intervention of the Labor Ministry and the Human Rights Commission.

The Labor Courts in Saudi Arabia are notoriously slow, often taking years to hear and decide a case, which can then be appealed, further delaying a final decision. Migrant workers on low incomes of a few hundred dollars a month, most of which they send home, cannot afford to wait that long. Migrant workers also do not have the resources that companies have to hire lawyers to present their case.

James Braun, a Canadian, sued his Saudi employer for wrongful termination in December 2008, and received a judgment in his favor in April 2009. The company appealed, however, and hearings have been scheduled since November 2009 every three months, with no discernible progress in the case.

Ashraf Khan, an Indian, sued for wrongful termination in March 2008 after the bank he worked for fired him, accusing him of triggering the fire alarm without cause. A ruling of the labor court of first instance last week denied his claim and ordered him to pay back a loan he took out from the bank.

He told Human Rights Watch that he had used the loan money to survive during the litigation. He said he had many offers of work after his dismissal, but that he was unable to obtain the bank's consent to transfer sponsorship, and thus his residency permit, to a new employer. The bank still holds his passport, Khan said, and his residency permit expired over a year ago, making him afraid to go outside. The bank has refused to return his passport or to obtain an exit visa for him so he can return home to his family in India.

"Saudi Arabia's kafala system and inefficient labor courts often make migrant workers in conflict with their employers destitute and desperate," Whitson said. "Trapped workers can neither work while pursuing claims, nor return home."