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Saudi Arabia: Medical Workers Stranded Without Pay

Labor Court Fails 55 South Asian Professionals, Prevents Them From Leaving

Saudi Arabia’s Labor Court should act immediately to address workers’ complaints against the Nukhba House of Medical Services company, including unpaid wages and restrictions on returning home, Human Rights Watch said today.

In early March 2008, 55 Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan, and Bangladeshi workers, including medical professionals and cleaners, complained to the Ministry of Labor that Nukhba required them to work an extra year after their contracts expired, failed to pay their return tickets home, retained up to eight months’ wages, and withheld approval for exit visas required under Saudi law.

Ministry officials told them they had to wait two weeks for the response of al-Nukhba, a medical service provision company. When the firm failed to reply, the ministry office sent the workers to the Labor Court, a tribunal administered by the Ministry of Labor, but the court only scheduled proceedings for July, four months later, leaving the workers without legal status or pay.

“Instead of addressing the company’s alleged violations promptly, the Labor Court is effectively punishing these 55 men, prolonging their forced stay in the country and leaving them penniless for months without any end in sight,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The court should provide speedy redress and send a message to sponsors that workers are entitled to their wages in a timely fashion.”

Saudi Arabia’s kafala (sponsorship) system fuels exploitation by tying migrant workers’ employment visas to their employers. Under this system, an employer has inordinate control over a hired foreign worker and must grant explicit permission before the worker can transfer employment or leave the country.

After the workers’ contracts expired in December 2006, the five hospitals where they worked refused to release them unless al-Nukhba sent replacements. Al-Nukhba meanwhile refused to terminate their employment without a release document for each worker from the hospitals for each employee, one of the workers told Human Rights Watch.

When Ministry of Health workers replaced the Nukhba professionals in January 2008, the company moved the foreign workers into one flat in Riyadh, where they have been living at up to 12 persons to a room without beds or proper sanitation. They have nearly exhausted their savings in the four months they have been confined to the flat, unable to work or return home.

Because the company has not renewed the workers’ residency permits, they risk arrest and summary deportation if they venture outside their flat. Only a handful of them have residency papers that are still valid.

The 55 workers complained to the Ministry of Health in 2007 and 2008, and to the governmental Human Rights Commission in 2008, to no avail. This week, despite the risk of arrest, they protested at a local police station because they have run out of money to buy food.

“This case exemplifies not only the exploitation many foreign workers experience in Saudi Arabia, but also the complete inadequacy of the government’s response,” said Whitson. “Saudi authorities should take immediate action to resolve these workers’ plight fairly, and to send a clear message to abusive employers.”

The medical professionals were earning around US$350-$400 per month and the cleaners less than US$100. They all claim they were unpaid for up to eight months and did not receive overtime pay for working on holidays. They are also seeking their end-of-service benefits of 15 days’ pay per year worked, and return tickets to their home countries, as required under Saudi law.

Under Saudi Arabia’s new Law of the Judiciary, which took effect in October 2007, the Labor Court should become a court independent of the Ministry of Labor, but the authorities have not yet implemented the law. According to Saudi labor regulations, companies that do not pay their workers or breach other contractual obligations can face penalties of fines, suspension of their operations, and in the most egregious cases, permanent closure.

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