Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Worker Bees In Saudi

There is a group of people in Saudi Arabia I call the Workers Bees.  They keep this place ticking over.   The Worker Bees come from India, Pakistan, Yemeni, Bangladesh, Sudan, Nepal, Afghanistan... places in the world I never really gave a second thought to till I moved here.

We make a point, Glenn and I, of chatting with the taxi drivers, shop assistants and wait staff workers because their English is quite good.  The seem to appreciate someone taking an interest in where they are from, their families and life back home and how they are doing in Riyadh.

That question, 'Do you like Riyadh?' usually gets a cautious response - they aren't sure how honest they should be.  Once we give our opinion of the place - as in, it's very different from home and some of the attitudes and ways of thinking are a bit strange - they tend to open up about their lives here.

We get the feeling that there aren't many people who bother taking an interest in the workers.  The attitude that workers are here simply to serve those higher up the income chain permeates this place.  (Try throwing that snotty attitude around back home and you might find your upper lip making seriously close contact with your teeth).

Taking an interest in their lives can expose you to the numerous sad stories that abound with the working class here, but we take a more positive view - being nice and taking an interest can really make someones day.  

Knowing the sacrifice they make to work in this country and the bad attitudes that get thrown at them almost daily, I think the Worker Bees are due a barrow load of respect, especially if they can still come out smiling.

Here's a typical story:  For the majority, Saudi was promoted as an awesome place to work - lots of money to be made. They signed up with a sponsor they had never met, through his scummy, crooked agent, and headed over.  Most have to surrender their passports to their sponsor on arrival.  I believe this little detail isn't mentioned till they get here.   Getting the passport back is like pulling friken teeth!  They work their butts off so they can send money back to their families who they go home and see once every 2 years - if they're lucky.  They have to keep working till they've paid off their sponsorship (I believe for most that takes around 5 years).

Once here, blue collar expats learn about Saudi heirarchy and where they fit in it - and it ain't near the top, which I guess is similar to any other country but, for some reason, belonging to the lower ranks in Saudi Arabia seems to give others a license to treat you badly.  From the stories they tell, happiness is hard to find in Riyadh.

And before you're under the misconception that it's just the Sauds who dish out the not so nice treatment...think again.  People of all nationalities have a tendency to fall into the 'holier than thou' trap and be unnecessarily shitty with the lower working class.  Totally disgusted me when I saw an Aussie guy being a dick with a waiter....he should know better.

I've heard expats say "I don't know how the hell these people even got jobs, they don't know what the heck they're doing?"  That isn't far from the truth.  Here is, we have discovered, what commonly happens with the Worker Bees who hold labourer type roles:

Mr Pakistani has landed a job in Saudi.  His family is so proud.  (Yeehaa!). 
He turns up for work and is told he is part of a maintainence gang.  (OK, Sounds great).
He arrives at a compound and is told his first job is repairing a tap because today, he is a plumber. (Huh! But I'm a painter!) Tomorrow, he might be an electrician and has to help fix someones air-con and the day after that he might be a builder - go forth with hammer and drill and fix something. 
Mr Pakistani has two options - Admit he has no idea what he is doing and risk losing his job, or Go forth and learn on the job.  He chooses option two.

What are the consequences of this choice? 

Exposing himself to complete abuse from The Occupant, and from Mr Boss should The Occupant complain, which he (and she) undoubtedly does.  Is it his fault?  Not on your Nelly it's not.  Training programs for most Worker Bees is 'On the Job' and you can bet there is no theory component first followed by controlled, supervised, step-by-step practical.  Workers are paid minimum wages because they are 'unskilled' - but someone has to fix your dunny, change your lightbulb, keep your air-con functioning.  And Mr Boss isn't about to pay top dollar for Mr Experienced - that's a recipe for 'Not Making As Much Money As I Want'. 

Do you think the workers like this life?  Do you think anyone likes being hollered at for being incompetent at something they have never done before.  No flaming way!  But they have to grin and bear it and learn fast because someone has to pay for the wife and kids back home.

The maintenance guys at our compound have been through the learning wringer, and believe me that learning process was hard on all of us.  They are now skilled enough to do what's required.  The ones that didn't cut the mustard have gone. 

What tends to keep the Worker Bees here, apart from not having a passport, is the fact that, though they aren't raking in the dough (what they get paid in a month we can spend on one dinner out) they are making more money than they would at home where there is no work.

You'd think there'd be camaraderie between fellow collars, but even the Worker Bee population has a hierarchy with associated unwritten rules of treatment toward each other.  In fact, hierarchical prejudice is rife in the worker populace. Worker Bee hierarchy goes something like this from top to bottom:

Indians - they are largely top bee and hold administrative roles;
Next is the Pakistani's - they make up a large percentage of the taxi drivers and maintenance;
Filipinos are next - they are largely service staff, shop workers and maids;
Afghanis tend to be the construction workers;
Bangladeshi tend to be the gardeners and street cleaners and just lately are also getting driving jobs.

Before anyone gets upset - these levels of hierarchy are generalizations.  Of course not every Pakistani is a taxi driver, nor every Indian in admin, nor every Filipino in service. etc, etc.  It's just here, most are.

The Worker Bees in Riyadh are very aware that Saudi's are at the top of the privileged pile, Westerners (white collars) take up second spot and the gap between the peak of the mountain and the base where the workers reside, in terms of income and treatment, is huge.

One thing is for sure. If these workers were to decide they had had enough of the way they are treated here, Saudi would grind to a halt. It is common knowledge that the new generation of Saudi's does not really like to work.  Not the real get your hands dirty kind of stuff. 

Of course, there are exceptions to that rule because Glenn has a young Saudi colleague at work who is awesome because of his work ethic and willingness to learn his profession - but I understand he is a minority in that regard, which, according to Glenn, concerns some of the older Saud folks he has spoken to.

The younger Saudi generations today actually have a huge similarity to far to many New Zealand Maori under a welfare government - generations of people with their hand out expecting to be given everything. Of course, unlike the NZ government, Saudi has some major oil greasing the peoples palms over here.

It would be interesting to take New Zealands habitual, palms out unemployed and make them Worker Bees in Saudi to see how many have what it takes to survive and thrive in this life.  Terrible as it sounds, I don't have high expectations.  (And yep whanau, I'm looking at some of you!)  There are a bunch of kiwi's who think they have it bad, and I am not including those individuals who do have terrible home situations they are trapped in, but as a whole, in comparision to workers in Saudi, New Zealanders really don't.

Ka Kite,


  1. Worker Bees are the right term.

    They are hustled around to where there is work in buses, trucks, pickups and I have seen even trailers!

    and the living conditions! well pack eight guys in one room, with bunk beds to optimize space and single rattling air conditioner that would give a whiff of cold air when it feels like.

    Here in the eastern province, at least on the projects where Aramco is directly involved, there are better facilities, but otherwise things are bad!

  2. "It would be interesting to take New Zealands habitual, palms out unemployed and make them Worker Bees in Saudi to see how many have what it takes to survive and thrive - terrible as it sounds, I don't have high expectations".

    Even better would be putting people such as NZ Pounamu in such positions and see how well they handle the abuse, low wages, poor housing etc. Many of the unemployed come from similar backgrounds to the worker bees and would most likely be able to forge the social and hierarchical networks that help them survive in such an environment, whereas those born into wealth and into the middle classes who have numerous priveleges (most of which they don't even realise), well yes I'd really like to see them working in the 50 degree celsius temps on a building site in Saudi for 12 hours a day, suffering abuse and getting a pathetic wage,living in poor housing, but more important knowing that without class priveleges (such as academic qualifications, family money, influence & support etc) the chances of breaking out of this situation is one in a million.
    from Middle East Kiwi


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