Tuesday, 14 May 2013

That Passport Is Mine, Thanks

Travelling to other countries in the northern hemisphere is one of the perks of living in Saudi Arabia, especially for we antipodeans from New Zealand who were bought up so far from the rest of the world.  When we expat friends get together chatter often turns to places we have been and places we are planning to go.  If nurses are in the group discussion invariably turns to the added difficulties of planning trips because as part of the vacation application process, they have to ask to be given back their passports.  In Saudi, employers, aka sponsors, keep employee passports.

Apparently there is no Saudi law that says employees have to hand over their passports to their sponsors, which makes the practice not only a human rights violation but also illegal.  Yet it is accepted common practice.

Protecting Investments
The sponsors claim they keep passports to protect their 'investment'.  They somehow believe that holding passports will prevent their employees from running away.  One has to wonder why an employee would want to run away from his work place?  And where the heck would they run too?  Certainly they can't go home.  Saudi is the only country I know of that you can't get into without an entry visa, nor can you leave it without an exit visa, both of which your sponsor has to agree to have issued.

In reality, the keeping of passports by most sponsors is little more than a way for them to maintain control over employees.  Usually control is via unscrupulous means - largely bribery, both monetary and mental or emotional, and sometimes through physical abuse.

The Saudi rational is a stupid and baseless claim because a worker can go to his embassy and get a new passport issued without needing any other documentation.  All the embassies here are well aware  how badly treated many workers are in this country.  It's a pity they don't, or can't, do more about it.  The Saudi sponsor is simply hoping workers are not au fait with their working, human or civil rights - and many of them aren't when they first arrive - that's why they still demand the keeping of passports.

If Saudi sponsors really wanted to protect their 'investments', they'd be nicer to them.

Good Sponsors and A'holes
In my mind there are two types of sponsors - Real and Fake.  There are also three sub-categories of sponsor - Good, Bad and Downright A'hole.  Every sponsor relies on an agent located in the workers home countries to find, and sign up, the employees.  From what I've heard, agents have two classes - Greedy and Greedy A'hole.

Real Sponsors and Key Holding Henchmen
Real sponsors actually do need workers and go through the legal process to obtain them, which along the way does require them to pay fees and things to have their workers bought over here.  The Real Good sponsors will treat their employees well - paying them on time, not extorting money out of them, not flogging them with unreasonable demands re: work hours, and adhering to contract terms regarding benefits and vacations and and so on.  Why they keep the passports in this case is beyond me.  Perhaps they think it will make them work harder?  (Quite frankly, if I knew a boss was going to make it ultra-hard for me to go home and see the fams on a regular basis, I'd slow my work rate to the bare minimum.  Wouldn't you?)

Often times, especially for larger companies, once the worker lands, it is not the sponsors themselves who deal directly with the workers but administrators employed by the sponsor.  Suffice to say, their role can really go to their heads and quite often it is this over-inflated ego sitting at an office desk that can stuff up a workers life.

For example, nurses have told us that if they have a holiday planned getting their passport back isn't usually a problem provided the man holding the key to the cupboard storing all passports isn't away sick or on holiday himself the day a nurse is allowed to collect it.  (It seems worker's passports are held in such low regard by companies they aren't even kept in a metal safe for safe keeping.  Just a cupboard that can be burnt to the ground with all its contents if there ever was a fire.)

Yes, the employers and their Key Holding sidekicks are such control freaks that they like to make employees wait till the very last minute before giving them their passport.  (At least the Key Holders at the hospitals our nurse friends work at are like that).   Of course, nurses aren't just given their passport.  No, to get it they have to hand over their iqama, or residency card.  (The iqama states who you are, who your sponsor is and is required identification for expats residing in the country that you are expected to carry on your person at all times).  On your return from holiday, the nurse goes back to Mr Key Holder, hands over the passport and he gives back the iqama.

If Mr Key Holder is away the day the nurse is permitted to collect her passport (and yes, they can be away the day that's been organised to go see them) the nurse can find herself in a bit of a pickle.  Being Key Holder is a powerful position.  Arabs don't really like sharing their power with anyone else so, generally speaking, there really is only one key holder.   And according to the peeps we know, their Key Holders don't give a rats bottom if they bugger up someone else's vacation plans by not handing The Key to a proxy Key Holder when he (or she) is going to be absent from the work place for a while.   We've had more than one nurse friend panicking about what to do if Mr Key Holder doesn't get back into the office on time for them to make it to their booked flight.

Bad To The Core Sponsors
The Real Bad sponsors can really be bad to the core.  These type may not give a shit what lies the agents say to trick workers over here. They don't care that A'hole agents are preying on the sad and desperate situation of the disadvantaged, lying about absolutely everything and charging unsuspecting, naive families a fortune for the mistake of dealing with them.  I've heard workers say things like, 'I finished my hospitality study and was told by the agent I'd be working in hotel management, but instead I'm working as a waiter and have another five years before I will have paid back the sponsor what he says I owe him so I can get out of here!'

This type of sponsor feels he is owed by the employee.  He wants to squeeze as many hours work out of his worker as possible or else he doesn't think he's getting value for money.  From the accounts of workers who are stuck in this situation, (and if you talk to enough workers they don't hold back telling you), these sponsors tend not to pay on time (if at all), they expect you to work unreasonably long hours day and night doing things you never signed up for, they certainly don't think you deserve to go home for any reason and they do believe they own you.  Stories abound from this group of employee who hail largely from the Indian subcontinent, parts of Africa or Philipines, about not getting home for two to three years or more, partly because the wages suck and it takes that long to save up any cash, but also because the sponsor holds on to their passport and won't give it back.

Take our taxi driver for example.  He wanted to go home for his wedding and had given his sponsor plenty of advance notice about his upcoming nuptials but he had to keep putting the date off for weeks because the sponsor would not give him back his passport.  And one of our security guys has been here for five years and still hasn't been home to visit his family in Sudan.  Even after being told on one occasion "Book your ticket you can go, we'll give you your visa and passport", the company reneged and, as these guys don't get paid enough to buy the flash airline tickets where you can get refunds or change your flight dates, he lost his money and was very upset - but what could he do?

Fake Sponsors
Fake sponsors are those who are selling the 'Free Visa', a name that is completely contrary to the actual process of getting one because it can cost workers on average about 15,000 SAR to get.  As I understand it, to sell Free Visa's the sponsor first has to defraud the Ministry responsible for issuing visas by overstating the number of worker visa's his company requires.  Heck, I've heard some sponsors lie about actually having a company at all.  Once they get the visa's they engage a middle man to sell the visa's.

Many workers, those who have been around the traps a while, prefer the Free Visa.  It means when they get here they are pretty much their own boss.  All they have to do after buying the visa is find a job and ensure they pay their sponsor the regular monthly stipend he demands for getting them into the country.  To make sure they pay, he keeps their passports.  The Fake Good Sponsor (if there is such a thing) and his Middle Man agent are completely up front with the Fake Employee about the whole process and everybody is happy.

In the above case, once the worker finds a job even the Eventual Employer is happy because, one, he didn't have to pay to bring the employee in and, two, he can pay him less because he's here illegally and is happy to take what work he can get.  Loads of construction companies hire Free Visa workers because the blokes need the work and will do the hard labor jobs.  (It's common knowledge round here that you won't find a Saudi doing hard yakka work on a construction site these days.  That type of work is too far below them, though I think they're afraid of breaking a real sweat or getting blisters).

Keep Your Passport
When fellow expats contact me saying they are coming over I make a point of telling them, 'Keep your passport.  Don't let the employer take it.  It's not a legal requirement of your employment to have to part with your passport.'  Granted, most people who contact me via the blog are western blue collar types who wouldn't think twice about standing up for their rights.  I get the impression the laboring and service staff fraternity would be given utter shit for refusing to hand over their passport when asked.

Hubster has never handed over his passport to the employer.  Someone did ask once.  He said no.  When he says no he does it with this 'You want to mess with me, go ahead, make my day' kind of look.  The first time we did have to hand over passports to the admin guy to get our iqama's and exit visa's, we were a little nervous they may not come back.  Thankfully they did.   But no-one as ever asked for him to relinquish his passport to his employer for 'safe keeping' again.

Ka Kite,

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