Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Saudization and The On-going 'Illegal Expat' Saga.

For the last two months (I would say three, but really, by the time a month had past most of the authorities involved hadn't got their act together so I'm sticking with two), the 'Illegal Expat Sweep', a strategy under Saudization, has been taking place.  Here's a little update of how things have been trucking in case you don't read local Saudi papers.

I wrote a post, called Saudization, that touched on the Illegal Expat Sweep.  If you haven't read it, here's things in a nutshell - For what they see as relevant reasons, the government decided to clean up, and out, the number of expats in the country.  The current 'Illegal Expat Sweep' mainly affects those from the Philippines and South East Asian countries.  To be 'illegal' in this sweep you are either not working for the Saudi who sponsored you into the country, or your iqama does not match your job title, or you are a Haj runaway.  I understand the majority of illegal exapts fall into the first two categories.  If I was an investigative journalist I would hunt down the numbers of all groups to verify that last statement, but I'm not so you'll just have to trust me!

'Illegal Expats' once rounded up are given three options to get themselves legalized as far as this sweep is concerned.

  1. Leave the country,
  2. Transfer their sponsorship to the company they are currently working for if it's not their Saudi sponsor, or
  3. Go back to the Saudi who sponsored them.

Let's look at these options more fully.

Option 1: Leave The Country

A lot of expats are opting to leave the country and the government is making it easy for them to get their final exit visa by waiving fees, penalties and fines. The Arab News ran this story...

Labor Ministry issues status correction guidelines

... which is quite good in explaining 'the corrective process'.

Even with the Labor Ministry's process things have not been plain sailing for everybody.  Issues include:
  • the time it takes to get through the process, 
  • the Saudi organisations involved in the process not actually knowing the process, 
  • Saudi and Expat organisations not having enough man power to get though the hundreds of thousands of applications, and 
  • the expats' sponsors not giving back said expats passports.  (In Saudi, though its not legal, it is common practice for the employer to keep the employees passport and you can read about that in my post That Passport Is Mine, Thanks).
No doubt moving the numbers who want to leave Saudi out of the country is a logistical nightmare and, given the issues mentioned above, not everyone is happy with the process, so stories have been filtering back to the expat circles.  Stories of the queues outside embassies and passport centers sweltering in the Saudi heat abound, stories of less than pleasant personnel sending expats from pillar to post and back again have popped up and, more recently, are stories of sponsors extorting cash from expats before they will give their passports back so they can travel.

I have to say, I don't find the extortion stories the least bit surprising.  Those Saudi's who've been cashing in on the sponsorship system, particularly through the 'free visa' loophole, and want to continue to do so by keeping passports or demanding payment from expats are, in my opinion, excretory orifaces (aka arse holes).    Someone high up must think they are ori-fecal too, because in Saudi Gazette the other day was this article:

Sponsors violating workers’ rights
...which basically says that expats can get new passports and residency permits even if they don't have the paperwork from the sponsor because he (or she) won't hand it over.

Option 2: Transfer Sponsorship To Current Employer

Transferring of sponsorship to a current employer also has it's issues because of Saudization rules.  If the company is in the Green Basket for Saudization purposes they're happy to legally accept workers until their green limit is reached.  If the company is not in the GREEN, they don't want to legalize their workers by sponsoring them.  That would be, I imagine, most of the construction, roading, waste management and other labour intensive industries who really relied on 'free' expats or 'runaways' for manpower.  These industries can't seem to attract sufficient Saudi's to the job, not unless they engage them as managers or similar which only serves to make the companies very  top heavy.  Naturally this doesn't make economic sense and you can bet the blokes that will miss out on being paid a decent wage in the long run, will be the laborers.

Latest news indicates that companies are starting to push back on the Nitiqat system by asking to be allowed to hire expats even though they aren't GREEN, largely because Saudi's either aren't experienced enough to do the job, are slack at the job or simply refuse to do the work on offer.

Option 3: Return To Your Sponsor

Expats returning to the Saudi who initially sponsored them into KSA is causing a weeny headache for the sponsors, especially if they are of the 'Free Visa' ilk.  Basically, many 'Free Visa' sponsors, if not most, have no jobs for the expats they bring into the country because they hadn't intended them to work for their company anyway.  They only intended to make money off the expats by collecting a little stipend from all of them each week for the pleasure of being allowed to live in Saudi Arabia.  Taking back their expats (yes in this country people own each other) risks putting their company (for those who actually had one in the first place) into the RED basket of Saudization.  Being in the RED means the company can't sponsor any more expats and have to rely on their fellow countrymen to do the work and, as previously mentioned, at this point in time that ain't working out so well.

Once all the new grads from the trade training programmes and work training schemes that are rapidly being set up by the government are saturating the market with skilled Saudi's, then things might look brighter for the company owner.  (Unless he owns a business that is highly labour intensive.  Getting blisters and work hardened hands isn't yet considered a great thing for most of the new generation).  But that is going to take some time.

Of course, those Saudi's who never had a company in the first place risk being charged for defrauding the Ministry, as do their friends within the Ministries who helped to push through their fraudulent applications. (I, along with many other expats, seriously doubt any Saudi will be taken to court any time soon.)

One expat wife told me that before the 'Illegal Expat Sweep' her husband, a bloke with a trade, was working for another company and getting paid regularly.  Life was good.  Now, his sponsor has taken him back and gives him menial work to do, but he doesn't get paid.  Life is not looking so rosy.  Apparently his sponsor thinks this expat clean out will all blow over and he can go back to making money off the sponsorship system.  He just has to wait it out and throw his expats a bone now and then.  Rumour has it he's not the only sponsor thinking along those lines.  Wouldn't it put another bee in the sponsors' collective bonnets  if the government scrapped the sponsorship system altogether!

It is a bit unfair that expats who arrived on Free Visa's are being called 'illegal' and are lumped in with the run-aways.  Expats that arrived on 'Free Visas' are not 'illegal' in my book.  The Saudi who brought them over, on the other hand, and the agent he (or she) paid a back hander to is definitely the one acting illegally.  The expats are not illegal because they were sponsored and the Saudi sponsor was quite clear in his (or her) intentions for entering the sponsorship game - the Free Visa expats will work elsewhere and the sponsor will have very little to do with them, except for collecting their cash. Which means, in a round about fashion, the Free Visa expats are doing exactly as their sponsor intended and are, therefore, not 'illegal' or 'runaways'.

Regardless of that little bee in my bonnet on the illegal expat sweep, in order to get the local population up to par with life in the real world a lot of things have to change in Saudi and the hierarchy is well aware of it.  One problem that must be dealt with is the reliance on expats to do almost everything.  I think it's fab the government is setting up trade training programs and clearing the way for Saudi's to get jobs, male and female.  Feedback indicates that the newly employed, the women in particular, are loving working, making money,  learning new things and having  more purpose in life than deciding 'which cafe shall we go to today'.

The illegal expat sweep has been criticized for not being implemented in the best way or with the best time frame, but something had to be done and Saudi hierarchy has this habit of just getting on with whatever it is they need to do.  Not a bad way to live, really.  July 3rd is the last day of the grace period for the illegal expat sweep and I know a lot of people are waiting to see what happens next.

Ka Kite,

Photo credit: http://in.reuters.com/

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