In 2015, Mohammed Arshad, 28, migrated to Saudi Arabia from Chittagong in Bangladesh with high hopes. He had plans to build a decent house, take care of his sister’s education and find better treatment for his mother who was suffering from cancer.
On arrival a recruitment agent offered him a job as a clerk in a small retail firm for 2000 Saudi riyals (approximately US$533) per month. Although the salary was less than what the agent had promised him back in Chittagong, Mohammed was ready to adjust – particularly as he had borrowed 300,000 taka (US$3,500) from friends and banks to get his work visa.
Things had been going well, or Mohammed thought. And then one day last November, his supervisor told him that he no longer had a job. “He told me that my job position has been nationalised,” said Mohammed.
He was devastated by the news. “My loans were not cleared. However, I had no options other than to return home,” he said, referring to the Gulf-wide kafala visa sponsorship system which ties migrant workers to a single employer.
Mohammed’s case is not an isolated one. Tens of thousands of people have been returning home from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait over the past few years due to the intensified nationalisation of jobs and the resulting anti-migrant climate.
In Saudi Arabia, as part of the country’s Vision 2030 reforms announced in 2016, the government decided to take drastic action to reduce the number of unemployed citizens, particularly in the private sector. In the third quarter of 2016, Saudi Arabia had an unemployment rate of 12.1 per cent, marking a four-year high according to Forbes Magazine. Vision 2030 lays out the Kingdom’s ambitions to reduce this rate to 7 per cent.
During 2016 and 2017, scores of migrant workers, particularly the Indian and Bangladeshi workers who were running small retail shops in Saudi cities, lost their jobs.
And in January 2018, the Saudi Minister of Labour issued a directive identifying the 12 categories of retail work that would only be allowed to employ Saudi citizens as of September 2018. The restricted jobs include the sale of building materials, furniture and confectionery, as well as auto parts, cars and motorcycles.
Five hundred jobs losses a week
An Indian social worker in the Saudi capital of Riyadh told Equal Times that at least 500 migrants are losing their jobs every week.“Many are returning home as their positions are nationalised,” said the social worker who asked to remain anonymous.
According to data from the General Statistics Authority of Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom saw more than 277,000 foreign workers leave their jobs in the fourth quarter of 2017.
The data also reveals that during the same period, the number of Saudis in employment increased by more than 100,000 from 3.063 million to 3.163 million.
This year in January, Oman also made a similar announcement by temporarily banning (for six months) the issue of expatriate residency visas for people working in 87 job roles in 10 different areas of employment, including IT, insurance, accounts and finance, sales and marketing, and the media.
Recently, Oman also took the decision to tackle rising unemployment amongst its citizens (the official unemployment rate is currently 17.5 per cent). According to a senior official at the Ministry of Manpower in Oman, the government set a target to create 25,000 jobs for Omani nationals in private sector between January and June; he says they have already exceeded that target by an extra 3,000 jobs.
“Nationalisation doesn’t mean that government is stealing migrants’ jobs. It is just that fresh jobs that are created are being reserved for nationals,” said Sulaiman Khalili, assistant director at the Information Department at Oman’s Ministry of Manpower. He added that the six-month ban will probably be extended.
Additionally, the Oman government is strictly monitoring the private sector’s nationalisation process. “Companies that are not achieving the Omanisation targets set by government will be banned,” Khalili added.
Root causes of a controversial policy
With oil prices falling by 43 per cent over the last four years, the economies of all six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have been adversely affected.
According to an IMF report released in December 2017, despite external borrowing, central bank reserves for GCC economies fell significantly from about US$903 billion in 2014 to US$705 in 2016.
When local companies found themselves struggling with cash-flow, migrant workers faced the first causalities in the form of retrenchment. According to Nilambar Badal, a migrant rights activist in Nepal, “the Gulf is no more a dream land for the Asian migrants”.
Badal, who is a programme director at the Asian Human Rights and Cultural Development Forum, told Equal Times: “Companies in Oman, Saudi and Qatar are facing a cash crunch. And due to this cash crunch workers are losing their jobs. On average, every day we are hearing about at least half a dozen cases of workers being stranded without their salary or food.”
Meanwhile, even as the number of workers returning home continues to increase, no proper reintegration or rehabilitation programmes have been established by major sending countries such as India and Bangladesh.
Last June, for example, 47-year-old Srinivasan returned to India in a wheelchair after he suffered a heart attack in Saudi Arabia that left him paralysed on his left side.
Srinivasan, who comes from Kerala in southern India, paid 250,000 Indian rupees (approximately US$3670) to an agent to organise a visa so that he could find work as a carpenter, but as a migrant, he had absolutely zero labour protections.
“When I fell ill, there was nobody to help me. I couldn’t get proper treatment, so I came back home,” Srinivasan said.
Srinivasan was earning around 3000 Saudi riyals (approximately US$800) but from that, his kafeel (employer) would subtract the cost for food, accommodation, water, electricity charges and visa costs.
Now back in India, Srinivasan sells food at the roadside. He still owes approximately 200,000 rupees (about US$3000) on his loan, and is struggling with the side-effects of his illness, but he isn’t strong enough to find better paying work. “My life is totally stuck,” he said.
Arul Antony, a researcher with the National Domestic Workers Movement in India, toldEqual Times: “Saudi is intensifying its nationalisation process. Oman is reserving jobs for nationals. Kuwait is even planning to tax migrant remittances. Qatar is politically isolated. Opportunities are less and less in these places, and even if we get them, it is worse than bonded labour,” he said.
Antony called on Asian countries to ratify the International Labour Organization conventions that are designed to ensure decent work conditions. He also noted that the United Nations is currently negotiating a Global Compact on Migration, which if implemented, could help ensure safe, orderly and regular migration.