Expats outside a restaurant in the Saudi city of Al Khobar Image Credit: Al Youm

More than 10 million expatriates from all over the world have flocked to Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer. They have come here either to improve their financial security or to enhance their spiritual life. However, in some cases, neither is happening.

In a busy square in one of the kingdom’s major cities, one can often notice a crowd of young men loitering or sitting near the roadside in high temperatures looking pale and devastated. Some had spent their entire life’s savings and family fortune to come to Saudi Arabia with high hope to change their future for the better. Many also borrowed funds to pay off recruiting agencies.

Unfortunately, for some, a street of gold remains a dream. They are the victims of circumstances. Many non-resident Bangladeshis are aghast.

There are more than 2 million Bangladeshi labourers working in the Kingdom. Not everyone is in bad shape. Many companies treat their employees with honour and respect; at least they pay their wages, and allow them their vacation time and a free ticket to visit home as per contract.

Most of the Bangladeshi manpower companies, however, do not honour their contract. A few have the tendency to write two or more contracts, one more lucrative at the time of recruitment in the home country and another less favourable at the time of their arrival in the host country. In addition, where some companies face cash flow difficulties due to delayed payment, they withhold labour wages for months, as it is easy and less burdensome.

These labourers are illiterate and secondly, they are under so much subjugation that they would have very little courage to report it to the Labor Court. As such rogue companies do not pay any extra penalty owing to delayed payment of wages, in many cases; this has become a norm rather than an exception to the general rule. Most of the rogue agencies have powerful Godfathers behind them.

As many Bangladeshi poor labourers are not paid on time, they fend for themselves by going out and cleaning private cars. Many Saudis and expatriate professionals are generally benevolent to pay them for such cleaning jobs. Therefore, many make good money out of such business.

In some cases, they have to deposit a part of their earnings to their supervisors. Otherwise, they are disallowed to do such jobs during their off time. Many Bangladeshi labourers reported that the Saudi Police are generally very sympathetic to them. Most of the time, they do not bother them too much by collecting money for car washing neither they ever take any share.

So much racketeering is going on in this business and the unfortunate labourers that are building beautiful cities and towns and keeping its streets and palaces clean are being cheated right and left. No wonder, manpower business, and flesh trade trafficking are among the most lucrative businesses in the world and many professionals like engineers and doctors left their professions to become manpower agents to make quick money. It is a ‘gold mine’ and one can make money faster than the drug business.

Bangladeshi labourers are mostly ill-educated, poor, and helpless. Before their departure from Saudi Arabia, they are not given any training or orientation by their local recruiting agencies or the government on their rights, privileges, or on existing Saudi and Bangladeshi labour laws and regulations. Therefore, they are treated as ‘modern-day slaves’, completely at the mercy of scrupulous recruiters.

Currently, nearly 13 million Bangladeshis are living abroad and nearly 2 million in Saudi Arabia alone. Their annual remittance tops 13 billion and nearly 48% of remittances come from Saudi Arabia. Most of these expatriates have jobs abroad due to efforts by manpower agencies. The respectable agencies deserve credit for their honesty.

However, a few of them are bad apples and in the absence of government supervision, they have become despotic and ruthless. They take advantage of the Bangladesh’s seemingly ineffectual policies and find it easier to extort and exploit the poor labourers. In this game of manpower business, very often the individual labour loses all that he has; money, health, moral strength, motivation, respect for life and develops disgust for the host as well the home government. The government loses its goodwill while the recruiters make enormous profits by exploiting the poor labour.

No wonder the Darwinian evolutionary theory “Survival of the fittest” can be applied to the plight of some of those who have taken the challenge of leaving homes to work in faraway lands, away from familiar surroundings and loved ones.

Such is a glimpse into the darker side of guest workers’ mechanics that we often take for granted.

Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena