There’s an unmistakable buzz in the air. In less than a week, Saudi Arabia’s amnesty for expatriate workers to correct their residency status will expire. On July 3, a few million of those foreigners whose papers have not been corrected to reflect their true status of employment will have to make plans to leave the country.
The Asian expatriate workforce is the most affected by the crackdown on labour by the Saudi authorities, and their relatives in neighbouring Gulf countries are following the events in the country very carefully. Asian diplomatic missions are feverishly appealing for an extension to the amnesty period to allow those in the process of correcting their papers a chance to do so. Some missions have organised job fairs to facilitate direct recruiting by companies seeking labour.
Diplomats have also cited a number of mitigating factors in their appeal. These include the unexpected large number of foreigners living in the country on illegal status, the diverse group of nationalities, the lack of preparation by correction authorities to deal with such large numbers, the massive crowds camped at these severely understaffed offices, and the Ramadan and the Umrah season that would tax many already overworked government departments with extra duties.
In the appeal, most requested an extension until the end of the year as a reasonable amount of time to allow residency status corrections, considering that the annual Haj pilgrimage is not far away. Whether these voices will be heard is not yet known. The decision to grant the extension was taken by the Saudi king and it would take no less an authority to extend it.
Saudis have mixed feelings to calls for extending the amnesty period. Many support such a move, while others feel it the kingdom should stick to the July 3 deadline.
One Saudi observed: “Pressure is mounting on our generation to take up jobs monopolised by foreign manpower. These pressures are based on a simple calculation: 600,000 unemployed Saudis against seven million foreigners working in the kingdom. This problem could be solved in a matter of few months by deporting a sufficient number of foreigners and replacing them with citizens after training and rehabilitation. This idea is workable and practical and will address a growing problem in our midst. An extension will only delay the process.”
A Saudi teacher said: “What extension? How can we then ask our youth to take any available job currently held by the unskilled and semi-skilled expatriate workforce without protecting their self esteem from our own society when they take menial jobs that are currently being occupied by the foreigner? They should be given the respect they deserve and the government must appreciate their service by facilitating and prioritising loans and housing projects for them first. Only when this happens we can get Saudis to join the semi-skilled workforce and get rid of unemployment.”
A Saudi physician added: “Most of the illegal residency cases are often caused by those who fled the excessiveness of some Saudi sponsors who do not shy away from depriving the foreign workers of their legal rights. Such sponsors take advantage of the labour system and its regulations which grant them absolute powers over the foreign workers.
“The worker comes from his country only to find himself under the mercy of his sponsor who can force him to work in a job which he is not contracted to do, or ask him to work longer hours, or delay his salary or even prevent him from enjoying his annual vacation. For this reason, it would only be fair to extend the period and allow justice to such people.”
An official at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce said, “We are quite sure that the correction of the labour market will be of benefit to us all, but the difficulty for all of us is the short period of three months and the revised regulations concerning residency rules in the system. The grace period intends to correct faulty labour practices that have been prevalent for the last 30 years but to have them all corrected in such a short time would be very challenging. I support a move to extend it, and I trust that our benevolent King Abdullah [Bin Abdul Aziz] will come through.”
Mai, a Saudi housewife is against any extension.“The law is the law, and once it is declared it has to be fully implemented. Otherwise there would be no respect for future laws. We are burdened by illegal residents who contribute to rising crime and other social ills in our society. Something is now being done to amend that, and I do not want to see any changes to the effect. The amnesty period is until July 3, and I hope that the authorities maintain that deadline.”
So which sides of the fence will illegal residents would find themselves on after July 3? At the time of writing this column, it is a difficult call.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi socio-political commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@talmaeena