Some Saudi employers offered a solution to foreign employees: hire Saudis and share your salary with them to avoid the sack.
Shamsuddin had been working in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia for 17 years. Earlier this month, he decided to return to his home at Koratty as the supermarket in Dammam where he was working as a driver employed few Saudi nationals and fell into the ‘Red’ category under the country’s Nitaqat laws. Shamsuddin had no option but to fly back.
“I couldn’t find a good job after Class X. That’s when a friend offered to arrange a free visa to Saudi,” says Shamsuddin. Like many others migrating to the Gulf, Shamsuddin found himself working in the booming construction industry in Saudi Arabia. After a few years, his visa sponsor transferred him to another employer, a small supermarket owner whom Shamsuddin calls “the Saudi.”
When the new Nitaqat laws were being enforced, Shamsuddin’s employer offered his foreign employees a way out. If they wanted to stay on, the Indian workers could themselves hire a few Saudi nationals to bring the ratio of local to foreign employees above the ‘Red’ category. “We make only around 1,000 Riyals (about Rs.15,000) a month. How can we spare any of it to pay others?,” asks Shamsuddin.
“The Saudi said we could stay on if we wished, but wouldn’t take the responsibility of getting our work permits renewed. I couldn’t take that risk. I have three children. Who will take care of them if I’m sent to Saudi prison?” says the 38-year-old.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia began enforcing the Nitaqat laws to curb the rising unemployment among its nationals. The laws are meant to curb the inflow of foreign workers and promote job opportunities for Saudi nationals. The law classifies establishments into four categories – Blue, Green, Yellow, and Red. The ‘Blue’ category organisations are those that have high ratio of local to foreign employees, while the ‘Red’ category establishments have the lowest ratio. ‘Red’ organisations will be banned from renewing the work permits of their foreign employees or transferring their visas.
Thousands of Indians working in Saudi Arabia have already taken the flight back home after the enforcement was announced. Many more are set to return. The Non-Resident Keralites’ Affairs Department has registered 5,261 persons at airports in Kerala who have returned under pressure from the law and are seeking employment in the State.
Brothers Sajeeb and Saneej from Puthenchira are among them. The brothers had been working in a mobile phone shop in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years. They were pulled up by Saudi authorities once the new laws came into force. “Luckily, they weren’t arrested,” says Ayisumma, Sajeeb’s aunt.
Indians living in Saudi Arabia live in constant fear of the Saudi police and prison. “I once visited a friend in Saudi prison. It was horrible and crowded there. There was just one bathroom for around 100 people. I don’t ever want to go back in there,” says Sajeeb.
Sajeeb and Saneej returned home immediately to escape arrest. The brothers, aged 27 and 25, have pooled in some of their savings to buy a car. They work on the rare occasions when they are called to chauffeur someone. Aysiumma is now worried that her nephews will not be able to find brides. “They are of marriageable age. But they don’t have stable jobs or money. How can we marry them off?” says Ayisumma.
Shamsuddin is concerned about his family’s future. “I worked in the desert heat for many years. But with my hard work, we were just beginning to see good times. I just managed to build a house. My eldest daughter is 15 years old. I have to get back to Saudi somehow and find a job,” he says. He finds a few odd plumbing jobs every now and then. Getting another visa to go back to Saudi Arabia will cost him around Rs.3 lakh.
The government continues its promises of negotiating with the government of Saudi Arabia and finding jobs for those who have returned. But those who have returned expect nothing from the State. “When a Malayali minister comes to Saudi, they visit all the big businessmen for lunch and leave. I have no hopes from the government. I have to find a way out myself,” says Shamsuddin.