Tens of thousands of Malayali workers in Saudi Arabia are on the edge as the deadline for the Saudization programme called Nitaqat ends on Wednesday (March 27).

They face the prospect of being forced to wind up and leave on their own or face deportation, should the Saudi government stick to its plan of Saudization. Nearly 20 lakh expatriate workers, the largest chunk being Indians, would have to leave Saudi Arabia as the firms, companies, and businesses they work for have failed to comply with the Nitaqat programme. Nitaqat (meaning ranges or zones) is a programme of the Saudi Labour Ministry to create job opportunities for its nationals by replacing a small percentage of the foreign workforce with Saudi youths.

Nitaqat, announced in June 2011, insists that the companies and businesses reserve a certain percentage of their workforce to Saudis — depending on the size of the enterprise. Those employing under-10 workers are exempt, but those with up to 49 have to have 10 per cent Saudis. Bigger workforces have to include higher number of Saudis. Depending on their level of compliance, the enterprises are being categorised into four; those that totally fail to comply will be in the ‘red’ zone. Those complying with the Nitaqat norms would be rewarded with incentives while those failing would have to fold as the work permits of their expatriate workers would not be renewed.

Since the work permit is mandatory for getting the residential permit (iqama), the expatriate workers would become illegal residents when denied of work permit renewal, and thus would be forced to leave the kingdom.

Saudi newspapers reported that as the March 27 deadline for compliance neared, nearly 2.5 lakh small and medium enterprises were likely to fall in the red zone. They had been asked to employ at least one Saudi in order to escape being labelled ‘red’ and had been warned that their staff’s work permits would not be renewed.

If strictly implemented, the Nitaqat would lead to the loss of jobs of some 20 lakh expatriate workers. Expatriate workers make up roughly one-third of Saudi population. The workers come mainly from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Egypt, Yemen, and Indonesia. In terms of number, Indians constitute the largest chunk, and among Indians, Keralites are the largest group.

The Saudi government has in the past few months deported nearly two lakh expatriates working illegally in the country. There had been 3.4 lakh small and medium enterprises that did not employ a single Saudi worker and had been asked to employ at least one local worker to escape being penalised. The number has now fallen to 2.5 lakh.

Since the number of enterprises (2.5 lakh) that could not comply with the Nitaqat is so large and since the number of expatriate workers (about 20 lakh) who will have to leave is so high, the Malayali workers hang on to the hope that the Saudi government would set another deadline for compliance. But, the Saudi authorities have already started raiding illegal enterprises.

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