: Apart from enforcing the Nitaqat programme (which requires that a small percentage of the workforce of all enterprises should be Saudis), Saudi Arabia has also stepped up its drive to detect and deport illegal expatriate workers, a large number of whom are ‘free visa’ holders from Malabar. The Saudi Cabinet has asked the Labour and Interior ministries to jointly check on enterprises to find illegal workers; and, already the police have arrested a large number of workers for violating rules regarding work and residency permits. From Saturday, joint teams of the police and Labour officials will step up raids on establishments suspected of employing illegal workers, the authorities have announced.
These raids to flush out illegal workers will add to the steps taken under the `Nitaqat’ programme. Under the Nitaqat, the Labour Ministry has found that there are 2.5 lakh small and medium firms —including shops, small businesses, and enterprises such as taxi services — that do not employ not even a single Saudi national. These workers of these enterprises — which are now labelled `red’ — would not get their work permit renewed. As a result, these workers will have to leave the country.
‘Free visa’ is in fact a kind of human trafficking. In Saudi Arabia, the government issues labour visas to employers (who are called ‘sponsors’) to import foreign workers. But, many sponsors sell off a certain number of the visas, often through middlemen, to foreign workers. These workers are free to work for other employers, but will permanently be under the ‘sponsorship’ of the employer who sold them the visas.
‘Free visa’ holders are among the most exploited, lowest paid and abused workforce in Saudi Arabia. The sponsor, who keeps the worker’s passport and other travel documents with him, has a crucial role in the worker’s life. All his dealings with the government are through the sponsor, such as renewal of ‘iqama’ or residency permit. The majority of Malayalis working in Saudi Arabia on the so-called free visa are said to be from four districts — Malappuram, Kozhikode, Kannur and Kozhikode. Most of these people have not studied beyond high school, are manual workers with long working hours and are paid unbelievably low wages.