Amid the gloom and despair caused by the ‘Nitaqat,’ there is a glimmer of hope for expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, especially Keralites. The Saudi government is likely to allow the wives of expats to work.

This has been a decades-old demand of expatriates, chambers of commerce and school principals. But the government has so far stuck to its ban on wives of expatriate men arriving in the kingdom on dependent visas taking up any job, though illegally thousands of them are employed in a range of establishments, including schools.

The Saudi Gazette newspaper on Friday reported that the Labour Ministry was considering issuing of work permits to the wives and daughters of expatriates. “Work permits will be issued only for those jobs in which Saudi women are not interested or are not qualified,” the paper quoted a Ministry source as telling an online daily. “There is an acute shortage of Saudi women in certain jobs for which women from other nationalities could be considered.” The jobs included teachers of science subjects and foreign languages.

If the ban is lifted, thousands of housewives who work illegally as schoolteachers and in salons, beauty parlours, hospitals and offices at low wages can get their work and stay status corrected and escape the Nitaqat stipulations. A large number of teachers in private schools and international schools are wives of Indian employees.

When the Saudi government late last month started enforcing the Nitaqat norms, such teachers stayed back home fearing they would be arrested by the labour inspectors looking for labour law violators. Rumours that labour inspectors had raided several schools forced teachers to stay home. As a result, almost a half of private schools remained closed for a few days. Only after the government gave an assurance that no school would be raided until the three-month Nitaqat grace period ended had the schools reopened.

The Labour Ministry found that since a substantial number of teachers were wives of expatriate employees, many schools in the kingdom would have to close. There was a heavy shortage of Saudi women qualified to teach foreign languages and also science and mathematics. It was at this time that many Saudi organisations and employers renewed their demand to issue work permits to housewives. The Education Ministry had hinted that qualified foreign housewives would be allowed to work as teachers.

Interestingly, as recently as the first week of March, the Labour Ministry had issued a strict warning to expatriate employees against allowing their wives who were in the kingdom on dependent visas to work in the private sector. The Ministry said it would treat anyone on a dependent visa working in the private sector as a violation of the residency laws and that they risked being thrown out of the country.

Malayali housewives will probably be the biggest beneficiaries of the proposed relaxation as a huge number of them are educationally qualified, but are not allowed to work legally. Thousands of them, working in schools and hospitals are paid peanuts due to their illegal status. Many Malayali employees were considering sending their wives and children back home if their wives were to lose their jobs once the Nitaqat resumed after the grace period. The husbands’ salaries alone would not be sufficient to support the family.