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Stranded workers start returning from Saudi Arabia

KARACHI: Pakistani workers sacked by some construction companies in Saudi Arabia continue to return home, with a group of 10 workers reaching here on Saturday.

The number of labourers coming back is low but it is part of an ongoing process of workers returning home after not receiving their dues.

It all began about eight months ago when one after the other groups such as the Saad Trading and Contracting Companies, the Saudi Oger Limited and the Bin Laden Group declared bankruptcy after reportedly facing a “financial crunch”.

For about 12,000 Pakistanis working in different capacities for the companies operating from Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam and Ta’if, the domino effect was sudden and unexpected.

The labourers have been living under lamentable conditions in 19 camps set up by the companies in the four cities for the past few months. Most of them, according to officials and workers who have returned home, are still there to claim the money owed to them by the companies.

According to Foreign Office spokesperson Nafees Zakaria, at present there are around 2.6 million Pakistani nationals working in Saudi Arabia.

Some of the sacked workers belong to Karachi’s Rajput Colony in Liaquatabad’s Gharibabad area. About 400 labourers from the colony are working as marble setters and marble carvers in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Oman. The colony is unique in a way as almost everyone in the area has a family history of working as marble setters and marble carvers.

Mohammad Rafi, 26, is one of them. He belongs to the fourth generation of marble setters and jointly lives with his parents, siblings and their extended family. “I’m among the lucky ones in my family to have worked in Makkah’s Grand Mosque as a marble carver and a marble setter,” he said while talking to Dawn.

According to historian and writer Gul Hassan Kalmati, the Urdu-speaking residents of Rajput Colony earlier lived with people belonging to Marwari and Salawat communities in Ranchhore Line before partition. The Marwaris and Salawats, originating from Kutch in the Indian state of Gujarat, were involved in construction of buildings and had perfected the art of brick masonry.

According to a resident, the Urdu-speaking workers along with the Marwaris and Salawats moved to Rajput Colony, also known as Al-Kurait Colony, after partition. Soon, migrants coming from Delhi and Rajasthan in India, having skills in marble setting, also found a place in the colony.

Explaining the process of going to Saudi Arabia, Rafi said that labourers found work in the kingdom through agents who either gave an advertisement in a newspaper or contacted labourers through a ‘reference’. The reference usually comes through labourers who have previously gone to Saudi Arabia through the agents. They get 25 per cent share in the money the agents receive from a client.

“We have to pay Rs300,000 which includes payment for our visa and air tickets but only if the agent is playing fair; otherwise we have to pay separate amount for tickets and visas,” Rafi said. The offices of the agents are located in the posh areas as well as dingy streets in the supposedly ‘conflict’ areas of Karachi.

In most cases, the salary is decided beforehand. But it is not always what is promised. For instance, Rafi was promised 1,500 Saudi riyals a month for his work. “But on reaching Riyadh, I was told that I would get 1,100 riyals monthly salary with 300 riyals food allowance,” he said. “At times, I won’t get food allowance, so had to rely on salary. It seemed fine in the beginning but later I realised that the salary is not much.”

Similarly, he said that the process was not always legal and the documents not always authentic. “In such cases, workers are usually offered two conditions on beginning work for a company, either to hand over their identity documents, such as Pakistani passport or Iqama or Muqeem card, Saudi identity card which also works as a residence permit for expatriates, in return for extra money or keep the documents but get a salary less than promised.

After spending about 22 months in the Saudi Oger Company in Riyadh, Rafi was ousted without a reason in December last year. Since his Iqama or Muqeem card is with the company, he was left only with his medical insurance card to show it as evidence to claim his six-month salary.

“I spoke to the company about my salary before leaving but to no avail. They were kind enough to give me and other workers 200 riyals for food for two months after the company went bankrupt. But it stopped soon after the number of workers being sacked by the company increased,” he adds.

The plight of the workers started coming to the fore after some of them protested outside the Pakistani consulate and the companies on July 22. Such protests were also fuelled by complaints of Pakistani consulates in Riyadh and Jeddah not providing help to the stranded workers.

The Foreign Office spokesperson says that the Pakistani workers who are still in the camps are there by choice.
“They want to reclaim their dues and will be back as soon as they get it. On our part, we have spoken to the Saudi authorities who assured us that they won’t arrest or deport the workers whose visas have recently expired,” he said.

About the role of Pakistani consulates, he said, “I can recount hundreds of other labourers who have been facilitated by our representatives in Saudi Arabia.”

Published in Dawn, September 11th, 2016

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