Tuesday, August 24, 2010
All in a Day's Work
"Tighter Measures Urged Against Runaway Laborers" reads the headline of a recent Arab News article. The article elaborates about how runaway construction workers in Saudi Arabia have become quite a problem in getting construction jobs finished. Legal construction workers here are generally paid about 50 Saudi Riyals (about $12.50 US) for a day's work, whereas illegal runaway construction workers can make about 200 SR per day (about $50 US). Most of the money earned by foreign laborers in Saudi Arabia is wired to the workers' homelands and is not spent in Saudi Arabia and therefore doesn't contribute to its economy. Saudi men generally would never work as hard laborers, even though many Saudi men are currently unemployed - but many jobs are considered beneath a Saudi man's status, so foreign workers by the millions are brought to the country to perform these menial tasks. All of these workers, including many foreign women workers hired as domestic help, must have a legal sponsor.
Historically, Saudi employers have a reputation for mistreating, underpaying, and overworking unskilled foreign workers. Working conditions for many foreign workers have often been described as modern day slavery and their living conditions can also be deplorable. And sadly, there is little, if any, legal recourse or government protection for mistreated workers. White collar professionals, on the other hand, are generally treated quite well and have a totally different experience compared to those unskilled laborers from poorer countries. But even among the professionals, there can be marked discrepancies in wages and treatment depending on what country an employee is from. A professional engineer from the USA, for example, might be hired at a much higher salary and with better fringe benefits when compared to maybe an Indian national with the same education and experience.
I can't really speak from my personal experience on this subject, and fortunately the minimal number of housemaids and drivers I have come in contact with appear to be happy in their positions and have been treated well. However I have received several emails imploring me to speak up about this topic.
Another recent news story pertaining to controversial employment issues in Saudi Arabia also prompted the writing of this post as well. Despite the King of Saudi Arabia recently banning the issuance of "fatwas" (religious rulings) by religious sheikhs without first getting approval from the King's advisory panel called the Shoura Council, it seems Saudi Arabia has its own religious maverick who is openly defying this order. Sheikh Al Ahmed has called for a boycott of the large and popular supermarket chain called HyperPanda for its new experimental initiative of hiring Saudi female cashiers. He has even claimed that it is a Western plot to destroy good Muslim morals. In Saudi Arabia, women are generally restricted to work in mainly the education and medical fields, with few exceptions. Now mind you, Sheikh Al Ahmed only has the welfare of the poor women in mind - he's concerned that women working as cashiers in a public supermarket puts them in harm's way because they will come in contact with horny men customers who are unable to control themselves. (Okay, so I put this into my own words, but this is basically the reason.) What I don't understand is: When Saudi men travel to other places around the world, they are expected to behave themselves and follow the laws of the country. But when they are in their own country, they are NOT expected to be able to control themselves around women or follow the laws of their own land? And in addition, as good Muslims, aren't they supposed to treat women with respect and dignity?
To HyperPanda's credit, an executive of the company blew off the Sheikh's threats and they plan to continue their new program. And by the way, HyperPanda has implemented certain conditions for the hiring of these women cashiers: they must be Saudi women aged 28 or older; they must be in financial need, be divorced or widowed; and they must dress according to a dress code. HyperPanda should be commended and supported for what they are doing!
You can read more about this subject: about Sheikh Al Ahmed's background and record on women's issues on Saudi Woman's blog post about it, and on Qusay's blog, an interesting article about the unique challenges facing Saudi Arabia's new Minister of Labor.
UPDATE: Extra! Extra! Read all about it! News Headline on 8/26/2010 - Saudi Cleric Slammed Over Fatwa on Women Cashiers