Monday, July 25, 2011

Up in Smoke

A spectacular fire on July 9, 2011, of a Jeddah six-story office building that totally destroyed the structure has raised questions about a dubious policy that many Saudi employers follow. Ravaging the twin towers of Alesayi Plaza near Madinah Road, the blazing inferno also destroyed some 17,000 foreign passports belonging to expatriate workers employed by companies such as Panasonic, Moulinex, and over 60 other businesses which were housed in the complex. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.

It is the policy of many employers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to confiscate the passports of workers and hold them until the employees leave the country. Unfortunately this policy has paved the way for many abuses to occur within the system with potentially disastrous ramifications, such as slavery, blackmail, withholding pay, and inability of workers to switch their employment to another company within Saudi Arabia.

There is no law in Saudi Arabia which requires workers to surrender their passports to their employers, however some companies falsely claim that they are following the law by holding their employees’ passports or may simply say that it is company policy. Companies explain that keeping workers’ passports is their way of protecting their investment by bringing workers into the country. The Kingdom requires that foreign workers have a legal sponsor, which would be the Saudi company they work for. According to Saudi law, workers are allowed to freely change jobs or employers and to change their sponsorship, however there is no government entity to ensure that foreign workers rights are protected.

For many foreign workers who had plans to leave the country, their departures will likely be delayed. This unfortunate event should be a wake-up call for the Saudi government to take control of this serious situation and enforce policy regarding the possession of foreign workers’ passports.

Related Arab News articles:

“Jeddah's Alesayi Plaza gutted by fire” – published July 9, 2011

“Second Alesayi tower on verge of collapse” – published July 10, 2011

“Alesayi fire burned 17,000 passports” – published July 18, 2011

“Your company is keeping your passport illegally” – published July 21, 2011

Photo Credits: Arab News and Abdul Sami Naik.


  1. The holding has gone so wide spread through the gulf that I found my "boss" even believed it was law and his right. I had not come on their dime or anything and was already in the country visiting when I applied for the job and got it. They said that they would take my passport to the government to get the new visa so I could start work. Though they had lost it when I asked for it back as I was going to renew my visa for myself as they had not in over 2 weeks and I needed a new visitors visa. I had to sign out my own passport on a contract (saying I would not flee the country and if I did that I would reimburse any money they had spent. I again had not received a penny from them at all) even though I was not legally working for them they demanded this before they returned my passport. They finally found it (they had denied having it at first)! needless to say, I renewed my visa, went back to them and told them I would keep my passport with me and bring it on the days needed for the visa process, and I would retain it after, as it is against the law for them to keep it. (someone had gone around the company the week before with posters telling legal rights of workers and that its not legal for them to hold passports. It case some interesting reactions and many people asking and some getting there passports back) The boss said it was unexseptable for me to keep my passport if I wanted the job, I told him Kindly that I did not after what I had seen. No one needs a job where you see your rights flying out the window, cuz only more will fly out over time.

  2. Susie, if it were not for what you do, we wouldn't know these thinkgs happen. You educate the average Amercian ( and other nationalities) to so many issues. Thank you for what you do.

  3. I once had a stand-up shouting row with an Emirati over this. You do NOT get to keep my passport !

    It is NOT the job of the employee to protect the employers' "investment" in bringing you to the country. If the employer wants to retain employees, then they have to pay competitve rates and provide competitive employment conditions. End of.

  4. Serves them right! Their crime was unveiled by this fire. The businesses should be made to foot the bill for replacing all of those stolen passports.

  5. Wow, I would feel so naked without my passport abroad (or at least beyond my reach). This is serious. Poor workers who get taken advantage of in this way.

  6. Susie I think your posts should be REQUIRED reading for anyone thinking about going to SA to work or, perhaps even to visit. You are doing a special service. Posting news is a good thing. Lyola

  7. A most interesting post, Susie !
    Thanks for bringing the topic to our attention. I'd heard about this regarding poor migrant workers (and how their employers almost held them hostage) but I didn't know all expat workers had to deal with this.

    Just like women driving I hope this comes to change.

  8. PS - I like your new twin profile photos on the left hand side. I am pleased that your uncovered photo comes first and your mug shot next. I like the sense of freedom that it conveys.