Thousands of migrant construction workers are refusing to leave the Saudi desert camps where they were abandoned by their employers during the country’s economic slump. The Saudi government had offered free flights home for the migrants, but the workers say they will not accept the offer until months of back wages owed are paid.
The poor conditions and maltreatment of the workers have alarmed their home countries and drawn international attention to the plight of some of the 10 million foreign workers in Saudi Arabia. Workers have been stranded for months in crowded living quarters with little money and limited access to food, water and medical care.
In an attempt to compensate for the unpaid wages, the government says it is offering the workers the right to visit their home countries and then return, as well as leeway to remain in Saudi Arabia while looking for other jobs.
"We will wait here one year, two years. We will wait for our money. Then we will go back," said Sardar Naseer, 35, a Pakistani welder at the Qadisiya Labour Camp, which houses around 2,000 workers from construction conglomerate Saudi Oger about 20 kilometers outside of the capital, Riyadh.
Naseer says he is owed 22,000 riyals ($5,900) after receiving no wages for eight months. Workers said they had stopped work about four months ago, and none had been paid since January.
Oger, the family firm of billionaire former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The Hariri family did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.
According to men at the camp, Oger stopped providing food, electricity, maintenance, and medical services at several of its camps in July, including Qadisiyah, at which point the Saudi Labor Ministry took over provision of basic services.
There is no regular supply of clean drinking water -- a filter on a public water fountain meant to be changed daily has not been serviced in a year -- so they are forced to buy bottled water with their own money.
Saudi Oger, which employs some 30,000 workers, is responsible for mega-projects such as Riyadh's 500-room Ritz Carlton hotel. Oger and the Saudi Binladin Group are Saudi Arabia’s most prominent construction companies, both of which have faced financial difficulties as the world's biggest oil exporter has suffered from the fall in the price of crude.
Amid the economic slump, construction projects have been halted or slowed, and some frustrated workers have staged public protests over the worsening salary delays.
Several of the workers’ home countries, including Pakistan, India, and the Philippines, have dispatched officials to Riyadh to seek assistance on behalf of their citizens. Indian officials said this month that more than 6,200 former Indian employees of Oger were stranded in Saudi camps after being laid off and owed wages.
Philippines Secretary of Labor Silvestre Bello, who visited Riyadh for talks with Saudi Labour Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani recently, said that with the assistance of Saudi authorities, about 1,000 Filipino workers could be sent home by mid-September.
"Our government has sent half billion (500 million) pesos as initial financial assistance for migrant workers," Bello said.
After Indian authorities raised their concerns, King Salman set aside 100 million riyals of government funds to help the stranded workers, who mostly hail from Pakistan, India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.
Al-Haqbani said that several of the firms in question, including Saudi Binladin Group, have started paying overdue wages. He said Binladin executives had promised him that payments would be finished by September.
Oger is the only company still broadly withholding payments. Haqbani said the Labour Ministry will press the wage claims of the foreign workers through the kingdom's labor dispute system, although he refrained from detailing a timeline for the process.
"Saudi Oger -- now we'll take it to the courts. Now we are responsible for that. We've hired lawyers," he said. "As the ministry, we will go through the labor dispute courts to go after Saudi Oger and to collect the claims."
He also distanced Oger’s troubles from Saudi Arabia’s overall employment of foreign workers, emphasizing that most of them have chosen to remain in the country.
"This is a small segment ... of the labor market. We have more than 10 million expats working happily here in the country,” he said. “When a company like Saudi Oger fails to comply with the rules, this will never destroy the good image of our labor market."
At the camp, Mohammed Niaz, 42, said his two daughters back in Pakistan had stopped attending school because he could no longer send money home for fees.
"I'm wasting my time. I want to go to Pakistan," he said, allowed he added that he is refusing to leave Saudi Arabia until he receives the money owed to him by Oger. "My family has no money. My daughters are out of school. How can I go to Pakistan?"
Reported by Marwa Rashad and Katie Paul for Reuters