Holding the upper hand

One of the perils of the worker sponsorship law is that it unwittingly provides a sponsor with far too much control over the fate of those guest workers who have come to work under his sponsorship.  If the sponsor is not ethical, and there have been many reported cases of such abuses, then life can become a literal hell for the worker.

Such is the case of Rased, a Bangladeshi worker whom I ran into recently.  In the course of my conversations with this young man, I learned a few things about the evil labor practices employed by his ruthless Saudi sponsor.

This was his second visit to the Kingdom.  During his first stint, he was employed by a five-star hotel when he was approached by a Saudi businessman who offered him a position with his company at a much higher salary.  The Saudi told him he was in possession of over 100 labor visas from Bangladesh, and if Rased wanted to get the job, then he would have to resign and return to Dhaka to process his new employment visa.

A father of two young daughters, Rased realized the opportunities and the financial blessings of this new offer and accepted without much hesitation.  He left his previous place of employment, returned home and soon returned to the Kingdom under the Saudi gentleman’s sponsorship.

With a lowered voice, Rased related the following to me: “When I arrived my sponsor had me work in his office for the first two days.  Then he abruptly told me that he needed me to work around the house.  I told him that regardless of my qualifications, I would be willing to work anywhere and on any job as long as my salary remained the same.

“For the next six months, I worked as a domestic helper around his house driving for him and his family, cleaning house and doubling up as a gardener and a guard.  I was beginning to get perturbed and anxious, not because of the nature of the jobs I had to do, but because he had yet to give me any portion of my salary.  During this time my father passed away, and the only consolation I received from my employer was a statement that this was the fate we would all meet eventually.

“When the six months were over, and with my family in dire financial straits, I went to him once again and demanded that he pay me my salary for the past six months.  He told me that he would, as soon as he returned from Switzerland where he would be vacationing with his family.  He promised me he would be gone for only two weeks and would settle accounts upon his return.

“Those were very difficult and lonesome days, especially after hearing my wife telling me that my two young daughters were the only ones without new clothes for Eid.  With my father dead, there was not enough money to go around.  But there was not much I could do except feel less of a man, incapable of meeting my family’s needs.

“He and his family returned after six weeks of vacation and not two weeks as he had told me earlier.  When I confronted him, he apologized saying he could not pay me my past dues now as he had spent a lot of money during his trip.  ‘Europe is expensive, you know’ was his reply to my pleas.

“He then told me that if I was unhappy and wanted to transfer to another sponsor I would have to pay him SR 10,000 for a release!  If I couldn’t come up with the money, he would turn over my passport to Jawazat (Passport Department) for deportation.  I was numbed.  From where could I get this money?

“I have to tell you that this discussion absolutely shook my faith in the honesty and integrity of Saudis.  To take advantage of poor people like me, he and many others prey on our trusting nature, not thinking for a minute about our obligations to loved ones back home.  And this in the land of Makkah and Madinah!

“With desperation overcoming me, I ran away, my passport still in his possession.  I had my iqama (residence permit) with nine months validity and managed to secure odd jobs here and there to keep alive and hopefully save enough to send money to my family.  I have also learned since that my Saudi sponsor did indeed turn over my passport to Jawazat.  And every moment I live in fear that one day I will bump into him and be taken in.

“Why don’t you take your case up with the authorities such as the Labor Court,” I suggested, holding back my fury and disgust at the loathsome actions of such Saudis who manage to openly flaunt labor laws and exploit workers to the point of slavery, and get away with it.

“He has connections and he is a Saudi.  Who am I?  Who holds the upper hand? Who will listen to me?  The authorities will simply lock me up and then send me back.  It would not be so bad except I owe people money there, money I used to come here.”

— The author can be reached at talmaeena@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter@talmaeena