To Save the Kingdom, Some Labor Force Cleansing

In terror of a ‘Saudi Arabian Spring,’ authorities in the oil kingdom have decided that it is time to put their youth to work. Following a new policy of Saudization, the government has told companies they need to rapidly reduce their foreign labor force (foreign workers account for about a third of the Saudi population). At the end of March, mass roundups of ‘illegal’ workers began. Indian magazine Tehelka writes that this will be an economic disaster for places like Kerala, where 650,000 ethnic Melayalees working in Saudi risk losing jobs.

The arrival gate at the Kozhikode International Airport was packed as usual. The only thing different this time was the muted reception. As passengers and their luggage trolleys from Riyadh rolled out, there were no shrieks of joy from excited kith and kin. There were only sighs of despair.

Blessed with one-fifth of the earth’s total petroleum reserves, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia rode the oil boom to become one of the fastest growing economies in the world. An estimated 6.5 million expatriates work in Saudi Arabia, and Malayalees constitute around 10 percent of that number.

In August 2011, Saudi Arabia announced the adoption of the Nitaqat [Saudization] law in a bid to create more jobs for local youth, who were demanding better opportunities.

When the law was announced, the Saudi government demarcated the private sector into five categories according to employee strength – giant, large, medium, small and very small. Business establishments with less than 10 employees were listed under the very small category and exempted from the new labour law.

The government also evaluated a company’s performance based on the number of local employees and rated them as green, yellow and red. No new work visas would be given to companies that are in the red and yellow list. A majority of the sponsors who employed Indians were in the red or yellow list. These companies were given time till 27 March 2013 to increase the intake of locals to the prescribed limit.

Employers were mandated to reserve 10 percent jobs for locals and pay them a minimum of 3,000 riyals ( Rs 43,500) a month. In contrast, expats were willing to work for as little as 900-1,000 riyals.

It was the Arab Spring that swept the region in 2011 which opened the eyes of Saudi Arabia’s rulers, explains PP Abdul Sultan, an Indian expat working as a journalist in Dammam. “Saudi Arabia has a large number of unemployed youth,” he says. “Around 1.2 lakh [120,000] graduates return to Saudi Arabia from foreign universities every year. A majority of them are unemployed as the private sector prefers employing expats. So the government wanted to pacify the youth and planned to create 1.12 million new jobs by 2014. The Nitaqat law was implemented to tide over the growing unrest.”

According to official statistics, 27.4 percent of Saudi Arabians under the age of 30 were unemployed in 2009. Saudi Arabia has the second highest youth unemployment rate in West Asia and the North African region after Iraq.

In Malappuram district, a sense of gloom has set in. Many residents have returned from Saudi Arabia with an “exit stamp” mark on their passports. Many more will follow suit. A majority of them were working as drivers, semi-skilled labourers, salesmen and small businessmen. Some of them had worked in the desert kingdom for more than 20 years.

Officially, there is no reason to panic. So far, only 1,052 Malayalees have returned from Saudi Arabia after the government implemented the Nitaqat law. Another 1,032 Malayalees have registered for an exit pass at the Indian Embassy in Riyadh and the Indian Consulate in Jeddah.

But the mood at the Kozhikode airport offers no such consolation. Here, hundreds of families are waiting for their breadwinners to return. Most of the returnees are clueless about their future. Even though their predicament is being debated in television channel studios, they realise that the sympathy for them will disappear soon and they will have to find a way out to solve their problems.

Meanwhile, news of a Malayalee’s death at a detention camp in Saudi Arabia sent shockwaves across Kerala. Abdul Nissar, who hails from Chelembra village in Malappuram district, was arrested during raids. He died on 27 March apparently due to illness.

“The Saudi police are conducting random checks. Around 2,000 Indians have been detained and a majority of them are sick. Life in the camps are miserable as there is no water and food,” says Vakkom Nass, a Jeddah-based social activist.

“The real exodus hasn’t started yet. Those who have been detained at the camps are waiting for exit pass and travel clearance,” says CPM Central Committee Member A Vijayaraghavan, who is in charge of the party’s pravasi [expatriate]affairs. “I’m getting a large number of calls from Saudi Arabia regarding the ground situation. An amnesty on raids will not resolve the issue. It’s estimated that around 1 lakh [100,000] people from Malappuram and Kozhikode districts would return soon. It’s going to create a social tragedy in Kerala.”

According to Vijayaraghavan, a majority of the Gulf returnees have health problems and have no money for medical care. “The government should issue health cards for them and make necessary arrangements to provide free medical care,” he says. “They have contributed immensely to the economic growth of the state and the country. We can’t stop the implementation of the Nitaqat law. What we can do is ease the misery of the returnees.”

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy told Tehelka that his government will do everything possible to help the Gulf returnees. “I met the prime minister and external affairs minister and briefed them about the gravity of the situation,” he says. “We have demanded a new package from the Centre to rehabilitate the returnees. We are planning to provide easy loans for them to start new business ventures. We are also planning to create job banks for them to utilise their skills in the infrastructure sector.”

However, he agreed that Kerala does not have the resources to tackle the crisis and needs support from the Centre.

It’s anybody’s guess whether the government schemes will see the light of day or remain on paper. For the thousands of expats coming home, a summer of discontent is in store.

‘I returned with whatever I had because the Nitaqat deadline was nearing’

Muraleedharan Cherat, 49 | Entrepreneur Thenjippalam | Kozhikode

A Semi-literate who started off as a casual labourer, Muraleedharan Cherat migrated from Thenjippalam village in Kozhikode district in 1988. Soon, Cherat set up his own business in Albaha, Saudi Arabia. Until three weeks ago, Cherat had it all. He was the go-to guy whenever his relatives or friends were in monetary trouble. But his world came crashing down last month and he waved goodbye to Saudi Arabia after spending 24 years there.

In fact, many of his friends are not aware that he has returned forever. His family is probably one of the worst hit in Kerala after Saudi Arabia implemented the Nitaqat law. His brother Gopinathan is also planning to return on 29 April. His elder son Rajesh, who is working as a taxi driver in Riyadh, is trying to find a job with a different company.

“After working as a labourer initially, I started my small business in 2006 laying marbles and tiles,” he says. “Business was good until two months ago. But my sponsor was put on the red list for not providing employment to Saudis and I had to wind up my business. On top of it, I lost around Rs 8 lakh as many contractors failed to clear the final settlements. But as the Nitaqat deadline was fast approaching, I returned with whatever money I had.”

Over the years, Cherat built a two-storey house and bought a Toyota Qualis for his family. He has also arranged for his daughter’s marriage, scheduled to be held in June.

“Don’t think that I’m filthy rich. I have to repay my car loan. I bought the vehicle due to pressure from the kids. I never had the luxury of riding in a car when I was young. So I thought they should have that privilege,” he says.

When Tehelka asked for his permission to take a photograph, he politely refused. “Please don’t photograph me. My daughter’s marriage has been fixed. I don’t want her in-laws to know about my exit from Saudi. They should think that I’m still working there, at least until the marriage is over. I can also tell others that I have come home for the marriage. Why should we share our problems with others?”

But Cherat’s wife Geetha is happy that he is finally back home. “Even when he came for the holidays, he was always busy meeting friends and travelling. I told him it’s time for rest now.”

For Cherat, returning to Kerala does not feel like a proper homecoming. “My biggest problem is that I have no idea about Kerala. For the past 24 years, Saudi was my home. Here, things have changed a lot and I don’t want to be caught in a debt trap,” he says.

‘If I had remained in Jeddah, I would have ended up in jail where 300 people are put in one cell’

Shaji Babu, 41 | Taxi Driver | Kuriyedam, Malappuram

Shaji Babu looked happy when he arrived at the Kozhikode International Airport from Riyadh after a gap of two years on 7 April. His daughter and son beamed with joy. But deep inside, he was in anguish.

Sitting on the portico of his newly built house at Kuriyedam village in Malappuram district, Babu became nostalgic. Dropping out of school after Class IX, Babu took a driving licence and left home in 1994 for Saudi Arabia.

“Gulf was the dreamland for every unemployed youth in Kerala, especially Malappuram,” he says. “We grew up hearing success stories of migration and Saudi Arabia was the top destination of our generation as a majority of our people were working there. If you go to Jeddah or Riyadh, you feel like you are in Kondotty or Manjery. One always bumps into neighbours and relatives wherever you go.”

During his 19-year stay in the desert kingdom, Babu managed to save enough money to marry off his three sisters and built a 1,500 sq ft house.

“Life was not all that smooth. But I never complained. My priority was my family. Earlier, I worked in a taxi company where I had to pay 140 ($37) riyals daily to my sponsor, fill gas for the vehicle and spend another 1,000 ($266) riyals annually for Iqama (residency permit). I worked almost 14 hours a day to save every penny and sent it home. I took a loan to build the house and have to repay Rs 2 lakh ($3700) to the bank,” he says.

However, the Nitaqat law sealed Babu’s fate. His sponsor told him that his work permit would not be renewed. “If I had remained in Jeddah without the valid papers, I would have ended up in jail where 300 people are put in a cell without food. I can’t live in such conditions,” he says.

According to Babu, the Saudi Arabian interior ministry started raids at the end of February. In Rabagh, police raided labour camps and arrested several Indians, including Malayalees. He also received several phone calls from friends telling about raids in other locations and finally decided to pack his bags.

“I was getting 2,000 riyals ($533) every month as salary. It was a good amount for people like me. I had company accommodation and a chance to work overtime. If I’d worked in Kerala, my savings would have been nil. We all remain in the Gulf to provide good life for our families.”

Babu knows he faces a bleak future in Kerala but remains optimistic. “At least I have a good house to live in,” he says. “Many people who had spent their whole life in Saudi Arabia don’t have even a house to live in. Compared to those people, I’m lucky. Don’t you think so?”

‘Rearing buffalos is better than working in Saudi Arabia’

Sakkeer Hussain, 43 | Cashier | Valluvambrum, Malappuram

Standing with two buffalos in front of his house at Valluvambrum village in Malappuram, Sakkeer Hussain looks more like a farmer than a Gulf returnee. He worked as a cashier in Jeddah for 15 years before he was deported last January after the new labour law came into force.

“I laughed out loud when TV channels recently ran stories about expats returning home from Saudi Arabia,” he says. “The Nitaqat effect is not a new phenomenon. It started in 2011. Around 25,000 people have already returned. Our politicians and media came to know about it only after the deadline ended on 27 March. Those who are returning won’t make a public announcement that they are coming back for good. Mark my words, many more will return. I expect at least 1.5 lakh people to return within months. Nobody can stop the exodus.”

After failing to land a job in Kerala, Hussain, a matriculate, left for Saudi Arabia in 1997 by paying 1 lakh ($1850) for his visa. When he reached Jeddah, his sponsor demanded another 9,000 ($2400) riyals for his residency permit.

“I didn’t manage to save much. Every two years, I came home for holidays and spent all my savings. The major achievement of my pravasi life was that my family managed to enjoy moderate comforts while I was away.”

After returning home, Hussain tried to get a job but his expertise was not in demand. So, bought some buffalos. “I decided to rear buffalos for a living. It’s not a bad business. You just need limited investment. The only problem is I can’t move out of my village. Anyway it’s better than working in Saudi Arabia where you are treated worse than a street dog,” he says.

“Our political leaders are showering sympathies on Gulf returnees and issuing press statements every day. They are planning to visit Saudi Arabia to understand the ground reality and putting pressure on the Central government to act. These are only media stunts. Where were they all these years?”

Hussain is confident that he can feed his wife and three children with his new business venture. And he advises Gulf returnees to start similar ventures instead of waiting for the state’s help. “I have learnt a hard lesson that when you are in peril, nobody is going to help you,” he says. “So, don’t be at the mercy of these political gods who know how to fool people.”

‘My sponsor’s henchmen snatched 1,500 riyals before returning my residency permit’

Abdul Jaleel, 35 Helper at A Bakery Thalekkara, Malappuram

Life Has come full circle for Abdul Jaleel. Five years after he left Thalekkara village in Malapuram district to find a job in the Gulf, he returned home on 22 March and is trying to make ends meet.

After completing his ITI course. Jaleel tried to get a job in Kerala but to no avail. In 2008, he paid Rs 2.5 lakh ($4600)for a visa and decided to go to Jeddah, where he was offered a monthly salary of 2,000 riyals ($533). However, life in Jeddah was not smooth. His sponsor had given him a two-year visa as a helper in a bakery. But for many days he had no work and no salary. Finally his sponsor allowed him to work in other shops. But he had to pay him 300 riyals ($80) monthly from his salary and 8,000 ($2133) riyals for renewing his residency permit.

“I could work only for five years in Jeddah and save very little. I’m not a Gulf returnee with millions of rupees in the bank as savings. After losing my job, I don’t know how I will live here. May be God has a plan for me,” he says.

“My sponsor had 20 people working under him. All of us were employed in other firms and paying him 5,000 riyals ($1330) every month from our salary. We knew he was exploiting us. It was a common practice in Saudi Arabia. Soon after Nitaqat was implemented, the labour department put our sponsor in the red list. It was not possible for him to renew our visa. He had to employ at least two locals or cut his employee strength to below 10 to evade the law,” he says.

To rub salt into his wounds, Jaleel was robbed of 1,500 riyals ($400) by the sponsor’s henchmen when he went to get his return ticket. “They returned my residency permit only after taking the money. Thank god they didn’t beat me up. Normally they beat us up if we resist. It’s all part of the Saudi life,” he says.

Jeemon Jacob