Indian minister assures Saudi Oger staff; Philippines hails measures to resolve crisis
Offering solace to stranded workers
By Shams Ahsan
IN a small, stuffy room at the Saudi Oger labor camp in Shumaisi on the outskirts of Makkah, the air was heavy not only with high humidity but also with tension, apprehension and concern among a large group of Indian workers who had gathered there on Wednesday afternoon to meet Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Gen. (Rtd.) V. K. Singh.
Singh had returned to the Kingdom for the second time in 12 days to solve the problems of Indian workers who have been languishing in their camps without pay and valid residency papers for many months.
“The Indian government is more eager than you that you return home as soon as possible. This is the reason I am here today leaving my work,” he said to the applause of the workers.
“The last time I came here, I started the process (to solve workers’ problems). Now I have come here again to reassure you that we are striving hard to make sure that you go back at the earliest,” said Singh.
The workers had the same grievances: No pay, no iqama (residence permit), no exit visas to go home. Many did not even have passports.
Their concern too is the same: How and when will they get their dues?
Their problems are the same too.
Zafar, from Bulandshahar in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, is neck deep in loans his wife has been taking for the past eight months to survive back home.
Afzal, from Gopalganj in Bihar, is the only breadwinner for a large family, which is on verge of starvation because he has not sent home money for many months.
The workers were unanimous in their pleas also: “Please send us home at the earliest.”
The minister made three important announcements to reassure the workers that their government had not left them in the lurch.
First, the process of repatriation has begun. On Wednesday, 46 workers were sent home.
The first batch of Indian workers left for India six days ago.
“We are making all arrangements to take you back home. Whether you go on the Saudi government’s expense or that of the the Indian government, you will go home,” Singh told the workers.
“Second: A committee has been constituted to help you calculate your dues. You all individually give the power of attorney to the Indian embassy and the consulate. I assure you that whenever the money is released, we will send it to you. Rest assured about it. I guarantee this.”
However, the minister refused to give a timeframe for the dues to be released.
“Everything will be done in a legal way. I can’t give you a timeframe.
There is not only one company in trouble, there are many such companies.
“But I assure you that your dues will reach you whether in six months or eight months. We are trying to expedite this process of clearing the dues,” he said.
Mentioning the third step the Indian government was taking, Singh said, “We are trying to expedite the process of exit visa formalities. There is a process involved. If you think that the process can be bypassed, this will not happen.”
The Saudi authorities have announced a number of measures to help distressed workers. Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman instructed the Minister of Labor and Social Development to make the companies pay salaries to their workers under the Wage Protection Program.
The Saudi authorities also announced that workers will not have to pay exit visa and iqama renewal fees.
Many workers during the camp meeting raised concerns about finding livelihood when they go back home.
To this, the Indian minister said, “We are talking to all state governments to help you rehabilitate. You can take easy loans available to restart your life back home. The state governments have been instructed to help you when you go back home.”
He said, “The Indian government does not want you to face any difficulties when you return home. But it is difficult for the government to dole out financial aid to you at this time.”
Almost all of the workers present in the room wanted to go home at the earliest. So they wanted the exit visa process to be expedited.
“We are talking to the Saudi authorities to expedite the exit visa formalities,” the minister said, announcing that the repatriation process will be expedited in a couple of days. “We will make sure that more and more people are taken home.”
“We want to take you home as early as possible so that the difficulties you are facing here are over,” he said.
In Riyadh, Minister of Labor and Social Development Dr. Mufrej Al-Haqbani, met with Secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Labor and Employment Silvestre Bello and his accompanying delegation and discussed the crisis.
Bello commended the measures that the Saudi government has taken including humanitarian aid and facilitation services for the stranded Filipino workers.
He also expressed relief and happiness over the general provisions of King Salman’s directive as the stranded Filipino workers are given options to go home at the government’s expense or transfer their service to another sponsor without seeking the former employer’s permission.
The Saudi government is contracting legal lawyers to pursue the workers’ claims and make sure their rights are protected in cooperation with the Philippine Embassy, said Bello.