In July, news of over 10,000 foreign laborers from starving and stranded in Saudi Arabia prompted global outrage, and subsequent action from Saudi and Indian governments.
After experiencing weeks of hunger and abandonment at squalid desert camps, the distressed workers finally received free air tickets to freedom — but most of them are refusing to leave.
No, it’s not because they wish to continue working in the Gulf kingdom, but because there’s one major problem the Saudi government needs to fix before sending them all back home.
Over the past year, Saudi Arabia delayed payments to government contractors in the wake of the historic economic turmoil that’s been plaguing the country for over a year now.
The move had the worst impact on the labor force that mostly hails from underdeveloped South Asian and Far East Asian nations. Thousands of workers didn’t receive their salaries for about eight months.
The situation has been made worse because of the Saudi kafala (sponsorship) system, which requires expat workers to obtain the permission of their bosses to leave the country.
Since granting workers permission to leave also entails paying them their due wages, the employers abandoned their employees, hence, keeping them in perpetual limbo.
Now, despite receiving free transport out of that limbo, these people do not want to leave, because they need their hard-earned salaries.
"We will wait here — one year, two years. We will wait for our money. Then we will go back," Sardar Naseer, a welder from at the Qadisiya Labour Camp, told Reuters. He is owed 22,000 riyals ($5,900) after getting no pay for eight months.
Mohammed Niaz, another Pakistani worker at the camp, said he wanted to go back home because his two daughters had to quit school due to lack of money.
"My family has no money. My daughters are out of school. How can I go to Pakistan?”
While Saudi Arabia has vowed "urgent" action to assist stranded workers, it’s imperative that the country review and rethink the conditions and policies that led to this situation in the first place — primarily the kafala system, which basically gives the freedom of workers into the hands of their wealthy (mostly) Saudi employers.