Expatriate Pakistanis struggle as Saudi construction firm holds wages

KARACHI: Thousands of Pakistani labourers working in Saudi Arabia fear arrest and hardship as they continue to work in the country with unpaid salaries and expired work permits.

“We rush back to our quarters immediately after work,” one worker tells Dawn in a telephone interview. “We are too scared of the police to step outside.”

At least 100 workers were thrust into uncertainty after their employer, the United Seemac Co., a construction company, allegedly failed to pay their salaries for several months. Following the company’s repeated promises of “releasing payments soon”, the workers made a difficult decision earlier this year: they took their grievances to a labour court. However, with the legal battle yet to bear fruit, the expatriates with little money and borrowed time are quickly losing hope.

Residence permits have expired because the fee required for their renewal has not been paid, laments a worker

Most are still employed by the company as technical staff. Ali Shah*, who has been working as a bulldozer operator for the firm for a decade, says he is owed 35,000 Saudi riyals [approximately Rs980,000].

He claims that Pakistani workers are not the only ones facing such trouble at the United Seemac Co. “The company has a total of 500 employees of different nationalities, and all are in a similar situation. The trend of not paying salaries is new,” he says, adding that he has not faced salary delays before. On average, workers have not been paid for nine to 16 months, though there are also some whose remunerations have reportedly been pending for 19 months.

Despite the difficult circumstances, they continue to work in the hope that their dues will be paid and reside in cramped living quarters provided by the company. Their passports are in the employer’s possession, and whether it is the death of a relative or an emergency, they cannot go back to Pakistan unless the employer returns their passport.

Iqama question

Many of the workers hold expired iqamas, the residence permits issued to expatriates who arrive in Saudi Arabia on an employment visa.

Blaming the company for the expired permits, another staffer Basit Sheikh says: “The company has not paid a fee employers are required to submit for iqama renewal.”

Sheikh said he was recently arrested for seven days for not having a valid residence permit.

A list compiled by a worker and seen by Dawn shows that of the 100 Pakistani employees working at the firm, 77 have their permits expired.

“Without these permits, we cannot even get medical insurance. How can we possibly have money to go see a doctor, if we often do not even have money for food?” asks Sheikh.

In January, when the workers filed an official complaint with the labour court, Sheikh and another Pakistani worker represented the concerns of the complainants.

According to documents seen by Dawn, the plaintiffs demanded that they be paid the pending salaries and their iqamas renewed. After three recorded hearings, the case was transferred to a higher court. “The representative of the company attended the last hearing; we found him uninterested in dealing with us [workers]. So now we are taking the case to a higher court,” says Sheikh.

Adding to the workers’ distress is the fact that the company is holding their passports, making travel next to impossible.

Saad Khan, an employee of the company for the past 12 years, says: “If I quit today, they will give me my passport and allow me to leave. But this would mean leaving behind my pending salary.”

For Khan, whose 11 pay cheques are owed to him, this is simply not an option.

Company’s problem

The plight of the workers at the construction firm is not unique. As has been widely reported, with oil revenues decreasing, the kingdom has cut down state spending, and construction firms have taken a hit.

The company’s general manager, Abu Mohammed, reportedly told online news organisation Middle East Eye that they were unable to pay employees because the Saudi government had failed to compensate the firm for completed contract work.

Representatives of the firm could not be contacted despite several email and telephone communication attempts.

In July, Pakistan’s Foreign Of­­fi­­ce took notice when another construction firm had failed to pay 500 Pakistanis their dues. “[The] Min­is­­­try of Foreign Affairs and Pak­istan Embassy in Riyadh are making every effort to resolve the difficulties being faced by Pakis­tani nationals, working for Saad Group of Companies in Dam­m­­am…,” Foreign Office spokesman Nafees Zakaria had told Dawn.

Non-payment of salaries affected 8,000 individuals at the Saad Group of Companies.

Workers of the United Seemac Co feel that because they are emp­loyed by a much smaller organisation, no one knows their situation.

“One week ago we also went to Pakistan Embassy in Riyadh to lodge a complaint, but we did not receive any good response from them,” said Sheikh.

With a pending legal case and limited options, the employees continue to work for the firm.

“They give us small sums of money sometimes. Just recently workers in Riyadh were given about 50 Saudi riyals [about Rs1,400] each,” Khan says. This, however, is barely enough for him to feed himself, let alone support his family back in Pakistan.

*Names have been changed to protect identity as the workers are not authorised to speak to journalists

Additional reporting by Mahnoor Bari