CW investigates the plight of runaway migrant workers in Jeddah
CW investigates the plight of hundreds of runaway migrant workers who have spent months, and in some cases years, living rough under the sitten bridge in downtown Jeddah.
If ever the failures of the sponsorship system for migrant workers in the Gulf were glaringly apparent, it is under the Sitten Bridge in the old district of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
It is beneath this enormous concrete overpass where more than 1000 migrant workers live on the pavement with limited access to basic needs such as food and water, desperately hoping to be deported.
Some came on pilgrimage to Makkah and stayed to work illegally, but many others were abandoned by their sponsors or fled abusive or non-paying employers.
More than half are men mainly from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, who congregate in groups according to nationality. They came to work in the construction industry.
The rest are a mix of Filipino and Indonesian women, who mostly came to work as domestic workers.
They all sit on cardboard sheets huddled up together on one end of the bridge, waiting to be deported. Sudhakaran, a 28 year old Sri Lankan, says he has spent 17 months in Saudi Arabia, 10 of them under the bridge.
He came to work as a construction labourer to support his wife and two young children, but left his sponsor who only paid him US $106 (SR400) a month, less than half of what he had agreed to.
Like many others, he headed to the Sitten Bridge, a place which has become a well known recruiting ground for illegal workers across the kingdom.
There he gets intermittent labouring work and earns a significantly better daily wage, but it is not without its pitfalls and he is still owed two months’ salary with no legal recourse to ensure he is paid.
Now, Sudhakaran says he has no money and there is limited work. He survives on scraps from rubbish bins, begging in the streets and food donations.
His ten or so friends, who are also Sri Lankan, share similar stories of employer abuse, hopelessness and misery. They have nothing more than sheets of cardboard and possibly some clothes.
They are allowed to wash and use the toilet in the local mosque, but puddles of urine are everywhere and the smell ever-present.
All the men say they want to go home, but don’t have money for the airfare, don’t have their passports or the crucial exit visas.
Faced with this situation, Sudhakaran says the only option he is now left with, is to be caught by the Saudi police.
“I will wait here until they catch me, I don’t know when that will happen, but I want it to happen now. This is what everybody here wants,” he says.
Indeed, everybody seems to have the same goal, but “getting caught” isn’t easy.
Forty-year-old Madhu from the Indian state of Kerala has been under the Sitten Bridge for more than two years. He says the police regularly patrol the area but won’t deport a person unless they pay.
“There are agents for each nationality and if you pay them SR500 ($133) the police will pick you up and send you home,” he said.
“Otherwise you have to wait for the passports office to send a van, these come every now and then, but they only take certain groups of people. This is what I am waiting for.”
Until then Madhu said he would continue to work as an illegal labourer. He too said he ran away from his employer after not being paid his salary.
As the gateway to Makkah and the more liberal of Saudi cities, Jeddah has become somewhat of a last post for migrant workers without papers hoping to be deported.
Several workers tell stories of paying money to be trafficked more than 1000km from Riyadh or Dammam, riding concealed in the back of utilities and trucks with other runaways.
KK Vijayan from the welfare section of the Indian Consulate in Jeddah said the concentration of illegal migrants is high in the city, but is skeptical that any have lived under Sitten Bridge for longer than a few months.
He describes it as a temporary problem, a quasi-waiting room for people wanting to be deported, which recently overfilled due to the Haj season when many overstayed their pilgrim visas.
Even so, Vijayan concedes that it is difficult to get stranded migrants home quickly.
While the consulate can easily issue new travel documents and even has mechanisms to pay for the return flights of Indian nationals, he said the exit visa requirements cause delays.
“If they can’t get the exit visa signed by the sponsor then the only way is getting caught by the passports office, investigated and sent home. And because these people are in large numbers this takes time,” he said.
“All the consulates are fighting to get the government to give some kind of an amnesty on the exit visas. Then we can wipe out the problem and send everybody home.”
The government will apparently not declare an amnesty because of “security concerns,” but even if they did, Vijayan admits it would only be a band-aid solution.
“As soon as these 1000 people under the bridge are removed and sent back home, in ten days another 1000 will come,” he said.
“The problem is much larger than the bridge and has been happening for the last three decades. The government is doing a lot but the problem is big.
“Around 1.8 million Indians are living in Saudi Arabia and every year we issue around 30,000 temporary passports.”
For many years human rights groups have been arguing that the only long-term solution to the problem is to reform the sponsorship system and the labour courts process.
Vijayan said he understands that the government is looking at various options. In the past, proposals have been put forward to transfer sponsorship from individual employers to a government agency or large labour agencies monitored by the state.
Christoph Wilcke of international NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said either proposal would mark a significant improvement in conditions for migrants and the numbers who run away.
At the same time he said the government must improve migrant access to the criminal justice system and enforce stiffer penalties on employers who flout the rules.
“It’s been extremely hard to force sponsors to go to the labour court or pay up, they just don’t go and the Saudi system now is just not interested in enforcement,” he said.
“Until that happens, some sponsors will obviously just continue to mistreat workers.”
One option which is being looked at is getting sponsors to pay a lump sum into an escrow account, which could be used when there are contractual violations and money needs to be paid to the worker.
Wilcke believes such reforms need to be implemented now and in the meantime the Saudi government must address the wishes of all stranded workers who want to go home.
“Under the universal declaration of human rights everybody has the right to leave his or her country and return to it. What is clear is that the government is not abiding by its own laws and international obligations,” he said.
“The Interior Ministry must step in and waive the need for an exit visa, they do it all the time with criminals; it’s just a matter of political will.”
The Sponsorship System
The sponsorship system is used in Saudi Arabia and most Arab Gulf states to employ foreign workers, who work under a sponsor/employer. The sponsor is responsible for the resident and must approve exit visas, without which they cannot leave the country.
Workers are also not allowed to switch jobs without the consent of the sponsor. The system has been heavily criticised by many human rights organisations since sponsors routinely confiscate workers’ passports and withhold salaries as methods of control.
In August 2009 Bahrain was the first Gulf state to reform the system by allowing workers to freely switch jobs under certain conditions, but the reforms are yet to be proved effective.