Earlier this month, prompted by media reports, Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed over 8,500 Pakistani migrants were stranded in Saudi Arabia after their employers shuttered constructions projects and halted their salaries. But while Islamabad has pledged to provide monetary assistance to the economic migrants, it is refusing to take up the issue that helped create this crisis: the controversial kafala system.
“It is primarily the responsibility of the companies involved to provide these workers with food rations,” a spokesman for the foreign affairs ministry told Newsweek. “When they failed to do that, we stepped in and provided monetary assistance,” he said, adding that the Saudi government had assured Islamabad workers who have valid residence permits will be allowed to remain in Saudi Arabia and their employers will facilitate transferring their visas to new companies.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also took notice of the incident and approved Rs. 500 million to be disbursed among the families affected. “We stand by our hardworking workers who are away from their homeland to earn a living for their families. They are our strength and pride. We will help them out in all possible ways,” he said in a statement. Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud issued a decree insisting all workers be paid urgently.
But despite moves last year to amend it the archaic kafala system persists. Applicable in all Gulf Cooperation Countries except Bahrain, the controversial labor laws prevent migrant workers from entering, staying, working or leaving without the consent of a local citizen—usually a company representative—acting as sponsor. Human rights groups and foreign governments have repeatedly criticized this practice, claiming the laws leave room for serial abuse, with employers not paying full salaries to their workers and making them work long hours in desert heat. Several companies illegally confiscate employees’ passports, preventing them from returning home or seeking out alternate jobs unless their employer permits it.
A report by the Migrant Forum in Asia, criticizes the kafala system as a form of slavery: “The power that the kafala system delegates to the sponsor over the migrant worker, has been likened to a contemporary form of slavery. The kafeel (sponsor) meets their labor needs in the context of immense control and unchecked leverage over workers creating an environment ripe for human rights violations and erosion of labor standards.”
Many migrant workers are forced to work months or even years beyond their original contracts because their employers withhold their travel documents and refuse to let them acquire exit visas. Recruiters in Pakistan add to the exploitation by lying to workers about working conditions and forcing them to pay exorbitant sums upfront for the ‘privilege’ of working abroad.
Riyadh has, in recent years, strived to reform kafala, but human rights groups say there is still much work to be done. In October 2015, the government introduced 38 amendments to its laws that either introduced or increased fines for violating labor rights. The amendments also include new employment benefits and require employers to pay recompense for work-related injuries. However, they do not cover domestic workers or limited-term migrant labor. Rights groups also caution that without effective enforcement, the new laws are unlikely to prompt much, if any, improvement in laborers’ welfare.
Most Pakistani migrants in Saudi Arabia are employed in the crude oil production, transport and construction industries, which are currently suffering funding shortages due to plunging oil prices. According to a report published by PricewaterhouseCoopers in May this year, the oil glut has caused construction companies to tighten their belts and suspend or shutdown non-urgent projects. This is already having an impact on the livelihoods of Pakistani workers, 98 percent of who work as laborers. “Pressure on budgets will also drive a more holistic view of project cost from a one-off capital expenditure, to evaluating the whole-of-life costs including operational expenditure too … Our survey suggests that disputes have not risen appreciably yet, but we fully expect that this will be a trend this year as the lag effect of lower budgets catches up with project execution,” the report notes.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Chairperson Zohra Yusuf criticized Islamabad’s apparent insincerity in taking up the issue of kafala with Riyadh, pointing to annual aid from the Gulf kingdom as a likely reason. “[The Pakistani government’s] relationship with the Saudi government is like that of a client state. They are beholden to them for financial aid,” she told Newsweek.
Even beyond state-level aid, Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia are a major source of remittances for Islamabad. Approximately 4.3 million Pakistanis—more than anywhere else in the world—work in Saudi Arabia. From July 2015 to June 2016, these expatriates sent almost $5.97 billion home, or 30 percent of all remittances sent to Pakistan.
Yusuf has little hope of kafala being abandoned any time soon but urged Islamabad to help the stranded workers leave Saudi Arabia as soon as possible. “I think the immediate priority of the Pakistani government should be to get these workers home, with or without payments. Currently, they are stranded in a no man’s land.”