Last updated: Wednesday, April 03, 2013 2:02 AM
If we presume that the kafala (sponsorship) system, which the Kingdom has been following for more than five decades, was just an experiment to study its impact on the labor market and its implications on the national economy, how can we assess its success or failure?
Can we consider it a successful method that has achieved its targets so we continue with it for many years to come to regulate the employment of foreigners in the country? If the concerned government departments believe that the system has achieved their visions and objectives, why has the national economy lost so much as a result of the kafala system in five decades?
We can summarize the results after 50 years of implementing the program as follows: Trading in humans has flourished, the labor market has been dumped with cheap and illiterate foreign manpower, the workers flee from the rightful kafeels (sponsors) to work in other places, Tasatur (coverup) has become a predominant phenomenon, new types of crimes have surfaced, a black market for work visas has appeared and the labor market has been corrupted and the doors to bribes have opened in the private and government establishments to renew or transfer iqamas illegally.
There is a long list of negative aspects that have also adversely affected the Saudi economy.
According to a report issued by the Commerce Ministry, more than SR140 billion ($30 billion) is transferred abroad in expatriate remittances each year. This means a remarkable withdrawal of liquidity from the market, which is detrimental to the economy as well as to the domestic trade due to the unethical competition between expatriates and Saudis.
The ministry’s figures about Tasatur show that it dominates the contracting sector by about 43 percent, consumer goods 19.2 percent, general trading 16 percent, foodstuffs 8 percent and others 15.8 percent. With 50 percent, the Arabs occupy the first place in doing business through Tasatur followed by Asians who constitute about 28 percent.
The legitimate question here is: Should we, after all this, still stick to the kafala system? This system has maligned our image in global human rights circles and placed us among the list of those suspected of trading in humans. How come the concerned departments did not notice all the problems resulting from the system? They were not only ignorant to the problems but also made concerted efforts to prove to us that the system was the best method to control foreigners in the country.
The Kingdom had experience in granting iqamas to foreigners without kafeels. This was done with the Yemenis. It was a successful experiment that did not result in any problems. The market was open. The Yemenis flourished in retail trade, services and vocational work. This experiment was halted after the first Gulf War.
We were waiting for the experiment to be made with other nationalities until the kafala system was abolished and substituted with a system of granting residency without kafeels. We should seriously consider an alternative approach to the kafala system, which is not appropriate to regulate more than 12 million foreigners in the Kingdom.
A few weeks ago the concerned government departments started to correct the situation of the Burmese living in the Kingdom, particularly in Makkah.
A committee was set up to enumerate them and authenticate their papers. This is a suitable opportunity to give them iqamas without kafeels, especially since the Burmese have been residing in the Kingdom for long years. There are other nationalities that have also been living among us for many years, including Afghans and Africans among others.
These communities are being hosted by the Kingdom out of consideration to the circumstances in their own countries. Correcting their situation is essential for them to be able to find work and accommodation in a legal way without the need to look for kafeels. Asking these communities to have sponsors will take us back to square one, which is the Nitaqat program and the illegal procedures being used to renew or transfer iqamas.
The abolition of the kafala system and finding another substitute is a social and security issue, which should be studied at the highest levels, and not just by an individual administration or a small government department. The issue should be considered at the level of the Supreme Economic Council or the Shoura Council. We have suffered a lot from the kafala system and it is high time we look for substitutes that will achieve our economic goals. Believe me if the issue is considered seriously away from passion and self-interest, the Saudi economy will be cured of many of its ills.
I think the kafala system needs a brave decision to cancel it. We have tried this system for long years. There is nothing to prevent us from trying the iqama system without the need for a kafeel.
Cutting up iqamas is no solution
No developed country in the world can do without foreign manpower. Even the United States, Canada and the leading European countries depend on foreign manpower to fill a number of occupations.
These countries have willingly granted citizenship to a large number of foreigners. The world today is based on partnership and exchange of expertise.
In our country, however, the foreign manpower is portrayed as the main barrier impeding the employment of Saudi nationals. Because of our “specialty”, arrogance and our excessive sensitivity toward strangers, the foreigners living in this country have become isolated from society.
Subsequently, they have shifted their focus mainly on making money to remit back home without giving any attention to building relationships with Saudi citizens among whom they spend the greater part of their lives.
This suspicious relationship brings us awful and unskilled manpower because good and skillful laborers will go to other countries in search of a better life.
The complex procedures of imposing the process of Saudization on small companies has encouraged the workers and owners of these small establishments to go around the regulations of the Labor Ministry.
A large number of Saudis are earning their living by selling work visas to expatriates thriving on the sweat of the foreign workers. These Saudis are certain that they will not be caught or punished for their crimes against the homeland and the humanity. The punishment will ultimately land on the heads of the poor foreigners who pay much of what they earn to the unscrupulous kafeel. The foreigners will either be detained, deported or have their iqamas clipped.
This is the naked truth. The fault is within us and not within the foreign workers. The owner of the company that employs foreigners and refuses to employ Saudis is himself a Saudi and not a foreigner. Why then do we direct our negative sentiments in the reverse direction? When will we understand that the expatriates are our partners in building this nation and are not responsible for any of our failures or disappointments?
Don’t we realize that the number of infiltrators will increase to compensate for the shortage of legal manpower that has been harassed by the process of Saudization?
If the inspection campaigns raided the giant companies they would find real violations there. Many foreigners who came to the Kingdom on an electrician or carpenter visa are holding senior positions in these companies.
Unfortunately the campaigns are targeting the simple workers who are kept impoverished by their sponsors and chained by the rules and regulations.
Perhaps the only corrective solution to the selling and buying of iqamas is the abolition of the kafala system and the adoption of the system of immigration followed by the Western countries. It is a legal and humanitarian solution. Under this system, the government will be the sole sponsor of all foreigners in the Kingdom. The world today will not accept the idea of an individual controlling the fate of another.
The clipped or torn-up iqama will not solve the issue of illegal workers but will increase the number of overstayers and infiltrators.