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The iqama crackdown

Last updated: Friday, April 12, 2013 12:34 AM

THERE can be no doubting that the clamp down on expatriates who are not entitled to live and work here in the Kingdom is having an impact. We are seeing shops and businesses closed for extended periods and some private schools struggling to teach their pupils.

All of this is coming about because seemingly significant numbers of foreigners have been working here, some of them for a long time, and do not have proper iqamas. A three-month grace period has been extended to allow people to regularize their work and residency status, but for most it seems, this will be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Reports suggest that many of those who have moved on from their original sponsors, cannot now go back and find work with them. Indeed there has also been a market in iqamas, which were sold when there was in fact no job for the expatriate worker to go to. Those holding such documentation, which in previous years may have passed cursory scrutiny by the authorities, are now in an impossible position.

Though they have knowingly broken the law and were almost certainly aware of the consequences if they were caught, it is nevertheless hard not to sympathize with the plight of these people. Many will have paid recruiting agents significant sums of money to get them in to the Kingdom in the first place, legally or illegally. They may then have had to find a further sum to obtain an iqama. It should be remembered that foreign workers could only hold bank accounts with the necessary residency and work documentation.

Thus when it comes to sending money back to their families in their home countries, the transactions have to go through third parties, who can be connected to the original recruitment agency. It is therefore possible for a repayment installment of the debt to the agency to be taken at source, along with a fee for the transaction itself.

Until the Ministry of Labor decided to crack down, this shadow economy seems to have flourished. Even though many illegals must feel trapped in a system which is using them both for their labor and their generally meager earnings, the fact that so many have been prepared to endure the situation says much about the desperate needs of their families back in their native countries.

It is obvious that considerable hardship lies ahead for these individuals, who when they are discovered and deported could face mountains of debt and no longer have the prized job in the Kingdom with which to pay them off.

The big question of course is what happens when the law has run its course and, as expected, the greater number of illegal expatriate workers has been sent home. It seems clear that the iqama system will have to be monitored far more closely from hereon in, to stop the return of widespread misuse.

On the positive side, job places are being created for unemployed Saudis. Yet businesses are reportedly reluctant to pay the higher salaries necessary for Saudi workers. This is shortsighted. Though we have a competitive economy, firms must be prepared to pass on the extra costs to their customers. Since under the Saudization program, there are now minimal local staffing levels, it ought to be that all businesses will be affected to the same degree and therefore none of them will be put at a financial disadvantage against their competitors.

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