Exploited Bangladeshi laborers abandoned by their embassy

JEDDAH, 26 May — It is now one year since Arab News exposed the plight of a group of Bangladeshi laborers working for the Oyon Al-Hejaji Maintenance and Cleaning Company.

Since then, although there were various diplomatic and commercial moves relating to the case, nothing was solved. The only event of significance was the fortunate — from the responsible authorities point of view — disappearance of the laborers themselves.These workers paid huge sums to labor agencies in Bangladesh.

On their arrival in the Kingdom, having been contracted for a job with a wage of SR350 per month, they found that they would be given only SR100 and work for one month. They were then left to fend for themselves.

As far as the labor recruitment agency was concerned, it had made its money and so its involvement ended there.

When questioned at the time, the Bangladeshi Embassy stated that it did not think any of this was its responsibility, because the Bangladesh Manpower and Labor Ministry had not directed them to take up the case.

The Bangladesh Manpower and Labor Ministry in Bangladesh “did not know of the circumstances.”

In a separate incident in Makkah, the same Oyon Company was ordered by the local Labor Court to pay their full wages retrospectively to the 200 Bangladeshi employees.

However, it chose instead to send the 18 it considered to be the ring leaders back to Bangladesh. Their back pay was used to purchase one-way tickets.

This is illegal under Saudi Labor Law, as the Saudi Council of Ministers and the Labor Ministry have made it clear that “no private company can shift the expenses or charge their expatriate employees government fees such as iqama or exit/re-entry fees and if they do, they must refund them all such charges.”

When this rule was clarified, many embassies filed cases in the court to try and get refunds for their expatriates.

Not, however, the Bangladeshi Embassy. In May this year, yet another 200 unemployed and undernourished laborers marched to the Labor Office in Riyadh to submit a series of complaints against their employer: the local branch of the Oyon Al-Hejaji Maintenance and Cleaning Company.

However, they were dispersed by the police before they could submit their grievances. As a consequence of this, the complaint was not legally registered – because it never reached the office.

That made things convenient for Mahbub Alam, the Bangladeshi ambassador to the Kingdom. It might account for his reaction when, this week, Arab News asked him what he had been doing on behalf of these Bangladeshi workers who exist in a kind of legal limbo.

“They are not known to us,” he stated. “It is not my direct responsibility.” Arab News pressed his excellency: If this debacle is not his responsibility, then whose is it? “A single case would be our responsibility.

Companies employing many people, that is their responsibility — or that of the government.”

This response raises more questions than it answers. Which was he referring to: The Bangladeshi or the Saudi government?

How can it be that one person is the embassy’s responsibility, but groups of 200 are not? And would not be part of his ambassadorial brief to know that three years ago the Bangladeshi Embassy rejected 250 visa applications from Oyon Al-Hejaji because of reports that it was ill-treating its employees?

The latest group of 200, which is the only tangible evidence that a problem exists, made an appearance at the Labour Court on May 4.

Harun-ur-Rashid, the company’s labor supervisor, acted fast by allegedly splitting the group up and sending them in smaller groups to a number of mosques well outside of the city. How did he manage to do this? By giving each individual SR50, and telling them to stay away from the company’s headquarters.

The laborers have since left the mosques, for destinations unknown.

When the inquiry into their fate seemed to take on a more urgent air, Harun-ur-Rashid unexpectedly returned to Bangladesh. To tell their story to Arab News, the laborers had employed the services of a shopkeeper, who sympathized with their plight.

A few days ago, the shopkeeper told this newspaper that he had not seen the group recently and assumed that they had disappeared into the sea of illegal overstayers — probably to work as street cleaners.

The laborers are a symptom of a sick combination that can sometimes come into play here in the Kingdom: byzantine bureaucracy, coupled with commercial exploitation. Courtesy: Arab News 

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