Arab News|| Siraj Wahab
JEDDAH: Indian Minister of State for External Affairs Gen. V.K. Singh in an exclusive interview to Mr Siraj Wahab has praised Saudi Arabia for its magnanimity and generosity in dealing with the problem of laid-off and unpaid Indians in Saudi Arabia. MrSiraj wahab is an Indian expat from Aurangabad Maharashtra.
Speaking to Arab News during an exclusive interview in Jeddah on Friday, he thanked Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman for “personally intervening and giving instructions for resolution of the problems at the earliest.”
He said he had had a productive meeting with Labor and Social Development Minister Mufrej Al-Haqabani who had assured him of every help for the Indian workers. “I visited camps to learn firsthand the concerns of our people and assured them that they need not worry as the governments of India and Saudi Arabia were working together for their well-being.”
He said that for those willing to continue in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government would arrange for their transfer to other companies and renew their residency permits (iqama) without charge. “Food, medicine and other daily needs of our workers at the Saudi Oger camps will continue to be provided by the Saudi government. Others will continue to be taken care of by our embassy.”
For those willing to return to India, the Saudi government has announced that it will bear the cost of their return. The Indian Embassy and the Indian Consulate are completing the required formalities for their early return,” he said.
Regarding the clearance of financial dues, the Saudi government has assured the Indian minister that claims should be filed with the Labor and Social Development Ministry through the Indian missions. “Efforts will be made to get dues as quickly as possible after completing legal and other formalities.”
Following are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What is the takeaway from your visit to Saudi Arabia?
A: The Saudi government has been extremely positive and helpful. The king’s personal intervention was a magnanimous gesture. Assurances have been given to us that the problems of residency permits (iqamas) will be resolved, and that problems where people want a transfer within the Kingdom to another job will be facilitated. For those who want to return to India, the Saudi government will provide free air tickets.
Q: Have the problems at the labor camps been resolved?
A: There were earlier reports that people were not getting food and medical assistance. All those matters have been resolved by the Saudi government. We have received very solid support in resolving the problems in going to the camps and talking to the workers. In the two camps that I visited in Jeddah, we had the director general from the Labor and Social Development Ministry (Abdullah Al-Olayan) with us.
Q: Which is unprecedented?
A: Yes. That is why I am saying that we have seen a very, very positive and desirable response from the Saudis. We are sure that because of this, we will be able to resolve the issues for people who want to return home. There are other issues which of course we have raised with the labor minister. A number of people have not been paid for eight or nine months. They are by no means rich and so they have had to take loans from people around them. They need to pay these before they leave. We have requested for a mechanism whereby the defaulting companies pay these individuals outstanding dues of at least two months. The claims can be made through our missions.
Q: What was the response to this particular proposal of paying dues for two months?
A: It will be looked at. All this requires thinking and finding out the conditions in various companies. How it can be done and what the legal methodologies are. It is not a simple matter.
Q: How would you describe these people? Are they stranded?
A: I would not say “stranded.” They are not stranded Indians. They are people who were working here whose employers experienced an economic crisis in which they were unable to pay their employees. Obviously, if you have not been paid for eight or nine months and you have a relatively small salary, there is a crisis. To a certain extent, measures to mitigate the problems have been taken in terms of providing food. Let me tell you that the labor and social development minister said that food and such assistance being provided was an important part of Saudi culture. It is a humanitarian problem which should never have happened. I must say that the attitude has been very positive in resolving the problem and assisting our people. There are three million Indians working here and they have made, and are making, a sizable contribution to the Saudi economy.
Q: And there was an acknowledgement from the Saudi labor and social development minister as well to this effect?
A: Yes. There is an acknowledgment that Indians work very hard, that they have never created problems and so they must be helped.
Q: How many Indians would like to return to India?
A: Initial assessment indicates that there are few who would like to go back.
Q: How many does “few” mean?
A: It means 100, 200, 300 or 400. Those who have no liabilities want to go back immediately. The majority needs to pay back personal loans. They would like to go back once their loans have been cleared. Anybody who has worked here for six, seven or eight years is looking at continuing their employment here. There are some who have worked for only two years and for them, the liabilities are not high and so they would like to go back.
Q: An erroneous impression was created in the Indian media that Saudi Arabia was in some kind of war-like situation in which Indians were somehow marooned. That certainly did not help, did it?
A: The problem is that such stories look very romantic. I think the media in general tends to portray everything as tragedy. Nobody originally understood the crisis. It is of a different nature and it is only when you talk to people that you understand the situation. Even where the food aspect is concerned, there were very few places where matters were that serious.
Q: But it was projected that Indians were starving?
A: Nobody was starving. What happens is if a person did not have proper food for one day, he would say, “Oh, we haven’t had food today.” It gets accentuated. Plus, the frustration. You know, eight or nine months without being paid is a real problem. Obviously people who come here, most of them are not from rich backgrounds. They have liabilities at home. They cannot send money back and they do not have money for their daily expenses. That then becomes a crisis.
Q: In the written statement issued after the meeting with the labor and social development minister, you mentioned only one company that had a problem?
A: There may be more companies, but the food issue came up only with one company (Saudi Oger) and that problem has been solved.
Q: Generally in such cases, is there a fund to provide instant relief? Right now the Indian community rose to the occasion and provided much-needed help.
A: We have authorized our missions to provide food from our funds and we are not charging anybody. The ministry has made use of a particular welfare fund but in light of the large numbers, we appealed to the Indian community because we did not know how long the problem would last. The Indian community and Indian companies rallied around, and they provided much-needed help.
Q: But now the Labor and Social Development Ministry has promised that they will provide food as well?
A: Yes. Food, medicine and other daily needs of our workers in Saudi Oger camps will continue to be provided by the Saudi government. The others will continue to be taken care of by our embassy.
Q: Has the Indian government thought of providing interim relief to the families of these workers?
A: We have asked them to file claims with the embassy and the consulate. The claims are against their dues from the defaulting companies. Once they make the claims, the Saudi Labor and Social Development Ministry will find measures for how they are going to get their disputes resolved so that the money can be paid. The job of Indian missions is to ensure that they get the claims from the people and file them with the Labor and Social Development Ministry.
Q: In the past, we have seen that the missions did not have enough money to hire legal help?
A: In the last two-and-a-half years that we have been in the government, I have not heard of any mission which has lacked money to hire legal help.
Q: In general, did the good relationship existing between the two countries ease the crisis?
A: Obviously, the warmth of the relationship has been very visible. The moment I came here, the labor and social development minister met me and reassured me. The king has already ordered these issues to be resolved in the quickest possible time. This shows the warmth of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Q: Your message from Jeddah to the Indian community in India?
A: My message to the Indian community in India is that we should not panic. Companies fail in all countries. There is a procedure. Let us not unnecessarily ascribe different motives to the events. People are being looked after. There is a big Indian community in Saudi Arabia with a very responsive mission along with a very responsive Saudi government to assist us. With a little patience, things will work out.