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Seven-hour work day for “burdensome” jobs, says Saudi
The kingdom has been severely criticized by Human Rights Watch for allowing the abuse of workers, and the government says it is taking steps to improve the situation.
December 21, 2008 10:42 by Aarti Nagraj
Saudi Arabia has just issued several new guidelines for protecting the rights of expatriate workers in the country, reports Arab News. “We have set up a department for taking care of expatriate workers. This department strives to protect the rights of workers and prevent abusing them,” the kingdom’s labor ministry said.
Apart from punishing employers who employ children, delay salary payments and mistreat the workers, the ministry announced it will reduce the length of workdays to seven hours for those who carry out burdensome jobs.
“The ministry gives importance for the safety of expatriate workers at places of work,” the statement said, adding that the Labor Law prohibits employers from asking Saudis and non-Saudis to work in unhealthy conditions.
But how does the ministry define “burdensome” jobs? And will the Saudi government be able to persuade its employers to allow laborers to work for just seven hours per day? And what about housemaids? Is their work “burdensome”?
Human Rights Watch has just released a report on International Migrants’ Day last week, stating that abuse of workers is rampant in the Middle East. And one of the countries topping the list is Saudi Arabia, which accommodates around 1.5 million foreign workers.
Just two weeks ago, a group of 54 Sri Lankan workers from Saudi returned to their home country after allegedly being abused by their employers. While two were female housemaids, the rest were male workers, who were reportedly stranded in the kingdom without salaries, and were subjected to abuse and sexual harassment by their employers.
The island’s Foreign Employment Bureau official, quoting one of the workers, said that he had returned to the country without a year’s salary, and every time he had reminded his employer, he was beaten and verbally abused. One of the two women housemaids also said that she fled her workplace after being sexually harassed by her employer.
Even as the reports of mistreatment continue, a Saudi-based advertising agency, FullStop, released a number of public service announcements about the issue. Three print ads and three television commercials address the importance of treating all workers with respect and dignity.
The Saudi Labor ministry has now distributed a directory in Arabic and English to enlighten workers about their rights by providing them with basic information about work conditions, and duties, and the agencies they can approach if they have complaints. It has also prepared a media program for them, and produced a film titled “Partners in Development.”
But will these steps be enough to stop the abuse of laborers? Will the government enforce the new rules it has issued? And will workers have the courage to report their employers, even if it may cost them their jobs?