[The Saudi government’s budget difficulties have been felt most strongly in the construction sector, where contractors employ large work forces for huge infrastructure projects. Over the weekend in the costal city of Jidda, hundreds of laborers with the construction firm Saudi Oger staged rare public protests over unpaid wages, the Saudi news media reported.]
By Hari Kumar
NEW DELHI — The Indian government is struggling to support thousands of its citizens who have lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia, India’s minister of external affairs said on Monday, a new indication of how the drop in global oil prices has affected the Arab world’s largest economy and those who rely on it for their livelihoods.
More than 10,000 Indians have recently lost their jobs in the kingdom, and many are stuck there, some unable to feed themselves after not having been paid in months, the minister, Sushma Swaraj, told the upper house of India’s Parliament.
“The government has taken this issue very seriously,” Ms. Swaraj said. “If they are getting work, it is fine. But if they are not getting work and want to come back home, I assure you that we will bring them home safe.”
Saudi Arabia and its wealthy Persian Gulf neighbors have long been top destinations for millions of poor laborers, most of whom work in construction, transport and other low-paying sectors.
But the drop in oil prices to around $50 a barrel from more than $100 a barrel in June 2014 has undermined Gulf economies, leaving countries like Saudi Arabia with large budget deficits and delaying payments to government contractors.
Ms. Swaraj said that many of the unemployed workers were awaiting back wages after their work sites had closed down. There are more than three million Indian workers in Saudi Arabia, she said.
Indian diplomats had managed to get food to laid-off workers living in five camps in Saudi Arabia as of Monday morning, Ms. Swaraj said.
India is also trying to help those with no job prospects get home, a process complicated by Saudi restrictions on foreign labor. Human rights groups have accused Saudi Arabia and its neighbors of denying workers’ rights by allowing employers to confiscate foreign workers’ passports and not allowing them to leave the country without their employer’s permission.
Ms. Swaraj said the struggle to obtain documents from employers that would free workers to return to India was frequently made more difficult by the worsening economic situation.
“When the employer is no longer around, then where will we get the ‘no objection’ certificate?” she asked.
The Saudi government’s budget difficulties have been felt most strongly in the construction sector, where contractors employ large work forces for huge infrastructure projects. Over the weekend in the costal city of Jidda, hundreds of laborers with the construction firm Saudi Oger staged rare public protests over unpaid wages, the Saudi news media reported.
In April, foreign laborers at Saudi Binladin Group, another construction giant, burned company buses during protests after not being paid for months.
Ms. Swaraj said the Indian authorities were coordinating with Saudi Arabia to repatriate Indians who want to leave and trying to help unpaid workers to get their back-wages. India’s junior foreign minister, V.K. Singh, will fly to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to coordinate the Indian effort, she added.
Many Indian workers have also lost their jobs in Kuwait, but the situation is worse in Saudi Arabia, Ms. Swaraj said in a Twitter post on Saturday.
Millions of Indians have migrated to the Middle East and Gulf countries for work over the years. Many of them work in conflict zones, and in the past the Indian government has arranged large air and sea operations to evacuate them. Last year, the government evacuated more than 4,000 Indians from Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting a war against Houthi rebels.
Ben Hubbard contributed reporting from Beirut, Lebanon.