'Starved for food, water; want to return home': A worker's account of Saudi 'food crisis'
'Starved for food, water; want to return home': A worker's account of Saudi 'food crisis'

'Starved for food, water; want to return home': A worker's account of Saudi 'food crisis'

After External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj took note of the situation, workers now hope they will be able to return home soon.

It’s been a struggle for survival for 32-year-old Shamshe Alam at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, with no food, water, money or electricity the last few months. Hit by an economic slowdown, Saudi Oger, a construction company has left Alam and around 10,000 other Indians stranded  with no salary for seven months.

And while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj promises to bring them back, Shamshe Alam recounts for TNM the struggle of thousands like him.

Trouble started brewing in 2015, Alam recalls, when their salaries were delayed by 1-2 months. If workers wanted to leave, they were told that their benefits (like insurance) would expire if they wanted to change jobs. By January and February this year, many workers’ residential permits expired. Shamshe Alam says they were told to be on standby as they would be jailed for working without a valid residential permit. He also says they were promised a basic salary until the permits were renewed.

However, the promise of basic salaries was never kept. Shamshe Alam says that Saudi Oger told the workers that the government wasn’t paying them while the government, in turn claimed it had cleared its dues. As the blame game played out, it was the workers and their livelihoods that hung in the balance.

Meanwhile, hundreds of unsuspecting employees lost their jobs due to massive lay-offs in the recent months. But the hardest blow came about 10 days ago, when the company shut its mess and two days later, cut-off the water supply in the workers’ camps, Alam notes.

With no mess and no money, even one full meal was a luxury for Shamshe Alam and others. “Sometimes, passers-by at the camp would ask us if we had eaten. They would give us a little money. But what would come in that? Maybe a few pieces of roti, some rice,” says Shamshe Alam. The rest of the time, they would just pool in a few resources and share a meal.

However, when electricity was cut off a day after water, the workers had had enough. About a week ago, 3000 of them took to the streets and blocked a highway. When the police threatened to put them behind bars, Shamshe Alam says going to jail wouldn’t have been a worse prospect. “Yahan bhi marr hi rahe the bina khaana aur paani ke. Wahan (jail) bhi marr jaate.” (We were starving without food and water here too. We’d have starved in jail too.)

After 14 hours, Shamshe Alam says someone came from the Saudi Labour Ministry around midnight and promised to address their woes. A few hours after the workers returned to their camps, water supply was restored and in a few hours, the electricity.

The food came too. However, many workers didn’t eat the cow and camel meat and so, went hungry. Later, the Indian embassy sent ration like rice and oil, giving them some respite. But they have a new problem now – the stench of decomposing garbage around their camp, because the housekeeping company has withdrawn their staff due to non-payment.

Although the embassy has taken their details to arrange exit visas, Shamshe Alam says that their passports remain with the company.

He doesn’t know how things came to be so bad. Educated only till class 12, he was quite content for eight years living in a single room with five others. Every month, he would send back money to his parents and two younger brothers back in Bhilai, Chattisgarh.

Now, his family and wife of two years desperately want him to come back. But Shamshe Alam says that the company owes him more than 20,000 Riyal. “I want to go back. But if I go back just like this, what good am I to my family? How will I support them?” he rues.   

He also points out that the company has Lebanese, Filipino and French employees on its rolls. And while their dues were cleared, South Asians from countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were left in the lurch. “South Asians are exploited everywhere. It’s not new. Maybe because our embassy isn’t as strong,” Shamshe Alam concludes.

However, with their plight having drawn Sushma Swaraj’s attention, Shamshe Alam says that it is a “50-50 chance” he will be able to return home to his family. However, he has given up hope on the money that the company owes him.

Meanwhile, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has promised help to around 700 Keralites stuck in Saudi Arabia. The Chief Minister’s office, in a press release, said that NORKA had made all the necessary arrangements to bring them back and would even support the workers who want to stay back and secure compensation from Saudi Oger. It added that steps have also been taken to procure their pending salaries. 

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