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Saudi demands reduction of migrant worker recruitment cost - but not out of compassion

On February 12, 2012

Saudi Arabia’s recent efforts to reduce the cost of recruitment for Bangladeshi migrant workers is not the mark of a new leaf turned. Rather, the nation's endeavors - which manifest in the form of threats - reflect the complete rejection of responsibility for the kingdom's migrant workers.

The demand itself is based in truth; migrants are overcharged and cheated throughout the employment and recruitment process. Many end up so deeply in debt that their first several salaries are used to payback the cost. Bangladesh, along with many other migrant-exporting nations, has failed to regulate the exploitative enterprise.

However, Saudi’s claim that migrant workers offset the cost of recruitment is both conjecture and blatant propaganda. The Saudi government refuses to acknowledge that post-recruitment conditions are as likely, if not more likely, to push migrants towards crime. Given that the International Trade Union Confederation has condemned Saudi for its “violation of all core labor standards,” the government’s desire to change policy outside of the kingdom is striking; the government perpetuates the myth that migrant crime is the most significant migrant issue, and that this crime is completely independent of the nation’s own policies, under which chronic abuse, underpayment, and slavery flourishes.

This image Saudi projects is pervasive, readily absorbed into relevant rhetoric and perspectives. A Bangladeshi official's paraphrased statement reads “if it is possible to fix a rational migration cost in line with their salary, the workers will get their immigration cost back within a short time that will help them maintain a disciplined life in the KSA,” demonstrating the reallocation of blame - the “discipline” - to migrant workers. Saudi's claims shift all responsibility to migrants and their home countries - to all actors and conditions external to its government. Reducing recruitment costs is an important step forward in improving migrant worker’s livelihood - but it only addresses part of the problem.

Furthermore troubling is Saudi’s approach to effecting the cost reduction. Saudi threatened to prolong the existing ban on Bangladeshi workers, which it had recently intended to lift. The Bangladeshi government in turn announced visibly reduced costs would be achieved by the middle of the year. Bangladesh also stated it will adopt some of Saudi’s own guidelines in implementing these changes. This definite advancement in migrant rights is sullied by the reality that Saudi Arabia wields disproportionate control over migrant labor policy. With the threat of severing economic opportunity so crucial to remittance-dependent nations, Saudi effectively dictates the domestic actions of other nations. By constraining migrant-exporting countries into weakened positions - forced to balance protections and economic opportunity for their citizens - Saudi renders these nations virtually paralyzed, unable to substantively negotiate migrant worker policy.

While Bangladesh is not absolved from the responsibility to protect its own citizens with sound regulations, its own failures do not eclipse those of Saudi Arabia. Saudi’s response to migrant crime has been to indefinitely imprison or behead workers, but the nation will only see a reduction in crime when it targets the genuine causes - those which lie within the Kingdom itself.