Saudi Implements Inexpedient 'Wisdom Teeth' Policy

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Dec 10 2012

Gulf nations often take years to legislate significant migrant worker labor regulations or protections, and rarely support new policies with the enforcement mechanisms essential for their efficacy. Yet, Saudi Arabia has managed to immediately implement and enforce an absurd new policy that requires the deportation of female domestic workers who do not have wisdom teeth.

Saudi authorities state the objective of this new deportation policy is to prevent the entry underage females workers, who may falsify passports to conceal their legitimate ages. Though this phenomenon must be addressed by both sending and receiving nations, as underaged workers are often exceptionally vulnerable to abuse, Saudi’s elected approach is severely misguided for several interwoven reasons:

Firstly, the examination is conducted in Saudi airports, after prospective workers have already invested considerable time and finances. This late inspection process also impacts employers, who are generally responsible for a number of recruitment costs. The extreme delay of age verification thus causes employers to similarly lose their financial investments. Several employers voiced their complaints to the Saudi Gazette, one noting that officials failed to even inform him of his prospective employee’s deportation. The chaos and insecurity that both employers and domestic workers face is not merely unnecessary or inconvenient, but potentially detrimental; in order to avoid the havoc caused by these last-minute obstacles, employers and migrants may be emboldened to solicit illegal means of recruitment. Undocumented domestic workers are vulnerable to the same conditions that this deportation policy aims to prevent.

Addressing underage employment with an alternative approach would not only be less deleterious to prospective employers and employees, but also more effective. The “age verification” process should start as the earliest nexus of the employment process - with the notoriously unregulated recruitment agencies. Recruitment agencies maintain the most contact with prospective migrant workers, and are often the entities responsible for the application process. If Saudi authorities are only inspecting domestic workers who appear underage, surely recruitment agencies can be similarly tasked - and most importantly, be held accountable - for ensuring applicants meet the minimum age requirement.

Furthermore, initiating this process prior to a migrant’s arrival in the country would enable a more accurate, sensitive, and efficient verification method. Saudi authorities deport females without wisdom teeth merely because they “can’t” verify their age, indicating that the examination process involves inherent uncertainty; the minimum age for domestic workers varies depending on the country origin (Saudi itself appears to have an unfixed age requirement for female migrants), but wisdom teeth usually appear anywhere between the ages of 17 and 25, leaving ample room for error. Domestic workers consequently face a significant risk of entirely arbitrary deportation.* Alternatives less prone to error and disarray include multi-document verification. Recruitment agencies, as well the government entities that authorize employment visas, could compare birth-certificates to passports in order to authenticate migrants’ ages. This process would be administered in sending-nations to ensure that the documents themselves are not counterfeit.

Saudi Arabia has now demonstrated its ability to swiftly implement as well as formidably enforce changes to migrant worker regulation. Unfortunately, such an unparalleled effort to resolve migrant issues is marred by the policy’s inaccuracy, inefficiency, and adverse effects to domestic workers’ safety. Saudi officials should adopt alternative methods to combat underage employment, as well as endeavor to address all deficiencies in labor regulation with such evident zeal.

*Saudi authorities have released few details regarding the actual process of wisdom-tooth examinations, rendering it difficult to comprehensively assess the specific procedure itself.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East