Amir moved from Pakistan to Jeddah in 2010 to work as a technician for Alumco, a reputable Lebanese aluminium company with operations across the Middle East.
Nearly three years ago, Alumco’s Jeddah operations were sold to Saudi businessman Salah Bin Hamdan Al Belawi, who also runs Ruwad Civil Construction (RCC). RCC is a major Saudi construction company with a number of large projects in its portfolio, including a 2016 USD131 million deal to furnish six major hotels with Mecca-based Jabal Omar Developments.
Although the reasons for RCC’s purchase of Alumco’s Saudi divisions are not public, the acquisition has resulted in abandoned projects and non-payments, leading to workers’ strikes, and an uncertain future for the affected.
“Ever since the ownership changed nothing has been going right for us,” says Amir*, one of the company’s 150 employees. Full-time employees which include technicians and electricians were last paid their salaries in April 2019. Most have spent the last several months campaigning to get their dues.
Despite protesting and even securing a court ruling in their favour, their most successful efforts have been on social media; Amir’s viral Facebook posts compelled the workers’ consulates to provide them with immediate relief. They have also offered the workers flights back home, though this option would mean forfeiting their unpaid dues.
But last week, Facebook permanently disabled Amir’s account because his “account or activity” did not “follow community guidelines.” According to Facebook, the decision cannot be reversed. In regions where grassroots activism and advocacy are impossible, social media platforms provide a critical lifeline for injured parties.
“I was using my account to tell our stories and get people's attention and it was starting to work and they just shut it down like that. I am so depressed, I just need my account back,” he says. “I don’t know who got it shut down or why Facebook even agreed because nothing I posted was in poor taste. I just need my account back.” (see footnote update)
18 months of strife
Between August and November 2019, Alumco’s entire workforce – which includes Bangladeshis, Egyptians, Indians, Pakistanis, and Filipinos, both old and young – went on strike and said that they would only resume work once they were paid their overdue salaries. They continued to live in the company’s accommodation but received no food allowances.
“We last received our salary in April 2019 but we continued to work till July 2019. After that, we went on a strike,” Amir says.
“Every two weeks or so, we would go to the main offices and speak to the management who would ask us to get back to work and promise that we will get paid soon but we refused to return until we were paid,” he explains. “The management said that they were waiting for the owner, who had been abroad, to come back so they could pay us. So we continued striking.”
The management consisted of senior decision-makers, primarily Saudi engineers and HR managers, as well as a few non-Saudis. Most, including the engineer quoted earlier, have now left the company.
In December, about 40 workers were given SAR 1500 (USD 400) – less than a month’s pay – and promised the remaining overdue payments if they resumed work. The other 110 workers were informed that they had been terminated.
“One random day that month, the management just came to our residence and put up a list of those who would be coming back to work and also paid them one month’s salary and just informed the rest of us that we are terminated. How does that even make sense?” says Amir. “We were given no official letters of termination, there was no clarity on iqama cancellation – which, for the record, was already expired for most of us – or even anything about flights back home. None of it makes sense.
“We weren’t even allowed to enter the office anymore,” recounts Amir. “We had nothing left but we’d all gather and collect on the road outside the office to protest but the management would just pretend like we didn’t exist or that they don’t know us.”
Amir recalls that at one point the management even called the police on them in late December 2019.
“The police picked out one person each from all the different countries we represent and took them to the police station to lodge our official complaints and even promised they will help us get justice. But nothing came out of that meeting and the next time we went, another police officer met us and was very dismissive,” he says.
“We still live in the company residences and are on a strike but haven’t received a single riyal from them. Sometimes, the management acknowledges us but nothing is coming out of it except false promises that we will get paid soon.”
In February 2020, a group of 50 employees including Amir, decided to take the company to court. Amir says this was not with the hope of being paid but to prevent their deportation. Raids against undocumented foreign workers are frequent in the Saudi, particularly following the launch of the 2017 ‘ A Nation Without Violators’ campaign.
“We don’t have valid iqamas for nearly two years now but a few of us would go out and find work here and there but there was an increase in checking [legal documentation] those days,” he says. “We thought that, at the very least, if we took this to court and we ever got stopped and didn’t have our iqamas we wouldn’t get in trouble because there would be proof we are not being paid so we have to survive in other ways.”
Court decision not heeded
Just weeks later, in March 2020, the Labour Court issued a decision that the workers should be paid for the four months of 2019 (April-July) along with any benefits accrued during that time.
Amir is owed SAR10,000 (USD2,666) for the four months of 2019 that he worked and was not paid for. The judge ruled that he is not owed for the months following those in which he was striking and that he can switch to a new sponsor and employer after their overstaying fines have been paid. Some workers are also due flight tickets.
“They said that we can’t get paid for the months we didn’t work even though we pointed out that we did want to work but couldn’t because we were not getting paid,” he says. “But they did say that the company must pay us for the months we worked as well as any other pending payments such as flights, benefits, and overtimes that we are owed – even though it is not possible for us to prove our overtimes because someone from the company would record them.”
Following this decision, Amir points out that they had the option to file another case with the Ministry of Justice and be heard by a district court but this would cost a fee of approximately SAR450 (USD120) per worker.
“We did not choose to because we assumed the result would be the same but a group of Filipinos raised the money and went ahead with it,” he says. “Their decision came out to be that the employees should get paid for the months they worked but given the company doesn’t have money right now, they should either choose to fly back home and let our embassies pursue the case of unpaid salaries on our behalf or to look for sponsorship and a job in another company. Or wait.”
Meanwhile, they are waiting – and campaigning – for the enforcement of the Labour Court’s ruling.
The workers say that most of Alumco’s projects have halted, except for the Jabal Omar project which is using sub-contractors rather than RCC employees. According to former management staff, the company is in trouble due to ‘fraud and mismanagement.’ It is not clear if the clients of the company have paid for the projects.
A Saudi engineer, formerly with RCC’s management, said that he does not expect the workers to get their pending payments and advises they settle for a ticket back home. However, he did sue the company – and won – earlier this year after he was not paid a salary for two months. He has since moved to another job.
Migrant-Rights.org tried reaching out to Alumco Saudi Arabia and RCC by phone and email but received no response.
“The company has fallen apart,” the Engineer says. “We are not going to get paid, there is no money in that company and I don’t expect it to recover.”
To switch to a new sponsor, the migrant workers would have to pay their overstay fines which can be as high as SAR 30,000 (USD 8000).
He states that just before COVID-19 hit the country, the owner of the company, Salah Bin Hamdan Al Belawi, did personally reach out to one of the workers and promised that everyone would get their dues. But seven months later nothing has happened.
The small group that had been rehired in December 2019 has also since stopped working. Ahmad, another technician who was rehired briefly during that period, says that he was paid sporadically during the months he worked and is awaiting overdue salaries.
“It used to be one of the most reputable companies to work for in Saudi Arabia and I would have never imagined that the [former Lebanese] owner would sell it without telling anyone and just leave us with these problems,” he says. Ahmad had been working with the company for the past 11 years.
Though none of them has since gone to court, they have joined the others in campaigning on social media that they are paid what they are due.
“Some of us go through days when we don’t even have a riyal to our names. And we are supposed to be here to work to support our families back home,” Amir says. “And at this point, he [Al Belawi] had stopped receiving our calls or answering our messages. He listens to the voice notes but doesn’t reply.”
And once the lockdowns were imposed in April, any possibility of working odd jobs was also ruled out.
“We have tried everything we possibly can but all we hear, if at all, are empty promises that we will get all that we are owed very soon. Nothing is working,” says Amir. “But, We know that the owner of the company is a very influential person and cares about his reputation, not just in Saudi Arabia but with business partners in different parts of the world and this is why we are now just trying to get the media’s attention because that might push him to do the right thing.”
“Some of us are now thinking about just going back but others are still waiting for the payment because we cannot go back empty-handed. Many of the older ones have diabetes and high blood pressure problems – those are particularly worried because they can’t even buy medicines without iqamas, so they might just give up and go soon,” he says.
Despite the verdict coming out in their favour, the workers have only been paid SAR 500 (USD133) – ‘gifted’ on Eid ul Adha – with promises of more. As of October 2020, no further payments have been made.
Although Saudi Labour Courts generally have a reputation amongst migrant workers for being fair, there are few mechanisms to ensure that the rulings are implemented and that legal action is taken against defaulting employers.
“We have a ruling that is somewhat in our favour but what use is it if we don’t actually receive our salaries? We can’t eat rulings, we need our salaries to survive,” says Amir.
Update: “We removed some content for violating our Community Standards, but the account was disabled in error and we have now restored it.” -A Facebook company spokesperson to MR reporter