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Saudi private schools exploit migrant women on dependent visas

Struggling to find jobs amid Saudisation, migrant women on dependent visas work off-the-books for private schools in conditions ripe for exploitation

On December 21, 2021

Zainab Ahmad* is a 26-year-old Pakistani woman who has lived in Jeddah since she was three.

She moved to Pakistan to pursue her undergraduate degree in hotel management but returned back to Saudi to be close to her family and community.

“There aren’t many university options here [Saudi Arabia] and everything is too expensive anyways so I had no choice but to go to Pakistan for my Bachelor’s,” she says. “My parents wanted me to come back after I completed my education because our whole family and life is here. They want me to get married to someone from a similar background so I can continue to live close to them and in the culture – and community, I guess – that we have lived in all our lives.”

And Ahmad truly is staying in the community she grew up in – she now works as a teaching assistant at her old high school.

“I studied hotel management because it is interesting and also because I thought that there might be good work opportunities in Saudi Arabia as the tourism sector is a growing industry here,” she says. “But it is so hard to get a ‘proper’ job here if you aren’t a citizen. It is almost impossible actually.”

Ahmad, with her mother and younger sister, resides in Saudi Arabia on dependent visas linked to their father, who is there on a work visa.

Dependent visas are typically only given to spouses, children, or widowed mothers of a foreigner who earns a salary of at least SR3500 (USD$930) a month, and they cost SR400(USD$105) per month per individual. Sons can only remain dependents until they are 18 years of age, while daughters do not have an upper age limit but must be single.

Dependents can live in Saudi Arabia as long as they have a valid residence visa, but they do not have the same rights as a foreigner on a work visa.

For instance, dependents cannot open a bank account in most local banks – some banks do allow dependents to open an account but only if it is linked to their sponsor’s. Nor can adult women who are dependents apply for a driver’s license.

Those on dependent visas also can’t legally work in the country. In order to work legally, Ahmad would need to find a job that is willing to offer her an employment visa so she can transfer her sponsorship from her father to her employer. But the ongoing Saudi Nationalisation Scheme, informally also known as Saudisation, makes it very difficult for non-Saudis to find jobs in the kingdom.

The policy requires companies in many sectors to hire Saudi nationals on a quota basis ranging from data-keeping to marketing to healthcare. Through Saudisation has been in existence since at least 1985, it has become stricter in the past few years. Many roles, especially junior ones, are now exclusively accessible to Saudi nationals.

And while women are being encouraged to join the workforce, the focus is exclusively on citizens.

The system makes it very challenging for dependents to find viable employment that will also sponsor their work visas. There are, however, a handful of jobs that escape scrutiny – private English-speaking schools that cater to migrant communities is one.

“I studied in this school, so did my younger sister. It is a private school and is rather international but with mainly Pakistani and Indians,” she says. “I know the community very well so I think it made it easier to get a job. I plan to work there until I find something in my own field.”

Public schools in Saudi Arabia are free for all but they prioritise nationals, and the education is entirely in Arabic.

Foreign workers typically send their children to private international or community schools (following the curriculum of a different country) because their priority is not to integrate into Saudi society but to live a life that will allow them and their children to be able to smoothly adjust back to their home countries when their work visas expire.

Private school tuition ranges from just over SR100 to SR2000 a month (USD30-USD550).

Despite the varying standards of education they offer,  the teaching staff at many of these schools is primarily comprised of expatriate women who are on dependent visas, and not sponsored by the school -- and technically, working illegally.

Not only are these women already a part of the community that the schools are catering to, but employing them is considerably less expensive than hiring someone through legal channels: Saudi teachers will typically expect salaries these schools cannot afford to pay. Likewise, sponsoring an expatriate visa and paying them a livable wage can be very costly.

An open secret

“It is not even something rare or new, I think most teachers in my school are working like this,” says Ahmad. “My mother worked as a teacher in the late 90s in a private school – it is not in operation anymore – and she never had any proper documentation or permits for it. Nobody did but it was just how everyone was working.”

In fact, it is so prevalent and has been an open secret for so long that in 2013 the Ministry of Labour announced that dependents working as teachers in private schools would finally be granted annual work permits.

The permits were only to be granted to qualified dependents who also had written permission from the family member sponsoring their visa. Despite its limitations, the permits were considered “a tentative first step” toward legalising the work status of female teachers at private schools and regulating the country’s teaching staff.

“I heard about these permits but I don’t know if anyone had one,” says Amna T, who taught in two different private schools from 2011 to 2015. “I think the permits were expensive and complicated to get, nobody really understood clearly how to apply for one. Also, lots of schools prefer hiring more teachers illegally, as they have been doing for years. When things are going through a legal channel, it is harder for schools to do shady business.”

“I mean, we are working illegally. Our employers know they face no accountability.”

Amna, who is Indian and in Saudi Arabia because her husband works as a mid-level manager at a private company, says she had to quit her job because of the exploitation she faced at work.

“Not only is there so much mental and emotional abuse because the school administration thinks it has bought you completely instead of hiring you, my salary was also getting delayed so much,” she says. Because she cannot open a bank account, she would get paid in cash and sometimes it would be delayed by weeks. “The school also started an evening shift and although it was supposed to be optional to do both shifts, I was always pressured into taking both morning and evening classes. It was so much work, so much trauma, and so little pay.”

She finally quit when her three children graduated high school, as the family no longer needed the tuition discount they received from her employment at the same school.

“Children of school staff get discounts so I taught until my youngest daughter graduated,” she says. “My pay was always delayed, the administration was very rude, and I would have to take on a lot more tasks than I was able to.”

Ahmad agrees that the school she is working in can feel exploitative.

“I mean, we are working illegally. Our employers know they face no accountability,” she says. “I haven’t had as terrible an experience as many teachers I know but it is still far from great. It was especially awful during the peak pandemic work-from-home days. We were working pretty much all day and they reduced the salary just because. Who could I file a complaint with?”

Ahmad’s is now being paid in full again – the money gets transferred to her father’s account because she doesn’t have one – but from May 2020 till August 2021, she received only a portion of her salary. Her salary is SR 3,200 (USD 853) as a teaching assistant and she received just SR 2000 (USD 533) for that time period.

Ahmad also points out that a friend, who is working in a similar role as hers but is doing so ‘legally’, earns SR 6500 (USD 1732).

“I would love to work legally. Yes, ideally, I would like to work in my own industry but teaching is fine too,“ she says. “I would get better pay, there would be a proper system in place and I won’t have to worry about any inspections taking place in the school while I am trying to teach. But a legal job doesn’t seem to be an option at all and I’d rather do this than stay at home.”

*Names changed