Abdul Basit thought his mom’s prayers had been working wonders. Like millions of others, he lost his job at the height of the pandemic. But he found another – an even better paying one – almost right away.
Divine intervention had to be on his side, he thought, because the odds were clearly not: Abdul Basit was not only contending with the economic fallout of Covid-19, but he was doing so as a Pakistani expatriate in Saudi Arabia, one of several Gulf countries that have recently ramped up workforce nationalisation schemes.
Since 2011, the Nitaqat initiative has aimed to replace foreign workers with Saudis and gradually expanded to cover more sectors. Combined with other factors such as the expat tax, many expatriates have been forced to permanently leave the country.
“Lots of people have had to return to Pakistan or whichever country they are from because they are losing jobs and even if they have jobs, the cost of living is getting so high that there are no savings,” he says. “I have alhamdulillah been okay, thanks to my mother’s duas [prayers]. It is not easy but I want to stay here and grow my career, unless I have no choice.”
Despite reduced opportunities due to Saudisation, Abdul Basit wanted to move back to Jeddah after he completed his education abroad so that he could be closer to his family and the community he grew up in.
“I grew up here [in Jeddah] then went to Pakistan for higher education and then came back here to work,” he says. This is not unusual as many South Asian families in the Gulf send their children back to their countries to pursue a higher education at a more affordable cost and then bring them back to the Gulf in the hopes that they, too, find a job.
Abdul Basit was lucky enough to find himself a well-paying job for considerate employers not once, but twice.
Abdul Basit now works as an instructor at a well-established vocational training institute in Jeddah. He does not want to share the names of his employers, current or past.
His former employer, also a vocational training institute affiliated with a UK centre, informed him in June 2020 that they were making redundancies to cope with the pandemic. He was given a few weeks “grace period” to find another job before they would have to cancel his visa.
He knew he urgently needed a job so that a new employer could sponsor his work visa and allow Abdul Basit to continue legally living in Jeddah.
“I had never experienced a problem with my employers as such,” he says. “I always get my salary on time, my employers are good. I think most of the problems you will hear that foreigners experience are unskilled labour. But where isn’t that a problem?”
He says he was never truly concerned about work-related violations migrants seem to face. Higher-skilled workers in Saudi Arabia, just like many other places in the world, are less vulnerable to exploitation and abuse than less-skilled workers.
But this changed for him just a few weeks into his new job. Abdul Basit received an SMS message informing of his ‘‘huroob status’ — meaning his sponsor had reported him as a runway to authorities.. He went on the Ministry of Labour’s website, filled in his details, and confirmed that he was, in fact, legally considered to have absconded from work. Suddenly, he was the victim of the kind of exploitation he thought that only lower-skilled migrants working for abusive employers faced.
“This is one thing no expat wants to experience,” he says. “A huroob charge can destroy your life, you are basically a criminal if you are on huroob.”
Huroob is an Arabic word referring to someone who has escaped. According to Saudi Labour Laws, all employers must report any foreign worker they sponsor who absconds. The absconding system is a major concern among migrant rights advocates because it criminalises employment mobility and can trap workers in abusive working conditions.
The misuse of the system by sponsors is rampant.
“I did not run away from my job,” he says. “Why would I do that? My contract was terminated, and then I got another job and I legally started that. I didn’t even have a bad relationship with my employers, current or past.”
He was certain it was a mistake but he knew he had to act fast. If cancelled within two weeks, a huroob charge can be cleared relatively easily, which can happen if the employer and employees resolve the issue between themselves. However, if the case is not resolved within 15 days, the status can only be removed if the worker issues a complaint against the sponsor at the Jawazat (passport office) and is able to successfully prove that they had not absconded. Even if an employer and a worker decide to resolve their issues between themselves after 15 days, the huroob status may not be removed.
Abdul Basit’s visa was still in the process of getting transferred from the old to the new employers, so he called on the former to get a clarification.
“They didn’t know what was going on because, of course, I did not run away. They said it must be some mistake in some system and asked me to speak to their government relations officer because he was handling visas and iqamas for all employees for them,” he says.
A Government Relations Officer (GRO) works as an agent to oversee the implementation of the immigration and labour responsibilities of the company in Saudi Arabia. Only Saudis can work as a GRO, who monitor the administration of document collection, attestation, translation, visiting government offices, and all visa and passport matters for employees.
“I called the GRO and he simply told me that I had to pay him SAR 10,000 (USD$2600) for the status to be removed,” he said. “He was basically demanding a bribe.”
“I mean he is very well-connected, and he is Saudi. He can do anything,” he says. “This is why my old employers didn’t even want to get involved when I told them he was asking me for a bribe even though they seemed concerned. They need him for their work.”
Abdul Basit explains that the GRO kept calling him back, asking for updates on the payment, and assuring him that the status would disappear once the money was received.
“He kept saying that these things happen in the system all the time and if he got the payment, he would be able to fix it right away. He wasn’t directly saying it was a bribe, but I knew what it was.”
Abdul Basit did some quick maths and realised that paying the bribe might be the most efficient – and least expensive – option for him: if he let the two weeks pass, not only would he have to pay just as much in fines but he would also be detained, deported, and face a permanent entry ban. Or he could take the GRO to court for filing a false huroob, but he would likely have to pay even more in legal procedures with no guarantee of the outcome. It would also mean he could not continue working at his new job, as it is illegal to hire someone on a huroob status.
He paid the bribe and in three days his status was corrected.
“I had no choice. If the status was not removed in a few days, I would be an illegal who would get deported,” he says.
In the simplest cases, a migrant with huroob status automatically becomes undocumented and faces the chain of events Abdul Basit feared: arrest, detention, heavy fines, and deportation. Those who face additional other charges – such as theft – also face more jail time and fines. Anyone deported because of a huroob status receives a lifetime ban (prior to 2021, it was only a five-year ban) on re-entry into the country.
These repercussions are why Abdul Basit finds himself focusing less on the SAR10,000 he lost than on the relief that the issue was ‘resolved’ within the first fifteen days.
One of his colleagues, Mustafa*, missed the SMS notification. By the time the GRO reached out to him, the two weeks were close to passing.
Mustafa did not have the money to pay the bribe because, unlike Abdul Basit, he was unable to find a new job and had been relying on his savings to make ends meet.
The two weeks then passed, but the GRO continued to insist that he had inside connections that could fix the huroob status past the regular deadline if Mustafa could pay him SAR 20,000 (USD$5300).
“We discussed it a lot and thought sending the money now will just be a waste because it is unlikely that the huroob status can be changed now. We think he was lying,” says Abdul Basit about his friend’s experiences. Mustafa declined to speak on the record but has allowed Abdul Basit to share his own thoughts about the situation.
Mustafa is an Australian passport-holder of South Asian origin and is currently exhausting all the connections he has to help him get out of the country without having to go through the detention centre.
“He is a family man and at this point, his only concern is being able to get out of the country without having to go to jail,” says Abdul Basit. The detention centres that undocumented migrants are temporarily detained in are very similar to prisons. According to a Saudi newspaper, the average time period a detainee spends in these ‘centres’ is not longer than two weeks. However, Human Rights Watch has reported the inadequate conditions, including physical abuse.
“It is not new but, the frequency has increased by so much. It is a huge crisis, I tell you.”
Abdul Basit reiterates his confusion that people like himself and Mustafa, relatively well-earning expatriates, could experience such exploitation – something he had only heard that the most vulnerable workers endure.
However, a migrant rights activist in Saudi, Ahmed*, says that false huroob charges against well-earning migrant workers have become an increasingly prevalent method of exploitation in the past year.
“It has become such a huge crisis,” he says. Ahmed, originally from India, has lived in Riyadh for the past 33 years. He is actively involved in helping migrant workers in exploitative circumstances. “You have no idea how many cases show up daily now. Daily.”
He explains that the reforms to the Kafala system that were implemented in March 2021 have contributed to the huroob being increasingly ‘misused’.
“I will tell you what happened. Saudi businesses and powerful people realised that foreign workers being able to change their jobs with ease will be harmful to them. So they are using huroob to keep foreigners in check.”
Ahmed adds that he does not think that the Kafala reforms have eased restrictions in practice. “it is just on paper,” he says, despite the much-publicised claimed reforms that were implemented a year ago. The continued use of huroob is one of the elements that retain employers’ extreme control over workers
And as more and more businesses experience financial struggles due to the economic uncertainties of the time, they are exploiting and abusing foreign workers of all backgrounds.
“I know of a group of engineers who were fired because the company – a big one – was suffering losses. Then, out of nowhere, they were all slapped with huroob charges so they will not be able to come back to Saudi Arabia again and work for the competition,” he says.
False huroob charges are illegal, and businesses can receive a five-year ban on operating if caught, but it’s migrant workers who carry the burden of proof. The bureaucracy and legal requirements to challenge a huroob case are expensive and inaccessible to most migrant workers.
Ahmed says that over the past year, he has come across dozens of cases involving migrant workers in high-skilled jobs — people who never thought they would experience such violation — coming to him with problems.
“It is not new but, the frequency has increased by so much. It is a huge crisis, I tell you.”
An even worse plight for domestic workers
Previously, nearly all the cases he encountered were of the most vulnerable of migrants, especially domestic workers. Those incidents have not seen a decline either, he says.
Domestic workers are excluded from the sponsorship reforms and so cannot change jobs without the permission of their existing sponsors unless they can prove the employer has violated certain terms of their contract or the domestic workers’ law. But before they can even attempt to navigate complaints procedures, employers can quickly report them as absconding. Employers can report workers with ease online through the Absher portal. Domestic workers can use the same portal to check their status, however, few have knowledge or access to it. They have almost no recourse to remove the absconding charge and face automatic deportation and a lifetime entry ban after 15 days from the date the charge was filed. If a domestic worker has been made aware of their status prior to the 15 days passing, it is possible to file a complaint through the Jawazat (General Directorate for Passports), but this must be done in person.
“Not only can they not change employers easily, but the huroob is also a very powerful tool in the hands of employers,” says Ahmed. “If you are a domestic worker, you put up with all sorts of abuse because you don’t want a huroob. It is not even whether you run away or not – if the employer wants, they can destroy your life with a false huroob also.”
Anna-Marie is a 27-year-old domestic worker from the Philippines with a huroob status and is currently staying on a couch at her cousin’s apartment – looking for ‘illegal’ work.
She has turned to a Facebook community where Saudi-based migrant workers share experiences and offer advice to each other. Aside from a solution, she is looking to speak to others who have similar experiences as hers.
“My employers overworked me, and I was also sexually abused regularly by one of the men from their extended family who would visit,” she tells MR. “I put up with it because I need the job, but one day, when he had hurt me so much, I told the Mrs of the house, hoping she would help.”
She says that the next day she was informed that she has been put on a huroob status and should leave the house before they call the police.
“I hadn’t even run away,” she says. “I wanted to keep the job. I needed the job. But they didn’t want to deal with the family drama after I exposed what was happening to me, and just decided to dispose of me.”
Through the group, she has begun talking to a few other women who have recently been reported as huroob and are trying to navigate through their options. Some had left abusive employers while at least one other woman she was talking to was also put on a false huroob for calling out the exploitation she was facing at work.
She is looking for work and wants to continue working illegally, taking on multiple jobs ideally, until she is caught, detained, and then sent back to the Philippines forever.
She has been talking to several other ‘huroobs’ through the Facebook community. “Most of us didn’t even get full salaries from our sponsors anyways. And for me, there was also so much abuse. I think people on huroob just accept their fate that one day we will be caught, jailed, and sent back to our countries forever one day. Hopefully, we can save as much as possible until then.”
Through the Facebook community, she has also come across a few men who did, in fact, ‘abscond’ and prefer it that way. They are the very reason the absconding system is supposed to have been set up in the first place, to protect employers who are spending a lot of money to sponsor and bring migrant workers into the country to work for them.
Abdul Basit is also familiar with many workers who “‘ran away”.
He mentions a migrant neighbourhood in Jeddah. “Just go there and talk to the men. Pakistani, Indian, Yemeni, Egyptian, everyone. Most are on huroob and working as drivers or in factories. Unlike me, they did choose to run away from their employers.”
MR visited the neighbourhood and spoke to a few people.
None of them wanted to be named or identified in any way, but did express a sense of relief about the choice they made.
“Kafeels (sponsor) can be very evil and not pay salaries,” says an Indian in his thirties. “Instead of being forced to work for little to no pay, at least now I can try to find work here and there of my own will and support my family back home. Then when we are caught we will leave. Through jail but that is fine.”
He chuckles, perhaps at the absurdity of his reality, as he mentions the jail.
“The only way out will be through jail for all of us, no matter what. Until then, we are all trying to send as much money back home as possible.”