By Arab News
By Siraj Wahab and Mohd Al-Sulami
Labor Minister Adel Fakeih on Tuesday urged expatriates in the Kingdom not to press the panic button regarding reports about the six-year visa limitation issue.
Talking to Arab News at Asharqia Chamber, the minister said companies in the Kingdom will have until Sept. 7 to achieve a prescribed quota of Saudi employees.
Afterward they will fall under the Nitaqat policy that will put companies into three categories, of which one — the category of complying companies — will be able to recruit foreign workers from the other two categories, he said.
He also mentioned that there is a platinum category for companies that have exceptional track records in employing Saudis.
The minister’s clarification comes a day after newspapers quoted him as saying that all expatriate workers will have a six-year cap on their work visas.
His statement on Tuesday clears the air that there is nothing to worry for the expatriates: the six-year cap applies only to workers in the categories of companies that are not in compliance under Nitaqat.
Furthermore, those workers will be able to be recruited by complying companies, which do not have the six-year cap.
Fakeih is expected to face a tsunami of protests from the business community if he imposes the six-year limit on all expatriate workers working for companies that are not complying with Saudization rules.
Those companies fall into two categories: The yellow category for companies that have not reached Saudization quota levels of employment and the red category for companies that have flouted Saudization rules altogether.
The minister said in the case of the companies falling in the red category, their foreign employees will not be able to renew their work visas with those companies.
In the case of the companies in the yellow category, the visas of their employees, who have spent six years or more, will not be renewed.
In this category, employees will have their visas renewed up to six years.
The minister, however, assured expatriate workers employed by red and yellow companies that they would be allowed to move to green-category companies if those companies are seeking foreign workers.
Under the current system, foreign workers require a no-objection certificate from their employer in order to switch jobs.
Employers in yellow or red categories will no longer be able to block their foreign workers from switching jobs to companies in the green category.
This decision acts as an incentive to employers because recruiting foreign workers locally costs less as employers are not required to provide periodic round-trip tickets for home visits or pay international labor-recruitment fees.
Asked by Arab News what are the chances of the red category companies getting employment in those in the green category, the minister said: “Nearly 50 percent can be absorbed by the green-category companies.”
The minister urged all companies to join hands with the ministry in implementing the program in letter and spirit.
He admitted that there would be pluses and minuses, pros and cons while implementing the new program, which comes into effect within the next two weeks.
The minister fielded dozens of questions from the Eastern Province businessmen and women who turned up in large numbers at the chamber to listen to the explanations of the new program from the minister.
The minister urged everyone with any problem to write to him at his e-mail address: [email protected]
“My ministry will see to it that every single query of yours is answered. Without your support, the new Saudization drive will not succeed. Unemployment is a serious problem and therefore we are making serious efforts to solve it,” he said.
Employers that use foreign labor often complain of their inability to recruit Saudis at the level of wages and benefits given to foreign workers.
An unmarried foreign construction worker, for example, might be paid as little as SR1,000 a month, live in on-site communal housing and live off roti and ful.
Such a salary and living arrangement would be unimaginable for a Saudi, especially if he has a family.
The private sector has no minimum wage.
The government, which is the largest employer of Saudis, only recently mandated a SR3,000 monthly minimum wage for government employees.
Abdullah Al-Otaibi, the owner of a contracting company in Jeddah, told Arab News that Saudi contractors are facing difficulties to obtain visas for the recruitment of foreign workers to carry out projects on time.
“We try to get visas through official channels, but often it takes time. Some contractors then borrow workers from others while some others make use of workers available in the market, who may be illegals. But the contractors are forced to employ them to complete their projects without delay,” he explained.
Saleh Al-Saedi, another contractor, said the ministry’s pressure would have dangerous consequences on the contracting sector.
“Although the government depends a lot on this sector to carry out massive projects, how can they work properly in the backdrop of these pressures?” he asked.
He said the ministry’s new Nitaqat system would hamper contracting firms.
Businessman Muqed Al-Sareehi from Madinah rejected the Nitaqat system as “unjust” and said it would make the situation of contracting companies from bad to worse.
He criticized what he called the government’s ‘double standards’ toward foreign and Saudi contractors.
“If a company falls in the red category it would totally undermine its business as it would not be allowed to recruit any foreign worker,” he said.
Khaled Al-Suleiman, a Saudi writer, also criticized Fakeih’s plan and said it would affect quality of work in the country.
Faleh Al-Motairy proposed that the ministry employ Saudis in jobs offering SR5,000 salary, which are currently occupied by expatriates.
“Since the number of the unemployed in the Kingdom is less than in other countries, it is very easy to solve,” said Mousa Al-Sibyani.
He urged the ministry to conduct a survey of jobs suitable for Saudis in the private sector.
Faris Al-Amri asked the ministry to implement its previous decisions such as privatization of administrative, secretarial and public relations jobs.