By Arab News
Although the government says that it has declined in recent years, the trade in illegal work visas remains a serious issue for the Kingdom.
This is not simple a case of the authorities being deprived of a clear picture of how many expatriates are actually employed in Saudi Arabia. Everyone working here without proper authorization, whether because they arrived on illegal documents or have stayed on once their work permits have run out, is taking a job that could, and indeed very often should be done by a Saudi.
This loss of employment opportunities for young people here in turn adds to the social pressures because without the income from a steady job, it is not possible to save for a home and a wife and a family. Though some young men may give every indication of enjoying lolling around, doing not a great deal, the reality is that when their contemporaries have jobs but they do not, there is a gradual erosion of self-esteem.
The downward cycle toward depression or anti-social behavior or at its most devastating, association with extremist groups linked to Al-Qaeda, is well understood.
Therefore those individuals who are involved in the illegal work permit trade are doing far more harm than they realize, in their pursuit of turning a fast buck.
The Ministries of Labor, Finance and Interior are about to launch a joint drive to crack down on the fake work permit racket. This is highly welcome. It must be hoped that this campaign against the crooks will be well coordinated and that the ministries have already sorted out how they are going to work together and who will be responsible for which part of the crackdown. It is nothing against anyone in Riyadh, but bitter experience around the world has shown that government ministries everywhere are not all that good at working together and involving three in a project adds to the complications.
There is, of course, another way in which the issue of illegal workers could be tackled with minimum government intervention and involvement. The requirement to confirm that an expatriate is entitled to work here can be shifted firmly onto the shoulders of the person intending to employ him or her. If employers had a legal responsibility to thoroughly check the bona fides of anyone who wants to work for them and received severe penalties if they failed in this duty, the illegal permit challenge would be transformed overnight.
Employers could with some justice claim that they are not equipped to detect forged documents offered them by a prospective employee. That is clearly the job of the proper authorities. However, there already exist systems, which can be refined and integrated, that ought to allow an employer to run a simple check on the validity of a work permit number. If such a registration is not recognized then the authorities should be informed so that further checks can be conducted.
The key point is that the main burden of confirming that someone is entitled to work for them is passed to the employer. Chambers of Commerce and Industry will protest, but they should be prepared to admit that they know of companies that have been perfectly happy to employ people whom they suspected of being illegal, either because they were cheap to hire or had skills that could not be sourced readily elsewhere.
Hiring an individual who has no legal right to that job is not a clever and for the country not a cheap commercial decision. Each illegal hire is a drop of poison dripped into the pool of Saudi youth who need jobs and income and status themselves. Their despair in turn threatens the stability and equilibrium of Saudi society.
In such circumstances therefore, it must be hoped that the Ministries of Labor, Finance and Interior will mount a successful drive against this serious crime and that culprits will be punished properly. Equally employers in Saudi Arabia should make a public pledge to do what they can to avoid hiring workers on fake permits.