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Abandoned in Saudi Desert Camps due to Kingdom’s economic slump, Migrant workers won’t Leave without Pay

As the salary delays have worsened, frustrated workers have in some cases staged rare public protests

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A Syrian refugee family walks towards the new Syrian camp of Azraq, . Image source: VOA
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igrant construction workers say they will not accept a government offer of free flights home unless they receive months of unpaid wages.

The plight of the workers, stranded for months in crowded dormitories at labor camps with little money and limited access to food, water or medical care, has alarmed their home countries and drawn unwelcome attention to the conditions of some of the 10 million foreign workers on whom the Saudi economy depends.

The government says it is trying to resolve the situation by giving the workers- who normally need their employers’ permission to leave the country – the right to go home and free transport back. It is also granting them special permission to stay while they look for other jobs.

But workers say they fear that if they leave they will end up with nothing at all.

“We will wait here – one year, two years. We will wait for our money. Then we will go back,” said Sardar Naseer, 35, a Pakistani welder at the Qadisiya Labor Camp, which houses around 2,000 workers from construction conglomerate Saudi Oger.

Naseer says he is owed 22,000 riyals ($5,900) after receiving no wages for eight months. Workers at the camp, about 20 km (13 miles) from the center of Riyadh, said they had stopped work about four months ago and none had been paid since January.

Oger, the family firm of billionaire former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, did not respond to requests for comment for this story. The Hariri family did not immediately respond to an e-mail seeking comment.

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In July, Oger stopped providing food, electricity, maintenance and medical services at several of its camps including Qadisiyah, prompting the Saudi Labor Ministry to take over the provision of basic services there, men at the camp said.

They sleep six to eight to a tiny room, with stray cats and cockroaches lingering on torn bedsheets. They sit on the floor to eat food rations provided by the Labor Ministry or their embassies.

A cat sits near an Asian worker at his accommodation in Qadisiya labor camp, Saudi. Image source: VOA
A cat sits near an Asian worker at his accommodation in Qadisiya labor camp, Saudi. Image source: VOA

There is no regular supply of clean drinking water – a filter on a public water fountain meant to be changed daily has not been serviced in a year – so they are forced to buy bottled water with their own money.

Saudi Oger, which employs some 30,000 workers, has built mega-projects including Riyadh’s palatial 500-room Ritz Carlton hotel and all-female Princess Noura Bint Abdulrahman University.

It is one of Saudi Arabia’s two most prominent construction companies, along with the Saudi Binladin Group. Both have faced financial difficulties as the world’s biggest oil exporter has suffered from the fall in the price of crude.

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Construction projects have been halted or slowed and revenue has fallen. As the salary delays have worsened, frustrated workers have in some cases staged rare public protests.

Countries including India, Pakistan, and the Philippines have sent senior officials to Riyadh to press authorities to assist their workers. Indian officials said this month that more than 6,200 former Indian employees of Oger were stranded in Saudi camps after being laid off and owed wages.

“Good Image”

Two weeks ago, after Indian authorities raised their concerns, King Salman set aside 100 million riyals of government money to help the stranded workers, mostly from Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Bangladesh.

Saudi Labor Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani told Reuters on Wednesday that several distressed local firms, including Saudi Binladin Group, had now started paying overdue wages. Binladin executives promised him that payments would be completed by September, he said.

Oger is the only company still broadly withholding payments, and the Labor Ministry will press foreigners’ wage claims through the kingdom’s labor dispute system, Haqbani said, without specifying when claims might be resolved.

“Saudi Oger – now we’ll take it to the courts. Now we are responsible for that. We’ve hired lawyers,” he said. “As the ministry, we will go through the labor dispute courts to go after Saudi Oger and to collect the claims.”

He also said the troubles at Oger were not a sign of problems with Saudi Arabia’s overall employment of foreign workers, most of whom were choosing to remain in the country.

“This is a small segment…of the labor market. We have more than 10 million expats working happily here in the country. When a company like Saudi Oger fails to comply with the rules, this will never destroy the good image of our labor market.”

Philippines Secretary of Labor Silvestre Bello, who visited Riyadh for talks with Haqbani this week, said that with the assistance of Saudi authorities, about 1,000 Filipino workers could be sent home by mid-September.

At the camp, Mohammed Niaz, 42, said his two daughters back in Pakistan had stopped attending school because he could no longer send money home for fees.

“I’m wasting my time. I want to go to Pakistan,” he said.

But he added that he refused to leave Saudi Arabia without the 13,000 riyals which Oger owed him. “My family has no money. My daughters are out of school. How can I go to Pakistan?” (VOA)

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Will Polio Workers Step Out of Their Comfort Zones to End Virus?

What's more, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan stretches for more than 2,000 kilometers. Thousands of people who cross this very porous border can easily transmit the virus in both countries.

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Polio
Widespread unrest in Afghanistan has kept thousands of children from receiving polio vaccines this year. Conflict in northern Nigeria does the same. VOA

The move to end Polio started in 1985 with Rotary International. At that time, polio paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children every year. There is still no cure, but two scientists developed vaccines against the virus in the 1950’s.

Dr. Jonas Salk produced one with an inactivated virus that could protect against polio without spreading the disease. Later, Dr. Albert Sabin developed an oral vaccine with weakened strains of the virus.

In 1988, public and private groups joined the effort in the Global Polio Eradication Program. Members included governments, the World Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Rotary International, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Since then, the number of polio cases has dropped by 99.9 percent. Last year, 22 children were crippled by this disease. The wild polio virus exists in only three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, but it’s still a global threat.

Dr. John Vertefeuille, from the CDC said, “This last mile is a complicated mile.” It’s not just because of conflict or terrorism. “It’s extreme remoteness. It’s very fragile health systems.” And in these remote conflict prone areas gaining access to children can be a major problem.

If polio exists anywhere, it can once again spread everywhere.

Polio
In many places the vaccinators are women because women can go into the homes, talk to other women and gain access to the children. Wikimedia

Vertefeuille and other experts discussed strategies to realize a polio-free world July 10 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Widespread unrest in Afghanistan has kept thousands of children from receiving polio vaccines this year. Conflict in northern Nigeria does the same.

What’s more, the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan stretches for more than 2,000 kilometers. Thousands of people who cross this very porous border can easily transmit the virus in both countries.

While the funding and technical support has to come from large, private-public partnerships, immunization teams succeed best if they are local. Approaches have to take culture and customs into consideration.

In many places the vaccinators are women because women can go into the homes, talk to other women and gain access to the children.

Elsewhere, soldiers vaccinate children when they take over an area run by anti-government forces. Vaccination teams have to be prepared to move quickly when there is a lull in the fighting and to deliver multiple doses of vaccine in a short period of time.

Polio
Community volunteers are a great resource. Some get cell phones so they can alert health officials if a child becomes paralyzed. VOA

Surveillance is just as critical. To end polio, you have to know where the outbreaks are. Community volunteers are a great resource. Some get cell phones so they can alert health officials if a child becomes paralyzed.

Another challenge is getting children in migrant groups vaccinated. Vertefeuille says this is where technology helps. The CDC uses satellites to see where people have moved and what areas are abandoned. Clues are where structures have been repaired, where the grass grows on roads, indicating abandoned areas, and where it doesn’t, indicating where people are living.

Dr. Andrew Etsana from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said these groups present a particular challenge because “you have people moving with a virus and it is difficult to track them and vaccinate the vulnerable children in this mobile population.”

Another issue is the nature of viruses themselves. Viruses mutate. So far, the polio vaccines have been effective, but if not enough children get vaccinated, the virus can change, and perhaps make the vaccine less effective. That’s why every child needs to be vaccinated.

Outbreaks that can be avoided by vaccinating the whole population so that there are no gaps for the mutated virus to slip through.

International experts are working with local leaders to close this gap.

Another issue is complacency. Etsana said, “People are getting tired. The program has been going on. They thought it would have ended.”

Rotary has pledged to continue its support, other groups as well. International support and funding is critical to ending polio, but after three decades, many people have never seen polio. Etsana says he sees complacency creeping into all areas of the program. “The funders of the program are also getting tired. The fund is drying up and if the fund dries up and the job is not done, we’re going to have a major problem. We may have reinfection.”

Also Read-After Three Years Struggle, WHO Declares Somalia Polio Free

But, if people recognize the program’s value – it has united communities, established vaccine centers, created partnerships never before imagined – the world can not only end polio, but tackle other diseases as well. The polio program is widely credited with stopping the spread of Ebola in Nigeria while the disease ravaged other west African countries. (VOA)