- By Catherine A. TraywickCatherine A. Traywick is a fellow at Foreign Policy.
Saudi Arabia has long relied on foreign workers to fill millions of low-paying construction, clerical and service jobs, in many cases illicitly. But as the government cracks down on illegal workers, tens of thousands of Filipino and Indonesian migrants are being forced to leave the country by November 3, or face up to two years in jail.
In response, senior Philippine officials flew to Saudi this week to negotiate the repatriation of 5,000 Filipino laborers who still have not been issued exit permits five days before the deadline, while Vice President Jejomar Binay wrote to Saudi King Abdullah pleading for more time. Indonesia, meanwhile, expects to repatriate 18,000 migrant workers, only 4,000 of whom have obtained exit permits. The repatriation process is costly for both governments and workers: The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has offered to shoulder penalties and fines imposed upon their citizens in Saudi, and opened a temporary shelter in Jeddah for undocumented mothers and children; the Indonesian government is trying to facilitate low-cost flights for its citizens.
The Saudis’ crackdown on foreign workers is part of a broader push to create more jobs for its own citizens. The government began prioritizing job creation in 2011, in an effort to stave off popular unrest (At the time, 25 percent of Saudi youths were unemployed), and instituted a "Saudization" policy. Now, fewer firms are allowed to employ foreign workers and, because migrant laborers require employer sponsorship to obtain work permits, many lost their legal right to remain in the country. (Some were already in the country illegally, having entered with the help of recruiters who operate outside the regulatory system). Since then, more than 800,000 migrant laborers have been deported.
The Philippines has been particularly vocal about the issue, as Saudi Arabia is the leading destination for overseas Filipino workers. More than 2 million Filipinos sought work there in 2012, about 100,000 of whom were undocumented. The Philippines economy furthermore relies on overseas worker remittances, which comprise 10 percent of the country’s GDP.
More broadly, Saudi Arabia is the third largest provider of worker remittances in the world, according to the World Bank, and employs more than 9 million migrant laborers from the Philippines, Indonesia, Egypt and Yemen. The country’s poor treatment of these laborers has repeatedly come under scrutiny from the international community. As recently as October, delegates at a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva attacked Saudi for its treatment of migrant workers, among other complaints. Saudi’s penchant for beheading foreign maids hasn’t helped its public image, either.