Dreams of riches turn to nightmare for Saudi's Senegalese workers
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Our Observer thought he'd hit the jackpot. Two years ago, he left his native Senegal to work for a company in Saudi Arabia, a move he thought would fix all his financial woes. Fast forward to the present day, and things look very different. Our Observer and his fellow workers are no longer getting paid by their bosses but they are trapped in Saudi Arabia. Strikes are common and both anger and despair are widespread. Some have even committed suicide.
Over the last three weeks, our Observer has taken part in five strikes on his construction site. He's working on what will be known as the 'King Abdelaziz' centre in Damman, a building earmarked to host cultural activities. The workers decided to strike when they stopped getting paid a few months ago, but despite their mounting anger, the company that employs them - Saudi Oger - keeps delaying the payment.
"One of my colleagues hung himself at work last week"
In Senegal, I was a self-employed electrician, but it was really hard to find work in the country. I couldn't even feed my family. I have seven children and I lived with my brothers and sisters. When I did find work, I was able to earn around 5,000 francs CFA [Editor's note: 7 euros] for the job. But I couldn't find work every day.
One day, I met a recruiter working for a company called Saudi Oger who offered me a visa for Saudi Arabia. He explained what the working conditions would be like and it seemed like a good deal. I would be fed, given accommodation, and I'd get work on a building site. I was no longer able to make ends meet in my own country, so I took up his offer and left with a friend. We paid one million francs CFA [Editor's note: 2000 euros] to get our visas. It's a huge amount of money, but we'd been given guarantees that sounded pretty convincing. It was only once there that we learned that Saudi Arabia was far from being the promised land that we had thought it was.
On the building site in Damman. Photo sent by our Observer.
Many of us came here to earn money and send it to our families back home. Usually, I send my family around three thousand Saudi riyals [Editor's note: roughly 700 euros] every two months. But at the moment, it's impossible. There are lots of foreigners here, some come from Senegal, others are from the Philippines, France and Lebanon. One of my friends told me that his children call him every day to ask for money. He worries that they'll end up having to drop out of school if he can't send any.
The building site for the 'King Abdelaziz centre' where our Observer works.
This desperate situation has even pushed some workers to suicide. One Filipino worker hung himself at work last week. He didn't have enough money to send to his sick wife, who could no longer pay for her medicine. The fact that he could no longer help his family must have pushed him into taking his own life. A similar tragedy had already taken place on my building site at the start of February, and we're scared that it could become more frequent. The workers are already depressed.
"I'm tossed around to various building sites, and there's nothing I can do about it"
On top of not being paid, we're exploited and we live in deplorable conditions. Every day, I wake up at 4am to head to the building site. I only get back home at around 7pm. The company offers us the option of working in the evenings to make more money. But whatever we do, our wages usually end up being the same.
They do whatever they want with us. At first, they put me to work on a building site for the construction of an archive in Damman. Then, they sent me to Riyadh to work on something else for a few months, before I came back to Damman. I didn't really have any choice, they just toss me around various building sites as they please.
Inside our Observer's bedroom.
Our accommodation is also horrible. We sleep in prefabricated units. I share my room with one guy but one of my friends sleeps in a room with four other people. The rooms are tiny and we're always scared that our belongings could be stolen.
"I can't leave, I don't have enough money. Some no longer even have their identity papers"
Practically all of us want to go back home. But it's simply impossible: without a regular salary, we can't buy return tickets. I've been trying to go back to Senegal for the last two months but I don't have enough money for the plane ticket.
Protests already took place back in November to demand the payment of wages.
For others, the situation is even more complicated. Our contracts stipulate that we're the responsibility of our company. In other words, they're the ones that handle administrative documents. Yet many workers have identity cards that have expired, and the company never bothered getting them renewed. As a result, many workers are stuck here because they don't have any documents. I don't know if that's a deliberate ploy by the company to keep us here, but we feel as if we're trapped.
The CEO of Saudi Oger is Saad Hariri, a Lebanese billionaire politician who also served as prime minister of Lebanon from 2009 until 2011. But the construction giant is teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.
Senegalese workers aren't the only ones affected by the actions of Saudi Oger, which also employs a hundred or so French nationals. Last month, the French ambassador to Saudi Arabia was forced to intervene, writing personally to the company's CEO. Two days later, the company's board of directors agreed to partially unblock a portion of unpaid salaries. They also pledged - though not in writing - to resume paying salaries on a regular basis from March onwards.