Tens of thousands of foreign workers – mainly Indian, Filipino, and Pakistani – are stranded in Saudi Arabia where they haven’t been paid for seven months, and in some cases even longer. They are employees of the construction giant Saudi Oger, which is facing financial turmoil linked to the fall of oil prices. The situation for these employees has now turned into a humanitarian crisis, after the company stopped providing them with food or collecting trash at the camps where most of them live.

Saudi Oger, which is today owned by the family of the late Lebanese business tycoon and prime minister Rafic Hariri, is a company facing deep debt. And it is not the only one in crisis. Its main rival, the construction giant Saudi Binladen group – founded by Osama Bin Laden’s father – laid off tens of thousands of employees earlier this year. Some of its many foreign workers moved over to Saudi Oger, but did not fare much better there. More than 50,000 employees – including a minority of Saudis – have not been paid salaries for seven months, and in some cases for several months longer.

Emergency food packets being prepared by Indian NGOs for distribution at workers' camps in Jeddah.

While protests are rare in Saudi Arabia, this situation has caused tensions to boil over several times, with dozens of foreign workers gathering in front of Saudi Oger’s offices in Jeddah in June and setting fire to several company vehicles.

The workers’ situation has prompted outcry from their countries of origin. India’s external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj tweeted that “the number of Indian workers facing food crisis in Saudi Arabia is over ten thousand.” A representative of her office met with Saudi officials in Riyadh on Tuesday, after which Saudi Labour Minister Mufarrej Al-Haqbani pledged “urgent” action and issued orders to allow foreign workers to renew their lapsed residency permits and switch employers. (Normally, under Saudi Arabia’s “kefala” sponsorship system, they would have needed their employer’s permission to do this.) He also said the labour ministry has fined Saudi Oger and suspended services to the company.

A tweet from the Indian consulate in Jeddah. 

Meanwhile, Indian officials reassured Indian workers that Saudi Arabia would pay for their plane fare home, and they have started to compile a list of those who wish to leave.

However, what Indian workers say they most urgently want is their pay. Spread throughout the country’s biggest cities, they have organised themselves through Whatsapp groups, and encourage each other not to give up the fight nor leave Saudi Arabia without payment.

“It feels like we’re living in a refugee camp, waiting for food to come from charities”

Rajiv (not his real name) is an Indian employee of Saudi Oger who lives at Sogex, one of the workers’ camps in Jeddah. He has worked for Saudi Oger for nearly a decade, and has not been paid for nine months now.

When we arrived, the company set us up in these camps, where for a long time, life was good: they provided food, housekeeping, laundry, and medical services. But then things went downhill. Many of us stopped getting paid. At the Sogex camp, there are 3,500 people. Today, more than a third of us, mainly construction workers, haven’t been paid in more than half a year. The rest, who work in maintenance – many of them in the royal family’s palaces –are still working today, but haven’t been paid since June. They don’t know if they’ll get paid this month, either. Those of us who have run out of money have been borrowing from the maintenance workers, but if they stop getting paid too, that won’t be possible anymore!

Workers living at another camp in Jeddah wait in line for food delivered by NGOs. 

Things took a turn for the worst when the subcontractor that brings us food stopped coming on July 20. Saudi Oger had stopped paying them. This subcontractor also dealt with collecting trash, so the garbage started to pile up. Soon sewage started to overflow. After a week, we started to receive aid from Indian community NGOs, working with the Indian consulate. They bring us emergency food packets and water every few days. [Editor’s note: This weekend, the Indian consulate in Jeddah said its staff had already helped deliver more than 15,000 kilograms of food in camps throughout the country]. The relevant consulates also bring food for the Filipinos and for the Pakistanis. We share with those who have no help from their countries – that is, the African workers, who represent a small minority.

Food distribution at the Sogex camp. 

We no longer have medical insurance, either – the company cut that off, and we ran out of insulin in our camp’s clinic. Thankfully, the municipality sent us medical teams earlier this week, and the Saudi labour ministry sent people to clear out the trash as well.

The garbage that piled up after services to the Sogex camp were halted. 

“We can’t face our families empty-handed”

It really feels like we’re living in a refugee camp, waiting for food to come from charities. Still, most people don’t want to leave – imagine leaving the country without all those months of wages and benefits. Many of us send remittances to our families, and haven’t been able to do that for months, so it affects many more people than just us here in Saudi Arabia. A lot of people are suffering back in India. We can’t face our families empty-handed!

Indian workers line up to register their cases with the Indian consulate in Jeddah. 

The Indian consulate has encouraged people to sign papers to return home. But only those who have not worked here for very long and therefore won’t lose much money are accepting to do so. There’s also been talk of airlifting us. That would make the Indian authorities look like saviours, surely, but that’s not what we need. We need them to go through diplomatic channels to put pressure on the Saudi authorities until we get paid what we are due!

Many foreign workers are now hanging their hopes on the possibility of the Saudi government taking over Saudi Oger. The Lebanese newspaper Al Akhbar quoted unnamed sources saying that the Hariri family and the Saudi government were in talks. However, neither side has yet confirmed this.