Saudization and Migrants

Worried by high unemployment, Saudi Arabia is introducing quotas for foreign workers. How will it hit Asian workers?

Mong Palatino

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is embarking on a ‘Saudization’ programme, or nationalization of jobs, called Nitaqat. Its goal is to provide more than one million new jobs to Saudi citizens by limiting the number of foreign workers that companies can employ.

Under Nitaqat, a colour zoning scheme is implemented to determine if companies are hiring local workers. A green category is given to a company that has at least 10 percent of its workforce coming from the local population, yellow is handed out if Saudi workers comprise less than 10 percent of the company’s personnel, while firms are given a red if they don’t employ a single Saudi worker.

‘Yellow’ companies are given nine months, and ‘Reds’ six months to comply with the Saudization goals, or else they will be sanctioned by the government. ‘Red’ companies are also no longer allowed to renew their foreign workers’ visas.

‘Green’ companies, on the other hand, are prioritized in the processing of foreign workers’ visas and they are granted the privilege of being able to change the job categories of foreign workers into job categories usually reserved for Saudis.

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Nitaqat’s second phase, which starts on September 10, will involve the imposition of quotas for different sectors of the economy. For example, banks must have a Saudization level of 49 percent according to the Labour Ministry. The media sector must have a 19 percent Saudization quota, which is also applicable to other commercial establishments, insurance companies and public schools.

Saudization is intended to curb the country’s rising unemployment, which now stands at about 10 percent. But the figure could be higher for women who are faced with fewer job opportunities. Another aim of Saudization is to guarantee the employment of more than 100,000 Saudi students who have been given scholarship grants by the government to study in other countries and are expected to return soon to the Kingdom.

The Saudi government is entitled to think it’s promoting the welfare of its citizens by minimizing the number of foreign workers. It also can’t be blamed for trying to protect the jobs of Saudis – it’s only doing what any government threatened by growing unemployment and dissatisfaction in society is expected to do.

Unfortunately, Saudization hurts migrant workers, especially the low skilled workers, who have been working in the Kingdom for many years already. They could lose their jobs at any time, and it’s now more difficult than ever to apply for a new job in the Kingdom since Saudis are given preferential treatment. Their only options now are to leave Saudi Arabia, migrate to another rich country, or return to their home countries and hope that the situation there has improved.

Saudization is scaring a lot of people in the Philippines and Indonesia – two countries in Southeast Asia that send thousands of workers to Saudi Arabia every year. There are 1.8 million Filipinos living and working there, about 300,000 of whom are expected to be affected by the Saudization programme, according to a migrant advocacy centre. Indeed, it was reported last week that the number of working visas issued to Filipinos by the Saudi government has already been reduced from 1,800 daily down to only 700.

Most Filipinos and Indonesians working in Saudi Arabia are domestic helpers, but the Saudi government recently imposed a ban against the hiring of domestic helpers from the two countries. The issue is a bit more complicated in the case of Indonesia, since it was Indonesia that first banned the sending of maids to Saudi Arabia after an Indonesian maid who was convicted of killing her employer was beheaded by the Saudi authorities last month. Indonesia said that it won’t deploy new maids to the Kingdom unless a new agreement is signed that would protect the rights of migrant workers.

Saudization should embolden migrant sending countries like the Philippines and Indonesia to prepare for the economic and social re-integration of laid-off workers from Saudi Arabia. It should force them to rethink the policy of sending people abroad instead of focusing on the development of their local economies. Saudization isn’t at fault here; rather it’s the utter failure of countries like the Philippines and Indonesia to provide their citizens with adequate job and livelihood opportunities at home.

Instead of asking why Saudis are now being prioritized by Saudi firms, we should question why Filipinos, Indonesians, and other migrant workers from poor countries are forced to leave their families and communities in search of a better life.