Indian minister visits Saudi to repatriate stranded workers

AP , Wednesday 3 Aug 2016

An Indian minister visited Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to try to bring home thousands of laid-off Indian workers stranded without money for food or plane tickets, while Riyadh said it would swiftly resolve the crisis.

Indian officials said more than 6,200 of the stranded workers had been employed by troubled construction firm Saudi Oger, a conglomerate owned by the family of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, which had for months been unable to pay workers' salaries.

A sharp drop in oil prices has caused a state spending slowdown in Saudi Arabia, the world's top crude exporter. Construction firms have been squeezed financially and in response have laid off tens of thousands of south Asian and other foreign workers.

A Lebanese newspaper reported on Wednesday that the Saudi government was in talks with Hariri on a proposal to take over Saudi Oger. Under the proposed deal, the buyer would assume all debts and financial obligations of Saudi Oger.

Saudi Oger officials and Saad al-Hariri could not be reached for comment. In the past, the company has declined to speak publicly about its finances.

Saudi government officials were also not available to speak about the reported takeover proposal.

India's junior foreign minister Vijay Kumar Singh visited the Red Sea city of Jeddah to meet with the Indian consulate there and then flew on to the capital Riyadh, Indian officials tweeted, using the hashtag "#NoIndianLeftBehind".

They said a total of about 7,700 Indian workers had been stranded. Of these, 4,072 were staying in worker camps in the capital Riyadh, while 2,153 were in Jeddah.

Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said on Saturday that workers faced a "food crisis" because employers had not paid their wages. The Jeddah consulate is distributing emergency food rations to the workers pending efforts to repatriate them.

Saudi Arabia says it investigates any complaints of companies not paying wages and if necessary obliges these firms to do so or risk fines and other penalties.

The director-general of the Labour Ministry office in the Mecca region promised "swift and immediate" steps to help about 2,500 Indian workers of Saudi Oger who had been without pay for months, according to the Arabic language Okaz newspaper.

Abdallah al-Olayan was quoted as acknowledging that workers had suffered "hardships" after a contractor with the parent company cut off power supplies to them.

The official said that under instructions from Labour Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani, workers had been given the choice of seeking other employment in Saudi Arabia, leaving the country and then returning, or leaving permanently, Okaz reported.

Another Saudi newspaper, al-Watan, said senior authorities had ordered that the issue of Saudi Oger workers be resolved as soon as possible.

Other foreign governments, including France, the Philippines and Bangladesh, have been pressing Saudi authorities and company executives to ensure that local construction firms pay their workers.

Before the economic slowdown, about 10 million foreigners, largely from south Asia, southeast Asia and other parts of the Middle East, worked in Saudi Arabia. Many of them were in low-paid jobs in sectors which Saudis spurn such as construction, domestic service and retailing.

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