Jeddah, July 22: The fire that ripped through the six-story Alesayi Plaza in Jeddah last week and destroyed about 17,000 passports of expatriates working for the company raised a debate about why workers cannot keep their passports with them in the first place.
The fire disrupted the holiday plans of many employees who were due to travel this month and facing the headache of obtaining new passports from their embassies and consulates. It is understood that there were some workers whose passports were already stamped with exit/re-entry visas.
International law gives passport holders the right to keep their own passports with them.
There is no law that forces employees to surrender their passports to a person or workplace. In Saudi Arabia, expatriates are forced to hand them in to their employers.
Some non-Saudi employees don’t realize the potential problems of keeping their passports with their company, especially if it gets stolen, lost or damaged. Some countries have very tough rules when issuing new passports. Some employees may not get their new passports for years if an investigation has to be conducted.
“Saudi laws allow a non-Saudi employee to keep his or her passport and iqama (work permit). In fact, the passport belongs only to its holder,” said Matouq Al-Sharif, a member of the National Society for Human Rights.
“Although the Council of Ministers has allowed expatriates to keep their passports, many companies and Saudi employers still refuse to implement this rule. There is no department that supervises the implementation of this rule and protects the workers’ rights.”
According to Al-Sharif, most workers are unaware of their rights and they think handing their passports over to the company is legal.
He said all workers should have the right to freely change jobs between companies and transfer their sponsorship. “During my last meeting with Labor Minister Adel Fakeih, he said that expatriate rights must be ensured and the Nitaqat program will respect the expatriate workers’ rights,’ said Al-Sharif.
Fakeih confirmed that part of Nitaqat procedures is to recruit monitors in each company who will ensure the rights of expatriate workers and make sure their passports are kept with the employees.
Al-Sharif confirmed that using passports as a weapon to blackmail and pressure employees is against Saudi law.
“As soon as the Nitaqat program begins its implementation, the companies will face five possible levels of punishment if they violate expatriate employees’ rights” said Al-Sharif.
A human resources manager at a private company in Jeddah who spoke on condition of anonymity confirmed that his department keeps hold of the employees’ passports.
“Keeping the expatriate workers’ passports protects the company’s investment. It guarantees that the worker will not leave the country suddenly,” he said.
“It also allows the company to update its employees’ data with the labor office. How can we update the information without having the passport in our possession? However, the company invests a huge amount of money to recruit employees. If they have their passports with them they might leave suddenly, causing huge losses.”
He added that passports should be kept in a special place away from danger. There are special iron safes that protect the passports from fire and theft.
Yasser Khalil, an Egyptian engineer working for a private company, said that his Saudi employer blackmailed him using his passport.
“He refused to pay my salary for three months. When I demanded my salary and passport so I could move elsewhere, he refused and said that he would only return my passport if I signed a paper waiving any legal right against his company.”
Khalil complained to the local Labor Office, which was told by the employer that the passport had been stolen.
An investigation revealed that the boss had kept the passport in his possession all this time and was using it to get out of paying the outstanding three months’ wages.
A human resources manager at a private company in Jeddah who also did not want to mention his name said that he does not see any logic in keeping passports. He said employees in general cannot travel outside the Kingdom without an exit/re-entry visa and said it was not a threat to the company if workers kept their passports.
“In case of death or a sick relative in the employee’s home country, the worker has great difficulty in obtaining his or her passport, especially during the weekend. The companies’ human resources departments are shut over the weekend, in the evening and the Eid and national holidays. Some HR officers open the department on the weekend or vacation to respond to quick cases, but most of them refuse to do so,” he said.
Courtesy: Arab News