Go Home, but Who Will Replace You?

Economist, November 16, 2013

Millions of pious pilgrims flock to Mecca every year, but the Muslim holy city’s newest, biggest hotel serves a different clientele. Just months after opening, the Shumeisi Deportation Centre already holds more than 20,000 Egyptians, Ethiopians, Indonesians, Yemenis and citizens of other nationalities, nearly half of them women. They will not be there for long. Nearly all will soon be packed off home, joining an exodus that has seen perhaps one in ten of Saudi Arabia’s estimated 9m foreign workers leave the kingdom in little more than a year.

The number awaiting deportation has swollen dramatically. An amnesty meant to allow migrant workers to conform to new, stricter employment rules expired on November 4th. Since then, Saudi police have mounted sweeps of worksites and the districts where foreigners live. Thousands have turned themselves in voluntarily, some camped out in public, luggage in hand, awaiting arrest and a free flight home. But others prefer to resist: on November 10th two people died when a police raid targeting Ethiopian residents of a slum in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, sparked a minor riot.

The campaign has caused other disruptions. Some 6,000 street-cleaners in Mecca, mostly from Bangladesh, mounted a five-day strike to protest against harassment by immigration authorities as well as non-payment of wages and poor working conditions. With much of the kingdom’s pool of manual and semi-skilled labour afraid to show up for work, such vital services as water delivery, the pumping out of septic tanks and the washing of bodies for burial have all but halted. Wholesale markets and city souks are operating at a fraction of normal turnover. A Saudi daily newspaper, al-Medina, says that more than half of 200,000 firms registered as building contractors have temporarily closed.

{snip} The campaign aims both to regulate the flow of immigration to the oil-rich kingdom and to open opportunities for Saudi workers. It comes as part of a long-term drive towards “Saudisation” of the distorted labour market that has included enforced quotas, a ban on foreigners in some professions, and a crackdown on firms that supply imported labour, which accounts for two-thirds of the overall workforce, and a far higher proportion in the private sector.

All this is meant to lower the kingdom’s unemployment rate, officially 13% but believed to be twice as high among the young. Although trimming the foreign workforce will theoretically free up jobs for locals, few Saudis seem likely to seek them, least of all those of the menial kind, which the kingdom’s 19m citizens tend to shun. Still, some economists expect longer-term benefits, as an overall rise in labour costs makes Saudis more attracted to lower-prestige and starting-level jobs, where wages have long been kept down by the abundance of foreign labour.


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