Saudi Arabia never misses an occasion to flaunt its Islamic credentials and plays host to thousands of migrant workers from other Muslim countries. But they remain among the most exploited.
Saleem, a 34-year-old from Karachi's Gurumandir area, has been working as a driver for an oil company executive in Ras Tanura, a city in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, for the past three years. But he is totally at the mercy of his employers to whom he handed over his passport on arrival.
"There are people in Saudi Arabia from Pakistan and Bangladesh who have not been paid for several months. They are working in the worst of conditions compared to mine, and they cannot even change jobs . . . they are practically the slaves of their employers," said Saleem.
The Saudi government doesn't seem to care what happens to Saleem and his like, who waste away in pursuit of a modicum of economic security for their kith and kin.
Foreign workers constitute nearly fifty per cent of the workforce in Saudi Arabia. The employment and residency of these workers, however, depends on the employers who sponsor them, thus exposing workers to endless exploitation and ill-treatment.
Ahsanullah Khan of the Workers Employers Bilateral Council of Pakistan (Webcop) said: "In Saudi Arabia, there is no real concept of labour rights - especially for non-Saudis. They do not follow any International Labour Organisation conventions. As a matter of fact, they can act in a very extreme manner and not let their employees visit their families, even in the circumstance of grave illness or death."
Saleem, for instance, has not been allowed to visit his parents in Karachi, even though he has been making tearful pleas to his employers, saying that his father is dying, Dawn reports.
Dr Sabur Ghayur, chairman of the Policy Planning Cell of the Ministry of Labour, Manpower and Overseas Pakistanis, however, said that it is critical to understand the realities of the labour market. "Employers probably also feel compelled to keep the worker's passport because sometimes workers have simply disappeared, sometimes after emptying their employers' coffers. Several Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshi workers have disappeared in the past that way," Dr Ghayur said.
"Also, if one looks at it, most people are either dubiously sent [to work in Saudi Arabia] on an Umrah visa or they deliberately migrate illegally. As both of these scenarios are illegal, they are automatically at the mercy of whoever hires them," Dr Ghayur explained
Significantly, though this kind of exploitation and abuse receives no sanction from Saudi law, it continues to prevail. Tayyaba Mehr, former deputy programme officer at the Lawyers for Human Rights and Legal Aid (LHRLA) thinks this is because of a lack of institutional protection for workers. "An important reason why this trend has gone overboard is that trade unions are banned in this part of the world," she said.
Meanwhile, Saleem, living in a small quarter provided to him by his employer, wonders if there is going to be any proactive engagement from the Pakistani side that can act as a source of respite for distressed Pakistanis working in the region.
"To perpetuate the notion that the government does not care about the problem would be unfair . . . the upcoming National Migration Policy deals with these issues in detail and it is our foremost concern to safeguard the rights of Pakistanis working abroad," Dr Ghayur said.
"The present government appears to be fairly involved in these issues; MoUs are being signed and several initiatives are being taken with respect to Pakistanis working abroad. The approach of the Indian and the Philippines' governments with regard to their exported workforce (in order to protect it from exploitation) is a useful model," Ms Mehr opined.
Federal Minister for Labour and Manpower Syed Khurshid Shah said that the reformation of Saudi labour laws is, unfortunately, an internal matter and not one in which the Pakistani government can intervene. "The Pakistani embassy in Riyadh is, of course, there to provide due assistance with regard to such issues", he added.
For workers, the Pakistani government representative they would turn to would be the community welfare attaché. "The Pakistani community welfare attaché is supposed to settle workers' grievances with their employers. Local agencies, such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Labour, may also be involved in the process at the attaché's prerogative. Still, if the parties are unable to arrive at a settlement, the attaché then assists the worker in seeking reparation from the labour courts", Ms Mehr and Dr Ghayur explained.
But while the community welfare attaché is there to assist in these disputes, sometimes he/she may not be able to handle each and every case.
Saleem, however, does not appear as optimistic: "I don't know to what extent the government of Pakistan can help, or if any initiatives or requests made by our government will be effective in curbing this trend."
Ultimately only better economic conditions at home can prevent such tragedies from being enacted over and over again.
"What we really need to do here in Pakistan is create more and more job opportunities within the country so that less and less people would have to leave their homes to look for work,", Dr Ghayur said.