HRW warns of further delays in wage repayment for displaced Saudi workers

HRW warns of further delays in wage repayment for displaced Saudi workers
Muslim pilgrims wear masks at the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on Feb. 28, 2020.
AFP / Abdel Ghani Bashir

MANILA, Philippines — While representatives of two Saudi Arabia construction firms recently announced plans to repay long-overdue wages to migrant workers, including Filipinos, international rights group Human Rights Watch said their faulty repayment schemes may cause further delays.

Based on HRW’s interviews with migrant workers from the Philippines and other countries, the payment of back wages for workers displaced by the 2016 oil crisis in Saudi Arabia has been plagued with practical and logistical issues. This includes lack of workers’ awareness in how to file their claims, difficulties in registrations and checks that cannot be encashed in workers' home countries.

The HRW report was based on the testimonies of 27 migrant workers from the Philippines, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan, India and Senegal as well as workers’ salary sheets and checks.

“Migrant workers who were relieved after the announcement that they would finally be paid what they are owed want to remain optimistic despite almost a decade of waiting,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW. 

“But it’s critically important for the appointed bankruptcy and liquidation trustees, the Saudi authorities, and the migrants’ countries of origin to ensure that these promises are fully carried out,” Page added.

In November 2022, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia said that it would allocate 2 billion riyals for the unpaid salaries of some 10,000 overseas OFWs who were displaced when construction companies declared bankruptcy in the years 2015 and 2016. These include oil firms Saudi Oger, MMG and the Bin Laden Group.

The payment of back wages only began in January this year for the first batch of eligible OFWs. As of February, around 843 checks out of 1,104 amounting P868 million have been distributed to OFWs. At least 9,000 have yet to be paid.

The apparent lack of information and delays in the payment of their wages have made migrant workers turn to each other for help, HRW said.

“The workers said they relied on social media and each other over the years to stay updated about the status of plans to pay back their wages. Some continued to fight for their wages even after returning home,” the group said.

One OFW interviewed by HRW said: “In the Philippines, my colleagues rallied … [they] went to Mendiola Street [a street in Manila often used for protests], stood there and were interviewed by the media, and dispersed peacefully. We spoke with the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, Department of Migrant Workers, etc...”

The HRW also noted that workers who received their checks are facing practical issues cashing them. Workers from Bangladesh and the Philippines, specifically, have run into banks that either refuse to cash checks or revert with the encashed check after several weeks of waiting. Philippine workers interviewed by HRW siad they deposited their checks but that their local banks would, as one put it, “wait until Alinma bank will give this money into our savings.”

Page said that migrant workers who have been waiting for years should not be "returning home empty-handed from Saudi Arabia,” Page said.

“This is a major opportunity to remedy a continuing injustice, and it is critical for the Saudi authorities to get the details right and ensure that all workers’ owed wages are compensated, especially ahead of mega-events that will rely entirely on migrant workers,” Page added.

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