Nearly two years after the collapse of the construction giant Saudi Oger rendered thousands jobless, Lebanese worker Mohammed remains stranded in limbo in Riyadh — and desperate to avoid arrest.
The demise in 2017 of the company owned by the family of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri forced thousands of expatriate workers to exit the kingdom without months of unpaid wages and end-of-service benefits.
However, many like 60-year-old Mohammed, who worked for the company for 35 years, are still stuck in Saudi Arabia.
The expiration of Mohammed’s residence permit makes his presence in Saudi Arabia illegal, but he is also legally barred from leaving due to an outstanding bank loan taken while he was employed.
So, Mohammed is left in a bewildering limbo, barely scraping by on the kindness of strangers and cut off from his family in Lebanon.
“I am a prisoner,” he said at the Riyadh apartment of another former Saudi Oger employee from Lebanon in a similar predicament.
“When I want to go outside, I choose a time when there are no [police] roadblocks so that I am not detained,” he added.
Saudi Arabia, home to about 10 million expats, is in the midst of an intensifying crackdown on illegal workers that has seen hundreds of thousands expelled over the past two years.
There appears to be no recourse for the two stranded workers, who requested that their real names be withheld.
Without a valid residency, the two men are not allowed to legally find work and repay their debt, but until the debts are repaid, they cannot get an exit visa, a mandatory authorization to leave the kingdom.
According to court documents, Saudi Oger still owes Mohammed more than US$100,000 in unpaid wages — more than double his outstanding bank loan, which was used in part to pay for his children’s education.
The impasse spotlights Saudi Arabia’s long-criticized sponsorship system, which binds workers to their Saudi Arabian employers.
It is unclear exactly how many of the company’s nearly 40,000 former workers remain in the kingdom.
Company officials and the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Labor have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
Former Saudi Oger workers — from France to Lebanon, India and the Philippines — are still awaiting salary arrears, despite repeated management assurances.
Multiple workers said that some colleagues have died of illnesses as their health insurance — once covered by the company — had expired.
“They were deported as dead bodies from the kingdom,” said Chahnaz Ghayad, who offers legal counsel to Oger workers in Beirut.
Last year, the kingdom established a committee to handle the restructuring of the undisclosed debt owed by Saudi Oger, but its current status remains unclear.
The company reportedly owed at least US$3.5 billion.
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