Fire Puts Spotlight on Saudi ‘Passport Holding’
A spectacular fire on July 9, 2011, of a Jeddah six-story office building that totally destroyed the structure has raised questions about a dubious policy that many Saudi employers follow. Ravaging the twin towers of Alesayi Plaza near Madinah Road, the blazing inferno also destroyed some 17,000 foreign passports belonging to expatriate workers employed by companies such as Panasonic, Moulinex, and over 60 other businesses which were housed in the complex. The cause of the fire is still under investigation.
It is the policy of many employers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to confiscate the passports of workers and hold them until the employees leave the country. Unfortunately this policy has paved the way for many abuses to occur within the system with potentially disastrous ramifications, such as slavery, blackmail, withholding pay, and inability of workers to switch their employment to another company within Saudi Arabia.
There is no law in Saudi Arabia which requires workers to surrender their passports to their employers, however some companies falsely claim that they are following the law by holding their employees’ passports or may simply say that it is company policy. Companies explain that keeping workers’ passports is their way of protecting their investment by bringing workers into the country. The Kingdom requires that foreign workers have a legal sponsor, which would be the Saudi company they work for. According to Saudi law, workers are allowed to freely change jobs or employers and to change their sponsorship, however there is no government entity to ensure that foreign workers rights are protected.
For many foreign workers who had plans to leave the country, their departures will likely be delayed. This unfortunate event should be a wake-up call for the Saudi government to take control of this serious situation and enforce policy regarding the possession of foreign workers’ passports.