RIYADH - Abdel Qayum had to borrow money back home in India to buy a Saudi labour visa, but with new curbs on foreigners in the kingdom the construction worker could be deported even before paying off his debt.
"I paid an equivalent of $4,000 in India to get a work visa in Saudi Arabia," said the shabbily-dressed bearded man who earns less than $600 a month in Riyadh where he has been working for two and a half years.
"Nobody told me, either here or in India, that we cannot work for other than our sponsors. My sponsor had no job for me here, so I was forced to work for someone else," said Qayum, who has so far failed to make enough money to pay back the costs of his visa to the kingdom.
Under new rules imposed this year, foreigners are allowed to work only for their legal sponsors in the kingdom while their spouses cannot take up jobs.
The change in the law affects millions of expatriates in the Gulf state and has sparked fears of mass deportations of migrant workers.
Some 200,000 people, mostly Asians and Yemenis, have already been expelled from the oil-rich kingdom in the past three months due to the new restrictions, immigration officials say.
Many foreigners enter Saudi Arabia under the sponsorship of a Saudi national but end up working for others, or set up their own businesses.
Saudi Arabia officially hosts eight million foreign workers, while economists say there are another two million unregistered non-Saudi workers in the kingdom.
In a calming measure, King Abdullah on Saturday ordered the interior and labour ministries to allow "workers violating the labour and residency system a maximum of three months to rectify their situation."
The practice of sponsoring expatriates, which repeatedly comes under fire from rights groups, has become a lucrative business for many Saudis who engage in trafficking of work visas.
"Police chase us like we're thieves," complains one Jordanian resident who identified himself only as Nizam. "The sponsorship system must be reformed instead of deporting innocent people who are only trying to make a living."
In 2010, UN rights chief Navi Pillay called on Gulf countries to stop requiring migrant workers to secure local sponsors, saying the system fosters abuses.
She said foreign workers in the Gulf are frequently subject to unlawful confiscation of passports, withholding of wages and other abuses.
Mukhtar, a Pakistani who works at a shopping mall in Riyadh, said he pays 8,000 riyals ($2,135) per year to his sponsor to secure a renewal of his work permit.
"My sponsor is just an owner of camels grazing in the desert, and he could not employ me," he said. "Our agreement was that he takes care of my documents and I find myself a job. I am working to make up for what I have to pay to stay here and now they want us out. This is unfair."
Although the kingdom has the largest Arab economy, and is the world's biggest oil exporter, the unemployment rate remains above 12.5 percent in a country where youth make up 55 to 60 percent of the around 19 million nationals.
Labour Minister Adel Fakih has admitted that "six million foreign workers are employed in low jobs unfit for Saudis and 68 percent of them are paid less than 1,000 riyals ($270) per month."
The majority of Saudis prefer working in the public sector where they are better paid for shorter working hours and enjoy more holidays.
"The labour ministry has the right to promote the employment of Saudis to replace foreigners, but this should not disrupt the economic activity as sectors such as the construction need foreign workers," said chief economist at the National Commercial Bank, Said al-Shaikh.
According to Shaikh, the retail sector employs 1.7 million non-Saudis while 2.8 million foreigners work in construction. Nearly 700,000 people are employed in the industrial sector of whom only 20 percent are Saudis.
During the three-month grace period, workers trying to avoid deportation have begun regularising their status by transferring their sponsorships to their current employers.
Mohammed Abdullah Awad, a 27-year-old Yemeni, had to pay $2,000 for his sponsor to allow him to transfer his visa to his employer.
"Sponsors exploit us and we can do nothing about it," Awad said sadly. "I have 13 dependants to take care of."
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