Philippines minister in Saudi over stranded workers

Labourers from Asia work at the construction site of a building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Aug 2, 2016
Labourers from Asia work at the construction site of a building in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Aug 2, 2016PHOTO: REUTERS

RIYADH (AFP) - Filipino and Saudi officials are working together to help thousands of stranded workers under a directive from King Salman, a diplomat said Wednesday (Aug 17) as the Philippines labour secretary visited.

The roughly 11,000 Filipinos are among tens of thousands of workers affected by financial troubles at the kingdom's major construction firms.

"Their salaries have not been paid, some of them for as long as eight months," Iric Arribas, charge d'affaires at the Philippine embassy, told AFP.

"It turned into a humanitarian crisis."

Workers were unable to renew their residency permits, meaning they could not leave the country and could not access their bank accounts, he said.

Some living in company accommodation "did not have food", Arribas added.

About 7,000 of the Filipinos worked for Saudi Oger, while 3,000 were with Saudi Binladin Group and the rest with other firms, Arribas said.

Saudi King Salman earlier this month ordered various measures to help affected foreign workers.

These include a waiver of penalties for expired work and residency permits, payment for flights home, and for food and accommodation when the employers were no longer meeting their obligations.

Lawyers hired by the Saudi government will handle claims for delayed salaries, even if workers leave the country.

Arribas said Philippines officials and the Saudi labour ministry are coordinating "to implement the general provisions of the directive from the King."

Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello on Wednesday thanked Salman for his help.

Bello, who met his Saudi counterpart Mufarrej al-Haqbani, handed over a letter of gratitude from President Rodrigo Duterte, Arribas said.

Before leaving for Saudi Arabia, Bello told Philippines TV that Duterte wants the workers back as soon as possible.

"The majority of them would like to go home" and perhaps return to work in the kingdom later, Arribas said.

The stranded Filipinos worked in a variety of jobs, including engineering, technical and office positions.

Sources in March told AFP that delayed receipts from the government, whose oil revenues have dropped significantly over the past two years, left employees of the kingdom's construction giants struggling while they wait for salaries.

The Saudi Gazette reported on Wednesday that a Pakistani minister had also arrived in the kingdom to try to help more than 10,000 of his countrymen who are similarly stranded.

In early August, India's minister of state for external affairs, V.K. Singh, met with Haqbani to discuss the plight of about 2,500 Indian workers.