Top Indian official: Saudi Arabia to help stranded workers

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) " A top Indian official who arrived in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to meet with the labor minister said the kingdom will provide airfares for thousands of Indian laborers who say they have not been paid their salaries in months and are stranded with no way out of the country.

Minister of State for External Affairs General Vijay Kumar Singh said the kingdom will pay to repatriate Indian nationals who cannot afford to leave on their own. He said the Indian Embassy is compiling a list of those who want to leave and will assist in coordinating the effort.

The Saudi Labor Ministry said this week it has fined and suspended the services of construction firm Saudi Oger for not paying its workers' wages in months. Over the weekend, hundreds of employees of Saudi Oger, owned by the Lebanese Hariri family and run by former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, staged rare protests in the western Red Sea city of Jiddah.

"All people who want to go back, they will go back at the expense of the government of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia," Singh told reporters in the capital, Riyadh, after meeting Saudi Labor Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani.

"I think you can't have more magnanimity and large-heartedness than this," he said.

He said directives were also issued to either allow Saudi Oger employees to transfer employment immediately, renew their work visas without charge or be granted exit permits if they want to leave the country.

Under Saudi law, foreign workers are typically required to have a no-objection certificate from their employer before being issued an exit visa.

Al-Haqbani, who also spoke to reporters alongside Singh, praised Indian workers "for their great contribution" to Saudi Arabia. "What happened is just one company did a grave and unaccepted mistake," he said.

The construction sector in Saudi Arabia and the wider Gulf has been hard-hit by a drop in global oil prices, which has slowed down government spending on major infrastructure projects.

Around 10,000 Indian workers in Saudi Arabia have lost their jobs amid the crisis. Indian officials say nearly 3,200 Indian workers in Riyadh alone have not been paid their salaries for several months.

The state-linked al-Watan newspaper on Wednesday quoted Zayed al-Sobaie, director-general of the Labor Ministry in Jiddah, as saying the Labor Ministry, the Interior Ministry and other government bodies are working to resolve the issue of unpaid wages by Saudi Oger.

The governments of Lebanon, the Philippines and Pakistan have also been in talks with Saudi officials concerning similar problems facing their citizens.

The kingdom, like its oil-rich Gulf neighbors, relies heavily on foreign workers, many of whom are South Asians working as drivers, gardeners, builders and cleaners. Around 10 million foreigners live in Saudi Arabia, comprising nearly one-third of the total population.

Prior to his meeting in Riyadh, Singh visited with Indian consular staff in Jiddah, according to government Twitter accounts. Over the weekend, India's consulate in Jiddah said its staff helped deliver more than 15,000 kilograms (34,000 pounds) of food to workers in need of assistance in camps throughout Saudi Arabia.

The Indian consulate said several hundred employees of the construction giant Saudi Binladin Group were also offered food assistance in recent days.

Earlier this year, foreign workers there protested and set fire to company buses in retaliation for not being paid their salaries in months. State media reported the company had terminated employment for tens of thousands of the firm's workers and issued them exit visas.

This story has been automatically published from the Associated Press wire which uses US spellings

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