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Saudi Arabia: Migrant Workers

Volume 776: debated on Wednesday 9 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Saudi Arabia about the recent withholding of wages due to migrant workers by large and medium-sized companies.

My Lords, the Government take the rights of migrant workers very seriously, as the Prime Minister made very clear in her speech at this year’s United Nations General Assembly in September. Where we have concerns over legislation or regulatory protections for migrant workers, we raise these with Governments. However, we cannot intervene in specific labour disputes, including investigating reports of third-country migrant workers not receiving payments due to them.

I thank the noble Baroness for her reply, but does she agree that this issue is a British one, as a British doctor working at the Saad hospital in Khobar has lost wages? It is also a Commonwealth issue because hundreds if not thousands of migrant workers from the Indian subcontinent have also lost their pay. Will the Government arrange the strongest possible protest to Saudi Arabia, which I note is able to wage two wars at the same time in neighbouring countries?

I must apologise to the noble Lord; with some difficulty, due to the background noise, I heard only part of his question. If I may deal with the first issue, which I think concerns British nationals, I can confirm that officials in the British embassy in Riyadh have been in contact with the British nationals in Saudi Arabia who are in a similar situation as third-country migrant workers not receiving payment. The advice of the British embassy, which I encourage anyone experiencing problems to follow, is to seek legal advice by engaging an independent lawyer qualified in local law who can advise on rights and methods of redress. That is not something that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office can intervene upon.

I think the latter part of the noble Lord’s question concerned the role of the Commonwealth. He makes the point that there may be migrant workers in Saudi Arabia from Commonwealth countries. With respect, it is for these Commonwealth countries to determine how they wish to address these issues and what steps if any they wish to take on behalf of their citizens who are in the position of being in Saudi Arabia and may not have been paid their due wages.

My Lords, if the major construction companies in Saudi Arabia, including the Binladin group, cannot afford to pay their workers, is the Government’s strategy to replace European markets with new export markets in countries such as Saudi Arabia perhaps not going to be very successful?

I have to apologise; I simply could not hear the question. I am going to have to ask the noble Lord to write to me. I do not know what is going on outside but it is, to say the least, distracting.

My Lords, perhaps we should consider suspending proceedings until the noise has stopped because it is impossible to hear what we are doing.

My Lords, I believe that what has happened is that, because we are sitting early for a Wednesday, the builders who normally have a free run of the place are cleaning some of the stonework outside. I think we should adjourn the House for five minutes while this matter is sorted out.

Sitting suspended.

My Lords, some of the major construction companies in Saudi Arabia, including the Binladin group, are unable to pay the wages of their construction workers. Does this not suggest that the Saudi economy is now in such a poor state that the Government’s hopes that we can replace sales to the European market by sales to markets such as Saudi Arabia are perhaps a little overoptimistic?

I must thank the noble Lord for a question which I could hear, articulated so succinctly. No one is disguising that there are challenges for the Saudi Arabian economy. It is however the case that the United Kingdom has a long history of friendship, understanding and co-operation with Saudi Arabia based on a number of areas, including defence, security, trade and investment. It is also the case that Saudi Arabia is recognising the need to diversify its economy. That is why it recently conceived something called the 2030 vision, in which the UK has been invited to play a part. I suggest to the noble Lord that if an economy is facing challenges, it is important that international partners do what they can to support it.

I am sure the noble Baroness is aware of the dreadful circumstances in which some of these workers are housed and their conditions in the workplace. Some of them have their fare paid for to get to Saudi Arabia, but they do not have it paid for when they are sacked without notice. The condition of their housing is absolutely disgraceful. They cannot afford to seek legal advice; they cannot afford to go home; they are virtually kidnapped in that country. I underscore to her that if we can do anything on a humanitarian basis, through whatever channels the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has, I very much hope that the Government will do it.

I know that the noble Baroness echoes a sentiment which will strike a chord with all of us. I suggest that it is for third countries and their Governments to determine how best to protect the interests of their citizens, whether at home or abroad. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, the United Kingdom Government can try to assist the position of British nationals. That is what we endeavour to do by consular engagement and by engagement with the British embassy in Riyadh. At the end of the day, when it comes to internal issues about whether workers are due money, that is a matter for Saudi Arabian law, and they need to involve suitably qualified lawyers to give advice.

The noble Baroness may recall that the previous Government withdrew core funding from the UN’s International Labour Organization. Does not this case—and others—underline that we should review that decision and work with other global organisations, such as the International Trade Union Confederation, to protect workers wherever they are?

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for his question. Saudi Arabia, as he is aware, is a member of the International Labour Organization, as is the United Kingdom. Indeed, as long ago as 1975, the ILO adopted a migrant workers recommendation which specifically detailed provisions to protect migrant workers, including enjoyment of effective equality of opportunity and treatment with nationals of the member country. I would say to the noble Lord that this is a locus for the United Nations and the International Labour Organization within the UN, and I am sure that all member states would be interested in looking at it.

My Lords, I support the thrust of the original Question, having seen at first hand how people can get caught in a very difficult situation. Does the Minister agree that the best way of tackling this with the Saudis is to address the situation of British citizens, for which we have a clear and unarguable locus? They are quite capable of drawing the conclusions from the representations that we will make.

I thank the noble Lord for his contribution. I emphasise that we do have a responsibility for British nationals—we are very cognisant of that. We do everything we can at international level to represent our concerns. We have been doing that consistently, and that is a message that we constantly relay to Saudi Arabia. Where we can intervene with any form of support for British nationals who find themselves in an unwelcome and difficult situation, we will reflect fully on how best we can support them.

My Lords, further to the Minister’s comments about the Saudi economy, although it is one thing to co-operate on security and intelligence, is it really wise—in a region that is absolutely brimming full of armaments—to continue to sell them on such a large scale to Saudi Arabia?

I thank my noble friend for his question. The United Kingdom Government take their arms export licensing responsibilities very seriously. As he will know, we operate one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. The test we apply is simple: whether there is a clear risk in relation to international humanitarian law that those items subject to the licence might be used in a serious violation of international humanitarian law. That is kept under careful and continual review.