Jail Might’ve Been Better: Saudi Worker Recalls Food Crisis 

With no company mess and salary, even one full meal was a luxury, recalls Shamshe Alam.

4 min read
Jail  Might’ve Been Better: Saudi Worker Recalls Food Crisis 
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It’s been a struggle for survival for 32-year-old Shamshe Alam at Jeddah in Saudi Arabia, with no food, water, money or electricity the last few months. Hit by an economic slowdown, construction company Saudi Oger has left Alam and around 10,000 other Indians stranded with no salary for seven months.

And while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has promised to bring them back, Shamshe Alam recounts the struggle of thousands like him.

Trouble started brewing in 2015, Alam recalls, when their salaries were delayed by about two months. If workers wanted to leave, they were told that their benefits (like insurance) would expire.

By January and February this year, many workers’ residential permits expired. “We were told to be on standby as we’d be jailed for working without a valid residential permit,” said Shamshe Alam. He also said that they were promised a basic salary until the permits were renewed.

However, the promise of basic salaries was never kept.


Caught in the Blame Game

Shamshe Alam pointed out that Saudi Oger told the workers that the government wasn’t paying them while the government, in turn claimed it had cleared its dues. As the blame game played out, it was the workers and their livelihoods that hung in the balance.

Meanwhile, hundreds of unsuspecting employees lost their jobs due to massive lay-offs.

When the police threatened to put them behind bars, going to jail didn’t seem like a bad prospect, recalls Shamshe. (Photo Courtesy: Twitter/CGIJeddah)

But the hardest blow came about 10 days ago, when the company shut its mess and two days later, cut-off the water supply in the workers’ camps, Alam noted.

With no mess and no money, even one full meal was a luxury for Shamshe Alam and his colleagues.

Sometimes, passers-by at the camp would ask us if we had eaten. They would give us a little money. But what would come in that? Maybe a few pieces of roti, some rice.
Shamshe Alam, Stranded Indian Worker, Jeddah

The rest of the time, they would just pool in a few resources and share a meal.


However, when electricity was cut off a day after water, the workers had had enough. About a week ago, 3,000 of them took to the streets and blocked a highway. When the police threatened to put them behind bars, going to jail didn’t seem like a bad prospect, said Shamshe.

Yahan bhi marr hi rahe the bina khaana aur paani ke. Wahan (jail) bhi marr jaate. (We were starving without food and water here too. We’d have starved in jail too.)
Shamshe Alam

After 14 hours, someone came from the Saudi Labour Ministry around midnight and promised to address their woes, said Alam. A few hours after the workers returned to their camps, water supply was restored and in a few hours, the electricity.

The food came too. However, many workers didn’t eat the cow and camel meat and so, went hungry. Later, the Indian embassy sent ration like rice and oil, giving them some respite.

But they now had a new problem – the stench of decomposing garbage around their camp, because the housekeeping company had withdrawn their staff due to non-payment.

Although the embassy has taken their details to arrange exit visas, their passports still remain with the company.


Alam says he doesn’t know how things came to be so bad. Educated till class 12, he was quite content for eight years living in a single room with five others. Every month, he would send back money to his parents and two younger brothers back in Bhilai, Chattisgarh.

Now, his family and wife of two years desperately want him to come back. But Alam says that the company owes him more than 20,000 Riyal.

I want to go back. But if I go back just like this, what good am I to my family? How will I support them?
Shamshe Alam

Alam also pointed out that while the company has other Lebanese, Filipino and French employees on its rolls whose dues were cleared, it was the South Asians from countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh who were left in the lurch.

South Asians are exploited everywhere. It’s not new. Maybe because our embassy isn’t as strong. 
Shamshe Alam

However, with their plight having drawn Sushma Swaraj’s attention, Alam says that there is a “50-50 chance” he will be able to return home to his family. However, he has given up hope on the money that the company owes him.

Meanwhile, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan has promised help to around 700 Keralites stuck in Saudi Arabia.

The Chief Minister’s office, in a press release, said that the Department of Non-resident Keralites Affairs (NoRKA) had made all the necessary arrangements to bring them back and would even support the workers who want to stay back and secure compensation from Saudi Oger. It added that steps have also been taken to procure their pending salaries

(This article was published in an arrangement with The News Minute.)

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