Expats are not our enemy

Illegal foreign workers gather in Riyadh in 2013 to return home after the Saudi government gave them an amnesty. (AFP photo)

Illegal foreign workers gather in Riyadh in 2013 to return home after the Saudi government gave them an amnesty. (AFP photo)

This is my column that was printed in Arab News on Nov. 30, 2014:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

When I read a few weeks ago that that an Indian from the state of Kerala had been arrested in Jeddah for illegally running a vegetable and fruit selling business worth SR5 million, I did not breathe a sigh of relief. Of course I understand the action that the various ministries undertook in enforcing the Saudization rules of the vegetable market which led to the arrest of the Keralite, and I fully support our government’s efforts to make more work opportunities available to Saudis. But I also know that unfortunately there are very few Saudis that I know of who are willing to wake up every morning at 3 a.m. in order to be at the vegetable market at 4 a.m. for the daily auction of fresh fruits and vegetables. So in my mind, the arrested Keralite was just filling a market demand.

It is sad to note that too often the coverage of these Saudization issues by the local press takes on xenophobic overtones, often implying that foreigners are taking over the Kingdom and threatening our national security. This is ridiculous, as more often than not they do the difficult and low paid jobs that we Saudis do not want to do, such as domestic work, street cleaning, vegetable selling and taxi driving, among others. For sure Saudis have made immense strides in terms of the types of work that we are willing to do, both men and women. Nowadays you can find Saudi women working as cashiers in supermarkets and Saudi men working in fast food restaurants, something that was impossible to see only 10 to 15 years ago.

We should be happy and proud that so many foreigners want to work and live here. Saudi Arabia has become a wealth magnet in the Middle East, a stable country that provides job opportunities to millions of Saudis and foreigners in a tax-free environment. In that sense, we are sort of in a similar situation as the United States, which also has a large immigrant population, with many illegals.

It was good news to read that the Saudi government will allow runaway expats to leave the country without having to return to their sponsors as long as they do not have criminal cases pending against them, pay any outstanding fines and pay for their own tickets home. Too often many employers put up unnecessary obstacles or drag their feet in repatriating disgruntled employees, which makes the lives of the runways hell as they have to wait to be deported in crowded detention centers, all the while not receiving any salary.

The other good news was that the Saudi government is considering issuing Iqamas, or residency permits, that are valid for five years, instead of for one year as is the case now. This would immensely help make the lives of expatriate workers and their family members easier and less worrisome. The government also said it was studying the possibility of extending the validity of Saudi passports from five years to 10 years, which pleased me very much. Most developed countries have long issued 10-year passports, so why not Saudi Arabia? In my case, since the Saudi Embassy here in Brasilia does not issue new Saudi passports, each time my passport needs to be renewed I need to return to the Kingdom to do so, which is costly and time consuming.

It is high time that we Saudis stop seeing foreigners as the enemy and acknowledge how much they have helped develop this country, and how much they help us keep this country running smoothly every day. Measures such as extending the validity of Iqamas and facilitating the departure of runaway workers are all developments that are just and help to ease the lives of those who struggle so much to make our lives more pleasant. It’s the least we can do.

US-India row: Misplaced outrage and sympathy

Devyani Khobragade

Devyani Khobragade

This column appeared in Arab News on December 22, 2013:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

The outrage in India over the arrest last week of Devyani Khobragade, India’s deputy consul-general in New York after her runaway maid Sangeeta Richard filed a complaint against her claiming she was overworked and paid less than half the minimum wage, while understandable, is misplaced. In the entire hullabaloo of removing the barricades around the US Embassy in New Delhi and the refusal of Indian politicians to meet a visiting US congressional delegation, the plight of the maid seems to have been forgotten.

Wounded national pride is the explanation for the Indian outrage and demand that the US government apologizes publicly for the harsh treatment that Khobragade allegedly was subjected to. According to the diplomat, she was arrested in front of her children’s school and handcuffed. Thrown into a cell with drug addicts she further claims she was strip-searched several times was also subjected to a cavity search. Preet Bharara, the US prosecutor handling the diplomat’s case, insists that she was just given the same treatment as everyone else, and that she was treated with respect. This indeed is humiliating treatment for any person, and especially more so for someone who is supposed to enjoy the diplomatic immunity provided by the 1961 Vienna Convention. The US State Department is now claiming that Khobragade enjoys only partial diplomatic immunity due to her rank, which seems like willful misinterpretation of the convention. If you are a diplomat, whether you are a third secretary or the ambassador, the diplomatic immunity you are entitled to is one and the same.

Richard claims that she had to work 10-12 hours a day, seven days a week, taking care of the two children of the deputy consul- general. Khobragade claims that her maid was given every Sunday off to go to church and meet her friends. To me this sounds like the cases of hundreds of foreign maids in the Middle East who are overworked, shouted at and underpaid by the employers from Beirut to Riyadh and Dubai. Yet abuse of domestic servants is not something unique to the Middle East, as this happens all over the world, from Africa to Asia to Latin America.

According to an International Labor Organization (ILO) report released earlier this year there are 52 million domestic workers worldwide, with 83 percent of them women. Brazil is the country with the most domestic workers, 6.7 million; India is second with 4.2 million and Indonesia third with 2.4 million domestic workers. According to the study, 29.9 percent of domestic workers are not covered by national labor laws and more worryingly a full 45 percent do not get a weekly day off or paid annual leave. The Gulf countries have the highest percentage of women domestic servants as compared to their overall female populations, with Oman at 59.3 percent, Kuwait 53.3 percent, Saudi Arabia 47.1 percent and the UAE at 42.4 percent.

The problem that all maids face is that they work in the private homes of their employers, making it very difficult for government inspectors to check their work conditions. In Saudi Arabia, domestic workers are still not fully covered by the labor law, which gives abusive employers a huge loophole through which they can abuse the rights of their maids. In Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff this year pushed through legislation that gives maids full labor law protections, including higher salaries and a limit to how many hours they can be made to work. If a maid or nanny needs to work overtime or through the night, they are now entitled to mandatory 1.5 times overtime pay.

According to simple calculations, Richard should have been paid $1,392 a month if she were paid the $7.25 per hour minimum wage and worked for 48 hours a week. Instead Richard claims she was paid only $633.60 a month, or $3.30 an hour. For comparison, Filipino maids in the Kingdom are now paid a minimum of $400 a month, and HK$4,010 in Hong Kong, or $517 (SR1,939) a month. In Brazil fulltime maids must be paid the minimum salary of R$678, which is the equivalent of $248 or SR1,066 a month. But the employer must also pay their monthly retirement and social security contributions, which can be an additional one-third on top of their salary.

Khobragade should be made by a US court to compensate her servant by paying her all of the back pay that she is owed. Handcuffing and strip-searching her went way beyond the diplomatic niceties that all diplomats are entitled to. The US should apologize for this behavior, but also make clear that anyone, be they a diplomat or not, must abide by US labor laws and pay their domestic workers decent pay that reaches the legal minimum-wage level.

— The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.


The Conflict Behind Brazil’s Agricultural Boom

Munduruku Indians listen to Gilberto Carvalho during a meeting in Brasilia on June 4, 2013.

Munduruku Indians listen to Gilberto Carvalho during a meeting in Brasilia on June 4, 2013.

This story appeared in the International Business Times on June 8, 2013:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

You would be forgiven for thinking this was the United States in 1850, the setup for a Western movie pitting cowboys against Indians. But it’s Brazil, today.

It’s a centuries-old conflict, one that the government has been trying to solve since at least 1910, when it created the Indian affairs agency known as National Foundation of the Indian, or Funai by its Portuguese acronym. The agency has been in charge of formulating the government’s policies toward the Indians since then, including the fundamental step of demarcating Indian lands. But that never happened.

Under the country’s 1988 Constitution, all Indian lands were supposed to have been demarcated and officially registered by 1993. According to Funai, there are 428 Indian land tracts fully registered so far, with 12 in the process of being registered, 51 that have been ruled as Indian but have not been demarcated yet and 115 claimed by Indians that are still being studied.

Then there 36 Indian reservations, formed from land that was either donated to them or bought or expropriated by the federal government, which are not subject to demarcation.

While authorities study what belongs to the Indians and what doesn’t, things on the ground are happening fast. Brazil’s huge appetite for more agricultural products to be grown and exported, and demand for more electricity, helped spark tensions between Indians, farmers and the federal government that have been simmering for decades.

Government statistics say that in 2011 Brazil produced $124 billion worth of agricultural
products, or about one-fifth of its entire economy, which is now the world’s sixth-biggest,
according to U.N. data. Most of that volume gets exported.

The appetites stirred by that kind of money are huge, and politicians are in on the action. A group of members of the National Congress has been trying since 2000 to wrest control from the Funai of the demarcation of Indian lands, which now rests with the executive branch through the Ministry of Justice, and place it in the hands of Congress, through the introduction of a constitutional amendment.

Funai isn’t popular with farmers, who have long criticized it for being packed with leftist
sociologists and anthropologists, who they claim have always taken the side of Indian tribes.

Violence And Death
The conflict has escalated into violent clashes. A growing wave of invasions of farms and
hydroelectric dam projects by Brazilian Indians have alarmed many on both sides of the

On May 2, 150 Indians invaded the construction site of the Belo Monte dam in the northern state of Pará, paralyzing work on the huge site. The Indians said they had not been consulted on the construction of the dam, whose impact on their land would be irreversible. They claim that up to 100 kilometers (60 miles) of rivers in the area will dry up once the dam is functioning. They also complained of the military presence in the area. The Indians eventually left the site peacefully on May 9 after a court ordered them to do so. But another group of more than 100 reoccupied the construction site on May 27. They initially refused to leave, even after a judge ordered their departure, dramatically ripping up the order.

They later agreed to leave the site and send a delegation to Brasilia this week after Gilberto Carvalho, the chief minister of President Rousseff’s presidential office, agreed to meet them. But they warned on Monday that they were not ready to give away their right to previous consultation on all dam projects that would affect their lands and that the government had tried to strong-arm them in the past into signing documents saying they were in favor of the dams.

Carvalho must have disappointed them on Tuesday when he declared at the meeting that the government was not going to abandon the Belo Monte dam project. “I cannot lie to you. I won’t tell you that we are going to stop the Belo Monte dam. There is no way to stop it;
Brazil’s needs that power. What we want to do is correct what is wrong there,” Carvalho told around 140 Indians of the Munduruku tribe that the government had flown into Brasilia.

In other parts of the country, namely in the Midwest states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, Indians have regularly invaded large farms, demanding that at least part of the lands, over which they have ancestral claims, be returned to them. The latest invasion was by 200 Terena Indians, who entered the farm of Ricardo Bacha, a former congressman, in Mato Grosso do Sul in early May and have since refused to leave.

Bacha and his family were finally arrested by the Federal Police on May 15, supposedly to ensure their safety after Bacha’s private security guards shot at the Indians. A judge ruled that the Indians had to leave Bacha’s property by May 20. On the morning of May 30, federal police charged the Indians on the farm, using rubber bullets, killing a 32-year-old Indian named Oziel Gabriel and wounding 14. The Indians were removed from the farm. Justice Minister Jose Eduardo Cardozo has promised an investigation into the death and injuries. But tensions flared up again this week when Indians invaded Bacha’s farm again and blocked roads in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, while others briefly occupied the Curitiba office of the ruling Workers Party.

The Feds Step In
The clashes led the Agriculture Parliamentary Front in the Brazilian Congress, a group of
members of Congress and senators from rural areas, to demand that the chief of staff of
President Dilma Rousseff, Gleisi Hoffmann, attend a congressional hearing on the issue of the demarcation of Indian lands. On May 8, Hoffmann appeared before the panel and announced that the federal government had decided that Funai would no longer decide on its own which Indian lands were to be demarcated; the government’s agricultural research arm, Embrapa, as well as the Ministries of Agriculture and Agrarian Affairs, would now be involved.

A further victory for farmers came when the federal government announced in early May that the demarcation of Indian lands in the state of Paraná would be halted, after famers complained that too much of their productive land was being eaten up by these claims. Later, the government announced a similar freeze in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. Hoffmann said the government was also planning to stop land demarcations in Mato Grosso do Sul and in Santa Catarina.

According to Funai’s own estimates, there are approximately 800,000 Indians in Brazil today, occupying 12 percent of the nation’s territory. Alarmists claim that if the government gives in to Indian demands, they would occupy up to 20 percent of the country.

Critics of the government’s policies toward them claim that Indians today, overwhelmingly poor and uneducated, have become too dependent on government handouts of money, through the Bolsa Familia wealth redistribution program and food through the supply of “cesta basicas,” or “basic baskets,” which contain basic foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, flour, cooking oil, beans, toilet paper and soap.

A survey of 32 tribes across Brazil commissioned by the Agriculture and Livestock Confederation, or CNA, a lobbying group for farmers, found that 63 percent of Indians have televisions, 51 percent have refrigerators and 36 percent use cell phones. But the survey also found that 29 percent said access to health care was their main concern, followed by land disputes (24), discrimination (16), access to education (12) and work issues (9). The survey also found that 64 percent of Indians benefit from the Bolsa Familia program, receiving an average of R$153 ($76) per month in assistance.

Yet, data on Indian-claimed areas that have productive farms within them is hard to come by. Both sides in the dispute claim they do not have that information. “Strictly speaking, we haven’t done such a study, because Funai has created a climate of instability in the country,” said congressman Rubens Moreira Mendes, a fierce critic of Indian claims to farmland. “Historically, Indian claims to land followed the requirements of the 1988 Constitution, but today, when we see Funai asking for productive lands that only have soy and corn growing on them, this is unacceptable. They are going over the limits.”

The conflict between Indians and farmers has spread within the federal government itself, with hardline leftists, supporters of former president Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva, on one side and more pragmatic leftists concerned with Brazil’s economy, led by current President Rousseff, on the other.

Funai is caught in the middle, said Mauricio Santoro, an advisor to Amnesty International in Brazil and a university professor of political science. “The perennial lack of employees and of financial resources at Funai is well-known to the authorities, who therefore shouldn’t be surprised at the agency’s slowness in demarcating Indian lands. The criticism of Funai’s performance, therefore, is representative of the conflict between sectors of the government that deal with infrastructure and policies toward agroindustry and those responsible for Indian affairs,” he said.

Too Much Growth?

That leftist position is represented outside of government as well, for instance by the
Indigenous Missionary Council, or CIMI, a nongovernmental group that is part of the Catholic Church and has been working to help Indians in various areas since 1972. It currently has approximately 300 employees working in the field. CIMI believes that the standoff between Indians and farmers is the result of Brazil’s path of rapid growth and record agricultural exports.

“There has been a very violent wave of attacks on indigenous people in Brazil,” Cleber César Buzatto, the executive secretary of CIMI, said. “This has been caused by the large landowners and the model of development that Brazil has chosen to follow, which involves the export of agricultural and mineral products. This influences their priorities, one of which is to export basic commodities on a large scale.”

Buzatto sees the Belo Monte dam project as emblematic of the federal government’s misplaced priorities. “The government went in and promised to pay each Indian tribe affected in the area to be flooded by the dam R$30,000 per month ($15,000). They are basically paying them off for their support,” he said. “The problem is that the government has now stopped paying some of these tribes, who had grown dependent on these payments and now have nothing to fall back on.”

The Catholic Church became so alarmed with the rising tensions that the secretary-general of the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil, Dom Leonardo Ulrich Steiner, met with Hoffmann, the top government officer, on June 5 to discuss the situation. Steiner said that the church was worried that Funai was being hollowed out and asked that Hoffmann meet with Indian leaders before going any further in changing the ways lands are demarcated. Hoffmann agreed.

CNA, the farmers’ organization, said it is worried that Funai is increasingly targeting
productive farmland, including that of small farmers, to be turned into designated Indian lands. “Once these lands are turned over to Indians, Funai only allows them to produce crops using methods that their ancestors used. This is different from what happens in other countries like the U.S. and Canada, where Indians are allowed to choose whatever method of agricultural production,” CNA said in emailed answers to questions.

CNA said that it has initiated legal action in 10 Brazilian states because of disputes over lands that Funai wants demarcated as Indian. The agriculture confederation points out that these areas are either heavily populated or heavily cultivated, which has led to clashes.

CNA also claims that Funai is deliberately arbitrary in the way it demarcates lands, pointing to the conclusion of a 1999 congressional investigation of Funai that found too much power was concentrated in the federal agency. Many of the farmers’ allies in Congress want Funai to be investigated again by a congressional commission for alleged fraud in the official reports used to support the demarcation of specific lands as belonging to certain Indian tribes.

“Funai is not working for the protection of the Indians but is instead causing a destabilization of our agricultural production. Today, Brazil is the second largest producer of food in the world, but there are still some people who want to end this because they hate the idea of private property,” Congressman Moreira Mendes said.

The head of Funai, Marta Azevedo, has been strangely silent throughout most of this, perhaps because some believe her days at the head of agency are numbered. The Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported she was on her way out a few weeks ago, but until now she has remained at her post. What is certain is that the amount of potential Indian lands and the method of demarcating them are already changing. It remains to be seen if Brazil can do so while respecting the rights of both its indigenous populations and its farmers.

Update: Marta Azevedo resigned on June 7, 2013, after my story was written, citing health reasons.

Link to original story: http://goo.gl/6QWwR

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