Working in Saudi Arabia provides a lifeline to many migrant workers from several countries. Both manual laborers and skilled workers are given opportunities to help develop the country as they are offered employment.
Saudi Arabia is the biggest foreign employer of Filipino workers. From the first wave of engineers who arrived in the Kingdom in the early 1970s, about 1.5 million Filipinos are currently employed in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Arabian embassy in the Philippines processes between 800 and 1,000 jobs for Filipinos daily.
Filipinos are employed as medical professionals, automotive technicians, construction workers, engineers, petroleum operations, and domestic workers. Yet despite Saudi Arabia’s popularity as an OFW destination, plenty of challenges await every Filipino arriving in the oil-rich state.
Saudi Arabia’s weather is a “harsh, dry desert with great temperature extremes.” Summer temperatures in the 40s are the norm but occasionally shoot in the 50s. Even for Filipinos who are used to tropical climates, this harsh environment poses health risks more than just annoyance. The lack of humidity also makes winter months considerably cold.
- During the summer months, temperatures in Saudi Arabia can reach well over 100°F, which can make outdoor work extremely difficult and even hazardous.
- Many outdoor work sites may not have adequate shade or air conditioning, which can exacerbate the effects of the heat and make working conditions even more challenging.
- The combination of heat and physical exertion can lead to dehydration, which can cause fatigue, headaches, and other health problems for workers.
- Sandstorms can frequently occur in some parts of Saudi Arabia, reducing visibility and making outdoor work difficult or even impossible.
- In some cities, air pollution can be a problem, which can impact the health of workers and exacerbate respiratory issues.
Adaptability for families
Foreign workers who live with their families in Saudi Arabia can face several challenges.
- Finding suitable and affordable housing can challenge foreign workers, especially those with families.
- Access to quality education for children can be limited, and foreign workers may struggle to find schools that meet their needs and align with their cultural values.
- Access to quality healthcare can be limited for foreign workers and their families, impacting their overall quality of life.
- Foreign workers and their families may struggle to adjust to the cultural norms and values in Saudi Arabia, which can impact their daily lives and relationships.
- The restrictions on public spaces and activities in Saudi Arabia can limit opportunities for social interaction and entertainment for foreign workers and their families.
These challenges can impact foreign workers’ and their families’ overall well-being and satisfaction. Employers should take steps to support their employees in overcoming these challenges, such as providing housing assistance, education resources, and access to quality healthcare.
Workplace abuse: delayed wages
The tale goes about a 26-year-old Egyptian worker who became desperate after six months of hard work with no pay and was denied by the employer to go home. He climbed up to the top floor of his apartment and threatened to end his life.
While police officers convinced him to reconsider his deadly plan, he was soon arrested and detained, just like thousands of those who take the same route out of desperation. Filipino workers, notably stay-in household workers, suffer the same fate, desperately contacting social media to get their labor rights respected.
Cultural differences: language
Language hurdles can be particularly difficult for international workers in Saudi Arabia who do not speak Arabic, the country’s official language. This can cause communication issues at work and hinder their capacity to interact with locals outside of work. For example, a non-Arabic speaker in customer service may fail to communicate successfully with native clients, resulting in misunderstandings or irritation.
- Communication difficulties: Workers who do not speak Arabic may struggle to communicate effectively with their colleagues and superiors, leading to misunderstandings and difficulties in the workplace.
- Isolation: The language barrier can limit workers’ ability to make social connections and form relationships in the community, leading to feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- Inadequate information: Workers who do not speak Arabic may have difficulty accessing important information, such as news and current events, which can impact their overall well-being and satisfaction.
- Navigating daily life: Workers who do not speak Arabic may struggle with everyday tasks, such as shopping and navigating the city, which can impact their quality of life.
Living conditions can be a challenge for foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, particularly those from different cultural backgrounds and may have different expectations. Accommodation options may vary in quality and accessibility, and the climate can be extremely hot and arid. For example, a foreign worker used to living in a more temperate climate may struggle to adjust to the extreme heat of Saudi Arabia, which can reach up to 50 degrees Celsius in some areas.
- Finding affordable and suitable housing can be a challenge, especially for workers who live with their families. The housing may be cramped, lacking in basic amenities, or located in areas far from work or social activities.
- The cost of living in Saudi Arabia can be high, especially for items such as food and transportation, which can be a challenge for workers on a limited income.
- Access to basic amenities, such as clean water and electricity, can be limited, especially for workers who live in remote areas.
- The extreme weather conditions in Saudi Arabia, including high temperatures and sandstorms, can impact the health and well-being of workers.
- Workers may be exposed to health and safety risks, such as exposure to hazardous chemicals or lack of proper safety equipment in the workplace.
Limited social opportunities
Restricted social options can be difficult for foreign employees in Saudi Arabia, especially if they are not part of an established expat group. This could be due to various issues such as language problems, cultural differences, and a lack of leisure opportunities. A non-Arabic speaker, for example, may struggle to develop local acquaintances outside of work, resulting to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
- Foreign workers may find it difficult to adjust to the cultural norms and values in Saudi Arabia, which can limit their social interactions and opportunities.
- Workers who do not speak Arabic may face challenges communicating with their colleagues and building relationships in the community.
- Some public spaces, such as bars and nightclubs, are restricted or prohibited in Saudi Arabia, limiting opportunities for social interaction and entertainment.
- Strict laws regulating freedom of expression and association in Saudi Arabia can limit workers’ ability to express their opinions and beliefs openly, impacting their ability to build relationships and form communities.
- In Saudi Arabia, men and women are often segregated in public spaces, limiting opportunities for social interaction and building relationships with the opposite sex.
Work visa and residency permits
Getting work visas and residency permits in Saudi Arabia can be a considerable challenge for overseas workers. The process can be time-consuming and complicated, and it may necessitate sponsorship from a local firm or institution. Before being granted a visa, a non-Saudi worker seeking employment in Saudi Arabia may be required to show significant documentation, such as educational and professional qualifications, and undergo medical exams.
Workplace abuse: physical and emotional
Discrimination in the workplace can be a problem for foreign workers in Saudi Arabia, particularly those of certain nationalities or ethnicities. This might present itself in various ways, such as unequal pay, limited prospects for growth, or prejudiced treatment from coworkers or superiors. For example, a foreign worker from a non-Western country may encounter workplace discrimination due to negative prejudices or assumptions held by some locals about their country or culture.
Cultural differences: religion and customs
Due to variations in customs, social conventions, and religious practices, foreign workers in Saudi Arabia may confront cultural barriers. Women from Western countries, for example, may struggle to conform to the severe dress code regulations and gender segregation restrictions that apply in public settings. Also, non-Muslim workers may face difficulties in fulfilling the religious obligation of praying five times a day, which might disrupt work schedules.
Distance between workers and the Philippine consulate/embassy
Saudi Arabia is more than seven times as large as the Philippines regarding the land area. But with land-based Filipinos spread across strategic work sites, many of them find it challenging to reach Philippine posts in Riyadh or Jeddah to follow up on passport renewals or file complaints. Occasionally, outreach programs are held, but with the number of Filipinos needing consular assistance, such becomes a daunting task with limited resources allocated.
Low wages for unskilled workers
Strict Sharia laws
Unlike more tolerant governments in neighboring states, Saudi Arabia imposes strict laws. While some serve as deterrents (punishment for rape ranges from a jail term and heavy fines to beheading), others are equivalent to restriction of religious freedom. For example, possessing Bibles and religious symbols is prohibited, and the gathering of non-Muslim religious groups is subject to harsh punishments. Even certain baby names are disallowed.
Just like anywhere else, OFWs in Saudi Arabia feel homesick not only because of their distance from their families but also plenty of things that are not accessible such as eating pork delicacies and consumption of liquor on most premises.
Workplace abuse: physical and emotional
In many cases, Filipinos have become victims of various forms of abuse in Saudi Arabia. A 13-year-old Filipina victim of human trafficking suffered horrific burns after her employer scaled her. There’s a pitiful sight when employers enjoy meals in a restaurant but the helper is left to wait hungrily while looking after the couple’s baby.
Tight airport restrictions
Seemingly random inspections make Filipinos and other travelers to Saudi Arabia feel nervous. Bringing pornographic photos or videos through electronic devices can lead to the confiscation of gadgets or possibly heavier fines. The use of bootleg software is also subject to penalties. While this regulation is normally implemented across airports globally, the extra security checks can easily make a weary traveler worry more.