Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Labor dispute gets snarled up in bureaucratic maze

Labor dispute gets snarled up in bureaucratic maze
Hassna’a Mokhtar & Samir Al-Saadi | Arab News

JEDDAH: The case of over a hundred employees of a former primary defense contractor, which failed to pay them their end-of-service benefits and other dues, has become lost in the Labor Ministry’s bureaucratic maze.

Three years after DIFA Operation and Maintenance Company became bankrupt, employees’ claims of over SR4 million remain unpaid. “It’s disappointing. Our financial entitlements are indisputably acknowledged by the labor court yet no action has been taken,” said Michael, a former employee, who along with dozens of others had taken the company to court.

End-of-service benefits and other dues allegedly owed to 156 former DIFA employees who signed a petition presented to Jeddah Court amount to SR3,662,927. The claims of other employees, who either did not wish to sign the petition or were not in Jeddah when the petition was presented, brings the total money owed to employees to SR4,784,625.

The whereabouts of the company’s owners is not known. The company was hired in 2002.

Among those who signed the petition are employees of American, South African, Pakistani, Filipino and Saudi nationalities.

According to the employees, the labor court did not even ask them to justify their claims to see if they were legitimate or not. “They just took the translated papers and said, ‘OK, thank you’,” said Michael.

“We would like the labor office to tell us the status of the case,” said Mohammed, a Saudi employee. “We have been following up on the case regularly. Other than promises nothing has materialized,” he added.

At one point, Labor Ministry representatives informed the employees that the money they are owed had been transferred to the Higher Labor Court. The representatives were never to be heard from again six months later.

According to the employees, at the end of the contract, DIFA legal representatives told them, “Go to court. Do what you want to do. They (the labor courts) don’t have the power to do anything.”

Employees say they reported the remarks to the labor court, and officials expressed their outrage. “At the time, court officials vowed to help us. They said they have the legal clout to help us get our entitlements,” said Michael.

In a letter to the employees dated April 22, 2008, which Arab News has seen, Saad Al-Qahtani, DIFA’s legal representative, wrote: “Individual checks will be issued in the name of the beneficiary. DIFA will ensure that all checks are sent to the employees’ home address or bank account in his home country.” The money has still not been delivered.

Arab News tried contacting Al-Qahtani, but his number is out of service. Two other DIFA legal representatives, Ahmed Sulaiman and Abdul Azim, were unreachable. Their numbers were also disconnected.

Arab News contacted Undersecretary of Labor Abdul Wahid Al-Humaid. “We know about the case. The ministry is taking care of it ... labor disputes are usually between two parties and each of them has a point of view ... The ministry does not comment or talk about cases so as to not disturb procedures,” he said.

“We don’t like to give the impression that we’re taking sides on this matter,” he said, adding that the judicial system, in relation to labor cases or general cases, takes time. “There are many parties involved and there are many details to be looked at.”

Following his request, Arab News faxed all documents relating to the case to his office on May 4 for his feedback. Three weeks later Al-Humaid’s secretary called requesting Arabic translations of the faxed documents. Until this date no response was received.

Meanwhile, the protracted case has taken its toll on the employees. “We are not asking them to give us something we didn’t work for. We are just asking for our rights,” said Abdullah, another former company employee. “Some people got frustrated and gave up,” he said.

According to the employees, the company had an approximate work force of 1,000 employees. “A large number of employees gave up on seeking their financial entitlements. Others were afraid to go on record but wanted us to submit their claims for them,” said Abdullah.

“The operation ran smoothly in the initial stages. However, midway through the three-year contract, it became apparent that DIFA had mismanaged its finances as evidenced by bills to various providers going unpaid. As time went by, the negative impact on employees became intolerable,” said Michael.

Employees then complained that air tickets for annual vacations were given late or not provided. Cash promised by the company in lieu of tickets was paid late or unpaid. Company vehicles were serviced at the expense of employees, who were not reimbursed. Rent for employees’ housing went unpaid resulting in electricity, water and phone services being terminated for weeks at a time on multiple occasions. Salaries were delayed on occasions for up to two to three months late.

Later on, during the second contract, employees complained that the company was neglecting in paying bills. Salaries went unpaid for multiple consecutive months.

Michael said that unpaid rent owed to the employees’ housing compound amounted to SR8 million. “The compound, as a last desperate act, evicted all tenants and went out of business permanently,” said Michael.

In addition, employees allege that required premiums for the mandatory workman’s insurance have not been paid to the General Organization for Social Insurance (GOSI). Health insurance premiums were also not paid to for insurance providers, resulting in employees paying for their medical care with a promise of reimbursement. Life insurance coverage for employees’ families, as per contract, was not paid to a number of employees’ families who passed away.

Iqamas (residency) and work permits of employees lapsed and were not renewed resulting in “the entire expatriate work force being present in the Kingdom illegally,” said Abdullah.

Shortly before the end of the first year of the second contract, the company was relieved of responsibility for the continued administration of the contract.

From Sept. 1, 2006, to April 3, 2008, ARNIC, a partner company, administrated all functions of the contract, including financial obligations. ARNIC, according to the employees, fulfilled all obligations during that period.

Though the petitioners are of mix nationalities it was Mohammed, a Saudi, who summed up the frustration of the employees. “I’m a son of this country. It saddens me to see expatriates/former employees go back home without being paid their rights due to carelessness. It is not right,” said Mohammed.

(The names of employees have been changed at their request).

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