NEW DELHI – India’s government said Monday it plans to evacuate thousands of Indian workers who have lost their jobs in Saudi Arabia and cannot afford to pay for a flight home.
The workers were mostly employed by Saudi construction companies and were laid off amid a slowdown in the industry caused by low global oil prices.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj said the government is trying to arrange exit documents for those workers who wish to return to India.
About 10,000 Indian workers in Saudi Arabia have lost their jobs.
Swaraj told lawmakers in Parliament that India’s junior foreign minister, V.K. Singh, will travel to Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to meet with officials to arrange for the workers’ return.
Some have not been paid for months. She said India’s embassy has set up five camps to feed the workers and all 10,000 had received food supplies by early Monday. More than 15,000 kilograms (34,000 pounds) of food has been delivered by the Indian Consulate in Jiddah, she said.
Swaraj said Singh is expected to raise the question of exit permits for the workers when he reaches Saudi Arabia and will oversee the airlift of the workers. He would also visit the camps where the workers were living and speak to the workers about their needs.
“Saudi law does not permit an emergency exit visa without a no-objection certificate from the employer,” she said.
Many of the employers have shut their factories and some have left the country, leaving the workers stranded, she said.
On Sunday, Swaraj tweeted that workers in Kuwait have also lost their jobs and are suffering food shortages, but that the situation there is more manageable.
Another junior foreign minister, M.J. Akbar, was co-ordinating efforts with Saudi authorities to ensure that unpaid wages of the workers were processed and settled.
Hundreds of thousands of Indians travel to the Middle East each year for better-paying jobs as labourers, electricians and drivers. They endure difficult living and working conditions to send money to their families.
Indian officials said nearly 3,200 Indian workers in Riyadh had not been paid their salaries for several months.
Over the weekend, hundreds of expatriate workers of the construction firm Saudi Oger staged rare protests in Jiddah to demand unpaid wages. The Saudi-owned Arab News reported that the company’s services were suspended for violating the kingdom’s Wage Protection Law, and that the firm was fined for its violations.
Earlier this year, foreign workers at construction giant Saudi Binladin Group also protested and set fire to company buses in retaliation for not being paid their salaries in months. State media reported the company had terminated employment tens of thousands of the firm’s workers and issued them exit visas too.
Saudi construction firms have been among the hardest-hit due to lower oil prices that have curbed and sometimes delayed government spending on major infrastructure projects.
AP writer Aya Batrawy contributed to this report from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.