The semi-skilled conundrum


There was a time when one-third of our total population was comprised of expatriate workers, the bulk of whom fell into the semi-skilled category. They filled a niche that was not attractive to many Saudis seeking employment. And while the numbers have reduced in recent years, they are still in the millions. Just who are they?

You see them often when driving. Silently they toil on the sides of streets and roads often in the heat of the day picking up litter that motorists so generously provide by flinging it out of their racing vehicles.

Or you can see them perched precariously on high rises under construction, taking risks we would not dare to contemplate. There are moments when you encounter an army of them busily preparing a road for resurfacing. Or you run into them in restaurants as they cheerfully guide you to your table and serve you your food without much fuss or bother.

They pump gasoline into our cars; they deliver water to our homes or cart away our sewage in tankers; they tend to livestock and orchards on our farms and fields and they bag our groceries. They guard our homes or clean the toilets in our malls. These are the unskilled workers from the East.

Unlike their Western or skilled Asian counterparts who enjoy comfortable amenities and accommodations with even more comfortable salaries, these Asian unskilled expatriates are not granted such luxuries. Instead, at the end of their long working days, they are collectively bused, more often than not in run-down buses and other forms of transport that lack air-conditioning or comfortable seating.

And when they do retire to their housing, it is usually a collective sharing of space that is substandard and unworthy. And yet they do not complain. They have mouths to feed back home, and they are on a mission to accomplish just that. Their personal comfort is not their priority.

We tend to look at them as background fixtures, because we are so used to their presence everywhere. However, those fixtures house human beings with warm blood running through their veins and resilience to the many forms of abuse that they are subjected to and which they accept stoically.

Some are married with young and hungry children. Others have the responsibility of providing for their aging parents or younger siblings. All have come to this part of the world to try to put food on the table for their loved ones back home and provide their families with the comfort and hope that they have denied themselves.

They are the Bangladeshis, the Nepalese and the Filipinos who are an integral part of the machinery that helps run this country. They are Indians, Afghanis, Sri Lankans, Pakistanis, Burmese, Vietnamese and Indonesians who have accepted the challenge to perform in unfamiliar surroundings and most deliver on their promise. But yet we usually mistake them for background fixtures.

Most are victims of unscrupulous manpower agents or employers, who gave them worthless contracts to sign in their home countries with promises of much higher salaries than they actually get when they come to this part of the world. The packages offered to lure them away from the comfort of their loved ones are invariably altered to their disadvantage once they arrive at their destinations, leaving them with few alternatives.

They have already sold most of their possessions to pay the avaricious agents for the privilege of a seat on a plane to the land of riches. And there certainly is not much gold waiting for them once they arrive. Instead, it is hard work and lots of it, and under very difficult conditions.

For without them, much of the Arabian Peninsula would have remained a desert. On second look, they are not fixtures or shadows in the background. They are worthwhile human beings with wants and needs just like the rest of us.

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