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Saudi Arabia: Starving workers go on strike after no wages for ten months

Workers from the Huta Marine group staged a sit-in after they were forced to subsist on 'chilli and water' without salaries for nearly a year
Workers said Huta had shut off electricity and water to their work camp in Jeddah (Screengrab)

Workers from Saudi Arabia's largest marine construction company have gone on strike after not receiving their salaries for the last ten months, forcing some to go hungry and beg for food. 

The Huta Marine group employs at least 6,000 people who work in Saudi Arabia from around the world, according to the company's website. 

Footage posted online showed dozens of mostly foreign workers from South Asia and East Africa protesting outside Huta's head office in the coastal city of Jeddah. 

'People are crying loudly for their salaries and asking why they have been put in this position'

- Huta Marine worker

The workers could be seen wearing masks and waiting for company executives to explain why they had not been paid for nearly a year. Employees also complained that the private company had shut off electricity and water to the work camp where they have lived for the last four days. 

The Huta Group did not respond to Middle East Eye requests for comment. 

A Pakistani worker who has worked for Huta Marine for 15 years told MEE that this was the first time the company had not paid him. 

He said that local Pakistani businessmen were giving food to Huta workers who have lost their jobs. 

The worker said the company had not given any reason for the delay in salaries, with some workers "losing their mind" over the issue. 

"When we stopped getting payments, the local shopkeepers would be understanding and let us buy food with credit, but now they have stopped that for all the workers," the worker said. 

"Now you have people who are starving and unable to get any food. Some are now surviving on water and eating red chillis to satiate their hunger. It's the only thing they can afford with one Saudi riyal ($0.26)."

Commenting on his own situation, he said: "My wife keeps asking me about the salary, and I have to explain that we are not getting anything." 

"People are crying loudly for their salaries and asking why they have been put in this position," the Pakistani citizen added

No source of income

A Yemeni worker, who spoke to NGO Impact International, believed the company was using the coronavirus pandemic as a cover for not paying the salaries. 

"The company's administration is using the [pandemic-induced] economic crisis as an excuse to not pay our salaries, without regard for our suffering," the worker from Yemen said. "Our families have no other source of income."

'The company's administration is using the economic crisis as an excuse to not pay our salaries, without regard for our suffering'

- Huta employee 

Impact International, an NGO based in London, called on the Saudi Ministry of Human Resources and Social Development "to end the crisis faced by employees of Huta".

It urged Riyadh to implement an International Labour Organisation agreement it ratified last September, which "mandates the payment of wages and expansion of unemployment benefits for workers who suffer loss of earnings due to even a partial cut in hours".

Saudi Arabia is home to the largest number of foreign workers in the Gulf Cooperation Council, with at least ten million expatriate employees. 

The Gulf kingdom's economy has suffered because of the coronavirus, with major construction companies letting go of foreign workers. 

Baring brunt of Covid-19

Foreign workers, however, have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Early on in the spread of the virus, the vast majority of the country's Covid-19 infections occurred in areas where migrant workers lived in Jeddah and Mecca. 

Rights groups have also accused Saudi Arabia of holding hundreds of workers in cramped conditions over the last few months. 

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that hundreds of mainly Ethiopian foreign workers had been held in a Riyadh deportation centre, where they were tortured and faced abuse from guards. 

Many migrants who spoke to HRW said that their biggest concern was contracting Covid-19 as they had seen other detainees showing coronavirus symptoms.