Saudi Labor Strikes: Rebirth of a Suppressed Tradition
Published Monday, January 16, 2012
The Royal statements of reform and the general amnesty of some prisoners that took place last year in the Saudi Kingdom received a lot of media attention. But one might argue that the strikes which took place at several private and government institutions were by far the most important social actions in Saudi Arabia last year.
Previous years have seen various instances of labor action. The most notable among them concerning government employees at the education ministry. But last year was marked by the spread of labor demands and strikes at companies in the private sector. For these companies, people who are striking are not only dissatisfied citizens, they represent a financial loss for every hour that they strike.
One of the most significant outcomes following these events was that the word "strike," when pertaining to labor movements and unions, was again being used in Saudi Arabia. It had disappeared in 1956 after the newly formed labor class was forcefully “disciplined,” creating an irregularity in the Saudi labor market.
On the one hand, the number of employees in both the public and private sector was growing rapidly. On the other hand, there was no leadership and/or guiding committees, in particular unions, that represented the interests of employees in the labor market.
Due to a crackdown on ideologies that nourished labor movements in the sixties, it seemed that the demands of laborers, unions and those striking had been subdued at that time. That was to be expected with the improvement of work conditions at Aramco – Saudi’s state owned oil company – and the transformation of the government into the largest employer in the country through its huge ministries. When wages are rewarding, inflation is under control and everybody is happy, who would consider striking?
However, it was to be expected that labor problems would return with the government's expansion of privatization over the past decade, the reduction of wages (even in the public sector), and the increase of inflation and unemployment. Thus, the old feeling of injustice has resurfaced among the workforce which now is feeling the weight of the official ban on labor organizations. This essentially renders them a group of divided individuals with no collective strength to defend their violated rights.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that the major strikes occurred at one of the largest companies to be privatized, Etihad Etisalat, a mobile service provider, and in the two major public sectors: health and education.
Actions such as the teachers' protest against low wages and the system of appointment and relocation set the tone for the strikes and demonstrations that took place in 2011.
These actions spread to several institutions such as utility companies, the Quran print house, Mecca’s Holy Mosque (cleaners strike), Etihad Etisalat, and King Faisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. The nature and fate of laborers' actions in Saudi Arabia in the private and governmental sectors can be better understood by examining the last two strikes.
The strike by the communication center employees at Etihad Etisalat began spontaneously on 12 March 2011 upon receiving a notice indicating that the annual bonus will be limited to the top fourth of employees. The communication center's employees in one of the Saudi cities walked out of their jobs and protested in front of the center. News about the protest circulated on social networks.
By that evening, the strike had reached the communication centers in Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Qassim and Abha and continued the next day. The employees took pictures and videos that showed the security forces intervening in order to keep the situation under control. At the same time, the company director reportedly met with a number of employees, demanded an end to the strike, and promised to pay the bonus. The next day, the situation at the company went back to normal.
That specific action's strength was in its spontaneity, which made the company and the interior ministry miss the chance to bury it before it was born. Also, its collective nature forced the company to deal with it as a real problem, especially since it took place at a private company which sees strikes as directly affecting the bottom line.
The health care providers' strike in the lobby of King Faisal Specialist Hospital took place after they were notified of the ministry of health's decision to freeze increases on salaries.
Following the hospital administration's announcement, an invitation to strike in the lobby for two hours circulated on twitter. On October 19 of last year, the employees stopped work for two hours. Most of the strikers were not doctors. It was suggested that they submit a petition to the crown prince through the dean of medicine, which is what happened. Thus, the unconventional action ended up taking the traditional Saudi road: turning to political leaders, connections and petitions.
This solution was considered a failure in the sense that it did not create a new method for employees to demand their rights. This can be primarily attributed to the fact that the employer was the government, which meant that the financial loss factor would not be a pressure tool in the hand of the employees.
Also, it was possible that the action would escalate into what would be considered a political protest against governmental institutions and policies. This would would be a development that would lead to a speedy intervention by security forces (the hospital employees took photos of security vehicles at the gate).
The second reason for the action’s perceived failure is its lack of collective representation and its restriction to low-level workers. Senior doctors and employees were not motivated to protest, given that they were satisfied with their salaries, even with the freeze.
There are two main reasons why labor actions are considered big news in Saudi Arabia. The first is related to reorganizing the work atmosphere and rewriting the rules of the game. The complete absence of labor unions in Saudi Arabia is what renders this massive block of Saudi and non-Saudi workers completely powerless. They are unable to get their voices heard, negotiate, force employers to commit to a minimum wage, establish reasonable working hours or provide health care.
This atmosphere in which work follows the "demand and supply" formula, without committing the employer to minimum rights, produces unimaginable consequences.
For instance, Asian workers at the largest Saudi contracting company (Bin Laden Group) protested in February 2011 to demand a salary increase to 500 Riyals (US$133)! The scene of workers gathering under the scorching sun in Riyadh to demand 500 Riyals is the best depiction of a flaw that turns a worker into just an expense on a balance sheet.
The official historical impression that sees unions and labor movements as little more than “communist organizations" may be understood. However, things have changed a lot since 1956, including the vital and indispensable role of unions even in the most liberal capitalist economic systems.
It is the labor unions, not labor laws and regulations or the government, that can prevent employers from paying a measly monthly wage of 500 Riyals, or depriving workers of their earned annual bonuses at a company that makes unbelievable profits.
But Saudi capitalism has its own considerations. Terry Lynn Karl, a political science professor at Stanford University, describes it as a "capitalism of cronies" in which the government is not neutral with regard to supply and demand in the job market. Rather, it takes the side of the cronies and capital owners by interfering in various ways – legally and by force – in order to prevent workers from forming an influential block.
Raising workers' awareness about all of these issues, in addition to securing conditions necessary for safe and influential activism, are necessary to impose a higher degree of social justice.
Also, from a wider perspective, these actions may be considered an answer to reform in Saudi Arabia. This way, a political question may have a non-political answer. The most practical way to bypass the resistance to reform is to address vital social aspects that are off the reform radar which focuses on democracy and human rights.
Some reformers focus too much on calling for protests, without offering practical responses to social readiness and the expected outcome. Others participate only theoretically without taking part themselves, such as when families of detainees did not join protests that were in support of their family members. There is a common belief in the futility of direct confrontation with political and security forces. This belief places reform in a state of slow suicide.
Thus, the importance of focusing on social aspects, such as the rights of workers and labor movements, or forming student bodies at universities, lies in its ability to present a practical solution to resolve a situation. Laborers and university students, the major instigators of change globally, constitute Saudi Arabia’s sleeping giants.
The reformist support for creating pure labor actions and non-political student actions will directly aid the creation of an active civil society. An active civil society may be able to resolve problems or call for action instead of always waiting for reform to come from the top.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition and was published jointly with the Saudi website www.almqaal.com.