Yahya al Alfaifi worked as a communication engineering technician (command post technician) at the British Aerospace plant at Dharan in Saudi Arabia for four years. He was sacked in 2002 for organising a meeting of BAe workers, considered a “a trade union action” in Saudi Arabia. Yahya will be speaking at the No Sweat conference in London on 26 November. He spoke to Cathy Nugent.
BAe Systems does military aviation work for the Saudi Ministry of Defence. There are different gradations or demarcations among workers there. The British and American workers were considered “first class”. There were also Australians and other Europeans. The Saudis and the other workers they often called Third Country Nationals (TCNs) — Sudanese, Jordanians, Palestinians — were at the bottom of the ladder.
The British and American workers had accommodation off the plant. They had the best education and health care too. Their jobs were different. These were the so-called “experts”. No Saudi, even a technically trained person, was allowed to be employed in these positions.
This is a deliberate policy on the part of the Saudi government, and it is one in which the UK and US and BAe & Systems collaborate. They do not want Saudis “in charge”. They want to be able to keep us down, get rid of us when they want. If we are kept as “unqualified” workers then we will never be in a strong enough position to ask for our rights. In all the foreign-owned companies the situation is the same. Saudi workers are a “marginalised” underclass of workers.
There is divide and rule between the (non-US/UK) migrant workers and Saudis too. Migrant workers are constantly being told that they should accept their lot because Saudi workers can replace them. Saudi workers are told the same. At the same time, out of 7-8 million Saudi workers, 50% are unemployed. This when there are 7-800,000 migrant workers. The government is at economic war with its own people.
It is often said that Saudi workers are given preferential treatment. This is not true. At BAe some 200 Saudis were on the pay roll who did not come to work. They were footballers, friends of people in government, retired high ranking officers and their doted-on sons.
One high ranking officer used to try to impress me and his co-officers by saying he would never attend any meeting on the basis that I am a civilian and military secrets should not be exposed to me. But he knew that I have been exposed to whatever military secrets were there to see for the 25 years I have been doing this kind of work. He never objected to the prissiness of the Americans and British. All he wanted was to destroy my career and prevent me from gaining necessary experience.
The vast majority worked hard for bad pay, without regard or respect. I worked from 7.30 to 5pm. I used to come home exhausted.
In 2002 the bosses at BAe Systems (in collaboration with the Saudi government) introduced a new contract. They wanted us to sign it without question. I know about Saudi labour law and I could see that it violated 14 articles. They thing about Saudi labour law — it has its origins in Nasserite Egyptian labour law — is that contains certain rights. All of the articles are meant to protect workers against unfair dismissal, to ensure that workers have their human rights in full, and great job security. But this means nothing in practice.
I talked to many co-workers about the new contract. We decided to gather together to discuss it. Some 500 people came to the meeting [for which I got no permission]. It wasn’t even about trade unionism but about fighting for our rights under the law. I was on vacation at the time of the meeting and before I could return to work I and two others were fired.
We took the case to the Labour Court. It took 18 months to be processed — a common tactic of delay usually practiced by the Saudi employment courts – and we lost the case. The other two accepted the verdict, but I could not.
I remembered what happened to my father who had also tried to fight for his rights as a worker. He was blacklisted and could never stay longer than a month in any job. Seeing this contract and what they were trying to do made me remember our miserable life when I was young. I told the judge that it was complete violation of the law and he said it was true. But an order had come from the Ministry of Defence and there was nothing he could do.
I then took my complaint everywhere and anywhere. To the Crown Prince (now the king), the Minister of Defence, the Minister of Labour and Social Affairs and the eastern province governor. Also to other courts, Islamic or civil. But there was no answer whatsoever. The door is closed to people of my social status. The door is only open to people of shameless obedience. To say “this is my right” or to complain of corruption or a biased justice system is the ultimate crime in Saudi Arabia, because you are effectively complaining about the corruption of the regime. I also wrote to Human Rights Watch and the ILO.
By this time I was being watched by the police. My wife found this out when she looked out over the balcony of our fifth floor flat in the day. She saw a man always cleaning a rented car — every day for well over a month. When I left the flat he got on a mobile phone. Eventually a friend advised me to leave the country. On 14 August 2004 I left. I had to leave my 17 year old son behind.
THERE has been a new labour law mooted for Saudi Arabia — it is the result of pressure from the WTO. But no ILO conventions are going to be introduced in the country. The rulers can’t afford to do it — it will open the floodgates. So in the grey area, between the promise of new rights and existing law, the government is manipulating the whole labour system. There are workers’ committees for instance. But these are made up of government agents or people who are subservient to the bosses’ agenda.
In this situation workers rarely fight for their rights. There is an additional problem in our country. There is a saying in Arabic which we use, “the hand that you cannot break, you should kiss.” This belief makes life more painful.
The western governments are guilty of a crime of silence in relation to what is happening in Saudi Arabia. They say — the Saudi government and BAe Systems also say this — that they are trying to introduce trade unionism “gradually”, first in the form of workers’ committees. That is not true. We are sick to our stomachs of such words and their pretend reforms. The Advisory Committee in Saudi Arabia is nothing more than a rubber stamp. The “committee of supreme Muslim scholars” (Council of Islamic Scholars) only provides the necessary theological justifications for government crimes against my helpless people. The National Dialogue Centre the same. None of these institutions have power, they are just a rubber stamp of what the government want.
The Saudi Arabian people are only so many barrels of oil to the west. The people are not seen as human beings.
BAe, which has been in Saudi Arabia for 45 years, is contributing to the strangling of my already suffocated people.
THE recent £40 billion arms deal with the UK government? That is in return for the deportation of two top Saudi dissidents and, maybe some others like myself. Our military invoice(s) for the last 35 years show we have as much military power as NATO. The country doesn’t need more arms, or military, things that only go rusty in the humid weather of the country. It is all about protecting tyranny and dictatorship. And not even oil. What can the people do with oil? If we had oil we are not going to drink it!
The UK government and BAe Systems want the business but they do not want the bad publicity of backing a ruthless regime against its own people. The people of Saudi Arabia, especially those who are living or used to live in the shanty slums and the throw away societies, people like myself, we need many things like decent housing, equal and fair education, good health and social care. These things we don’t have. We need no arms.
It is slow going building a campaign here in the UK. In some ways it is easier to talk about the situation with migrant workers. They can talk about their situation when they are in their own country. Saudi Arabian workers have no place to go.
Two million people in the UK marched against the war on Iraq. That shows that people here are not ignorant of what is going on elsewhere in the world. But they are helpless.
The big problem in Saudi Arabia is not “terrorism”. It is the monarchy and its state terrorism. But I feel the people in Saudi Arabia are ready to do what it takes, including god forbid, bombing their way to the discussion table with the regime. There is a lot of discontent
People are however only fighting for their own interests. The unemployed university graduates want jobs. Workers and women want rights. The Islamists, the liberal democrats, the Shi’a are all fighting their own oppressions. All have been oppressed. The pattern is still dictated by government divide and rule. And they have after all marginalised 50% of the people — women — who want their rights within Islam.
But we cannot carry on accepting humiliation, being shot in the streets. It is not just al-Qaeda they are gunning down, I believe they are gunning down their peaceful political opponents as well. But that is not going to stop us fighting from for our rights. Everyone wants minimum human rights.