Despite trade union activity being strictly banned in Saudi Arabia staff at a prestigious private hospital entered the fourth day of an open-ended strike on Wednesday in protest over wages not being paid for almost four months. The hospital strike is even more notable as both Saudi and foreign employees have worked together to protest the unpaid salaries. Hospital employees’ children staged a sit-in at the hospital on Wednesday, blocking the entrance while holding signs that said they were not able to eat or go to school because their parents were not being paid.
“Surgeons, management, doctors, nurses, admin - Westerners, Asians, and Saudis are all taking action together. It’s actually remarkable if you consider taking photos without someone’s permission in Saudi carries a prison sentence and public shows of dissatisfaction carry a public beating and jail,” a British doctor said.
A Jordanian nurse said there is no one single leader of the strike, and that they have worked collaboratively by using messaging applications and social media websites. “We have organised by using groups of WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook,” she said. “All of us talked together and decided to go on strike.”
The hospital is part of the Saad Group which is owned by Saudi billionaire Maan al-Sanea. Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a financial crisis that has seen high-profile companies unable to pay tens of thousands of workers for periods of up to two years.
This hospital is one of the most expensive in the world - they take in more than one million riyals ($266,600) a day.
The Jordanian nurse asks, “Where has all this money gone?”
We think the owner is taking 600,000 riyals ($160,000) a day in cash out of the hospital,” the American doctor said. The doctor added that private health insurance company BUPA last month paid the hospital 13 million riyals ($3.7 million), but none of that money was paid out in staff salaries. “The cash just kind of disappears.”
It is the maintenance workers - mostly from south Asian countries - who have suffered the most.
“The Bangladeshi, Indian, and Pakistani workers live like prisoners,” said the British doctor. “They get by on food parcels from their embassies who also give them healthcare visits. There has been violence against the workers but authorities have consistently taken the side of the owners.”
The Jordanian nurse said foreign staff are in an impossible position because they cannot leave the hospital and return home. “If we resign we will get nothing,” she said. “They will force us to stay with no money and if we want to leave we would have to sign exit papers saying we have received all our money when we have received nothing.” When a foreign worker in Saudi Arabia leaves the kingdom they must sign documents declaring they have received all money due to them, which means many poor individuals end up trying to stay and fight to receive their unpaid wages.
“Most people who have worked here for 10 or more years can’t afford to walk away from four months salary plus their end of service benefits,” the American doctor said. “If you stay for 10 years you’re entitled to an extra seven and a half months salary and for every year over 10 years service you are entitled to another month bonus. “There is a supervisor here who is owed 16 and a half months salary for being here 19 years.”
The Saudi nurse said she has suffered from a loss of wages, having to sell a car. They (the foreign workers) do not have enough money for their children to pay for their food or take them to school,” she said. “I am Saudi and I live with my family but what about the foreign staff?” All the staff members said they were committed to caring for patients who are already in the hospital and who require urgent and ongoing medical care, but new patients are being encouraged to look to other clinics for treatment. “We still have our humanity but this will disappear if we are not paid,” the Saudi nurse said. “We cannot provide high quality care in this kind of situation.”