I value my personal freedoms, and as a privileged member of the KAUST community I do have lots of freedoms. I am free to go to the restaurants, the market, the library, or the gym any time I want to during business hours. I am also free to come and go from the KAUST compound any time I like. Really, I am free to do almost whatever I please (within reason), except to spend time with the Filipino and Bangladeshi guys who work service jobs at KAUST. This irks me. I don't care about adding one more privilege to the mountain I already have, but I do care for these men and women who have no privileges at all.
The Story of the Rich Man and the Poor Man
There is an old story about injustice - perhaps you know it - about a rich man who owned many sheep and cattle and a poor man who had nothing except for one little female lamb. The poor man raised her, and she grew up with him and his sons. She shared his food, drank from his cup, and even slept in his arms.
One day a traveler came to the rich man's house, but instead of taking one of his own animals, the rich man took the lamb which belonged to the poor man and slaughtered her for his guest.
The Little Lamb
At KAUST, there used to be a weekly basketball game between students and recreation staff. The recreation staff members enjoyed this game so much that they rearranged their work schedules to participate... it was the one night a week they could have fun and get some much needed exercise after standing or sitting at their job all day.
Four weeks ago, a terrible thing happened. The students left campus for spring vacation, but many of the employees came for basketball anyway. On that unfortunate day, KAUST-Aramco manager who oversees Saudi Oger recreation was watching. He was furious. The employees had violated one of recreation's unwritten rules: no workers are ever allowed to use the community's sports or service facilities. When it was discovered that most of them were Filipino employees, there was talk of firing them all and deporting them back to their home country, but there was also one Lebanese employee amongst the transgressors, and management couldn't fire and deport an Arab.
The Filipinos and company were given a final warning and suspended without pay for 3-5 days. Now there are no more games between students and staff, no more exercise for the employees, nothing to break up the daily monotony of their lives between working at KAUST and busing to the work camp. Now their little lamb is gone.
I arranged a meeting with the manager thinking that it was just a misunderstanding, but the injustice and prejudice against foreign workers runs deep here. The manager told me that my Filipino friends are dangerous people and that if they are given half a chance they will lie, cheat, steal, and otherwise endanger the entire community. They are not allowed to use the facilities, not just because of crowding during peak hours, he said, but because they are not welcome at KAUST when they are not working. They have no rights to relationships or recreation inside the KAUST community, he said, because these might be an inconvenience to me. That is just the way Saudi Oger employees are controlled.
"What do they do after work then?" I asked.
"I don't know, it is not my concern," was his response
Apartheid at KAUST
At KAUST, there are more than 4,000 permanent contracted employees to serve only 1,000 residents. Most of these men and women are from Bangladesh and from the Philippines. They are bussed in every morning of every day from their work camps in Thuwal or Jeddah to wipe our windows, polish our floors, sweep our houses, wipe our toilet seats, and sit behind desks handing out tennis rackets and bowling shoes. Each employee works 10-12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, and is "not well paid," according the the manager.
There are four Filipino and Bangladeshi workers for every one KAUST student, professor, and staff member. Whenever one of the contracted workers greets me with a smile and a wave, he makes me both happy and sad. Happy because those gestures are genuine, but sad because as long as Saudi Oger's rules remain unchanged, this is the only interaction we will ever have. They are nameless persons without freedoms brought here for our convenience. Having contracted workers in this way is kind of like owning slaves, Arab News says, and it makes me sick to my stomach. It is difficult for me to live in a community which systematically separates and excludes so many people who work here.
Why does KAUST need 4,000 services staff for 1,000 KAUST students, professors, and employees? We don't, but perverse business incentives have made the system what it is today.
Filipinos and Bangladeshis will work for almost nothing because the economic situation in their home countries is so difficult. Contractors like Saudi Oger negotiate contracts with clients like KAUST based on the number of employed workers and total work hours. If a company makes more money for providing more workers who are "not well paid," then the business incentive for Saudi Oger is to bring as many workers as possible. Unfortunately, having so many underpaid, overworked, and under-respected employees means that there has to be some extra rules to control the crowds.
To keep control, passports are confiscated, walled compounds with crowded bunkhouses are constructed for sleeping and eating, and contracted employees are only allowed to be at work or to be at the compound. No fun, no other human interaction.
Though this apartheid may be acceptable in other parts of the KSA, it makes many of the foreign visitors at KAUST feel uneasy. We need a better model.
Quality over quantity might be a better philosophy of hiring. What if we had 800 or fewer contracted workers instead of 4,000? Fewer employees means easier care and control, and maybe the salaries and standard of living could be raised a little bit too. Instead of busing thousands of workers in and out of the KAUST compound every day, perhaps a few hundred economy apartments could be provided for these skilled employees. With a better standard of living, better salary, better treatment than the average worker in Saudi Arabia, and membership in the KAUST community, there would be far less incentive for the imagined lying, cheating, and stealing which the manager is trying to prevent.
With fewer workers, maybe a few cash registers at the supermarket would remain unmanned, maybe a maid might not be available to clean my house within ten minutes of calling housekeeping, and maybe some of the windows on campus would remain smudged longer before being wiped, but increased trust and respect between people might be worth a few dirty windows. The janitor and I could shop in the same supermarket, use the same public bathrooms, send our children to the same school, and maybe even play a little basketball together. Does that sound too radical?