Dignity in work

One of the lessons that is learned very quickly in the US is the dignity of any kind of honest work. There are few other places in the world (not even Europe) where what you do does not impact your social standing.

In real terms it means that a person who works at a gas station or a gardener or a secretary or a nurse or a nanny or a cashier or a bagger at the grocery store are all acceptable jobs. Kids start earning at a young age by babysitting and mowing the lawn for neighbors. They get older and work as cashiers or baggers at grocery stores. They flip burgers at fast-food joints, wash dishes at eateries and work through college (if they go). As they get older they get permanent jobs. At the end of the day, almost EVERYONE works at some point in time in their life.

Contrast that with KSA where the afore-mentioned jobs are mostly filled by foreign labor. It is below the dignity of many locals to be working in non-white-collar jobs. Thus, the workers are mostly imported from Asia and are considered second-class citizens and barely human (sometimes treated worse than animals).

In the RARE cases that you actually have a local fulfill these roles the quality of service is horrendous. They make it clear they do not want to be doing the work, and their level of effort (or lack thereof) is clear. This ranges from grocery baggers (your eggs will end up under the watermelon) to receptionists at hospitals (your medical card will have errors and if you ask them to correct the mistake the response is always: it doesn’t matter).

This country would be VERY different if locals accepted that all honest work has dignity. Corruption, laziness and non-performance is what robs a job of honor. Blue collar workers are just as human as local citizens.



There were two news reports yesterday regarding setting a minimum wage in KSA. Saudi Gazette reported that there were plans for a minimum wage for Saudis whereas Arab News reported that no minimum was being set (for expats).

One quoted that minimum wages causes unemployment, the other stated that it would create more jobs for citizens.

Regardless of which news agency was correct in this case, the common aspects that were striking were the complaint against companies for not abiding by Saudization laws as well as the unemployment figures.

The Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Gosaibi was quoted as saying “I feel ashamed that there are 270,000 unemployed Saudi young men and a similar number of unemployed Saudi young women in a country that employs more than seven million foreigners.” The total population of KSA is 26 million as per Saudi Gazette.

This would suggest that ~25% of the KSA population are expat workers (no surprise there). Also, apparently there are barely 0.54 million unemployed citizens in the country (less than 3% of the actual citizen population and 2% of the total population).

In September the Minister also explained that unemployment is 6% for Saudi men (~240k men) and ~25% for Saudi women (~164k women). The numbers employed are 3.42 million men and ~660k women. If you put all these figures together the numbers that emerge are a little odd.

Extrapolating the official numbers, are about 4 million men and barely 1 million women in the potential workforce out of the whole 19 million population! That represents (at max) 25% of the whole population with women barely 20% of the whole workforce.

Now let’s add another number to the mix. The CIA fact-book states that  ~60% of the population is between15-64 years old (9.5 million men and 7.2 million women).  The most recent numbers from UNICEF state that ~50% of the population is less than 18 years old.

This raises the following questions:

  • Why is 25% of the population part of the workforce when ~50% are of employment age?
  • Is a quarter of the population bearing the burden of the three-quarters?
  • Why is there such a large gap between the stated unemployment rate of 6% and the actual people who are not working?

of gold and glitter – 1

All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.

by William Shakespeare

The middle east as a whole is infamous for work environments that are toxic, highly political and ethically challenged. KSA is no exception. The money draws people in and many of them lose their integrity (assuming they had some in the first place). The immigration laws are such that money will always be the most obvious reason for coming to the country. With 2 year contracts as the norm, many Western expats are here for the short term, hoping to make enough to retire a little earlier.

One description/explanation that keeps popping up for the morally challenged (esp expats) is that they are insecure. Thus they plot and scheme, attack, lie and conspire against their co-workers. After years of working with insecure males (in other parts of the world), I firmly believe that a major reason for insecurity is the assumption that others are like them. People project their responses and values onto others- they assume that everyone acts like them. Thus if they cheat, they assume that everyone cheats. If they lie, they assume that everyone lies. If they act like they know everything even if they don’t, they assume that everyone else is also full of hot air. If they act against people, they assume that everyone acts against them.

Thus the insecurity problem persists- perpetuated and reinforced by the very people that are brought in as “role models” to make the workplace more professional.

where do women go?

Once again, the options for where women can go by themselves is very limited. Some places women cannot go even if they are accompanied by a male relative. Here are some favorite spots that I have observed:

  • SHOPPING- at the end of the day (also in the beginning and the middle) there is not much to do other than shopping. Women collect in hordes and are usually laden with bags.
  • Banks- these are one of the few employers for women. Several banks have women-only branches. Others have permission from the Ministry of Labor to allow women to work in regular buildings but with special provisions for segregation
  • Hospitals and medical facilities- these are the only truly mixed work environments in the Kingdom. The vast majority of the women employed here are expats (e.g. all the nurses, majority of the drs). There is a sprinkling of Saudi female doctors and a few Saudi women at reception desks at the Ob/Gyn counters- the rest are ALL expats.
  • Women-owned businesses- there is a growing number of women who own their own small-businesses. As they cannot be employed by anyone else, they have started their own organizations to overcome the social hurdles.
  • Charities and non-profits- several women have started their own charities or work at them.
  • Coffee mornings and social events
  • Women-only spas/shops- there is a very small percentage of these available and they hire women
  • Schools and other educational institutions- all classes are separated by gender (with the exception of some of the expat schools) and so are all teachers. A lot of expat women are teaching. There is a growing number of educated Saudi women in teaching and administrative positions at higher-education institutions.
  • Amusements parks, “toylands”- women are often seen here with lots of children.
  • Public parks- women are seen here but usually as families, accompanied by at least one male.

At the end of the day, women are sadly under-represented in the workforce and are almost non-existent in the service sector. Some show a lot of spirit and try to beat the odds. The vast majority do nothing.

integrity at work

Everyone wants to claim that they are ethical and professional at work however it seems that integrity is still shortchanged. Somehow people assume that integrity can be skipped sometimes without tarnishing their own self image. One only has to look as far as the global economy to see some of the consequences of lack of integrity. Here are some things (minor and major) that happen at workplaces:

  • Using office resources for personal use like printing, photocopying, staples, clips etc
  • Using office time for personal affairs- this “theft” can be directly translated into money
  • Choosing contractors and partners based on personal relations rather than merit
  • Choosing contractors based on kickbacks that one gets
  • Not auditing/checking people who are “off-track”, thus becoming an accomplice
  • Nepotism
  • Hiring people based on personal relations rather than merit
  • Over-hiring of staff (friends) to give them “opportunities” at the expense of the company
  • Having bloated budgets and high costs based not on organizational needs but personal interests
  • Lying, cheating
  • Scapegoating
  • Misinformation
  • Deception through withholding of information
  • Using organization to cover personal expenses
  • Having “favored” employees
  • Protecting “favored” employees even when they mess up
  • Deals under the table
  • Racism

I’ll continue this list over time. Please let me know if there are other things that YOU have experienced that should be on here.