Analysis. A Saudi court handed down an archaic sentence to 49 workers who have not been paid by their company, Binladin Group.

Workers sentenced to 300 lashes for protesting non-payment

A court in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, handed down a sentence of four months in jail and 300 lashes to 49 workers whose crime was to protest the non-payment of their salaries by the Binladin Group.

The construction company, founded 80 years ago by the father of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, laid off 70,000 employees a year ago after the oil price collapsed and massive military spending in Syria and Yemen forced the government to suspend payments to private contractors.

In May, the workers took to the streets, and some of them set fire to seven buses owned by the company. This week the workers were sentenced for damaging private property and incitement to demonstrate.

The case is not unique in Saudi Arabia, but it embodies the country’s destructive clash between modernism and conservatism, Western consumerism and the suppression of fundamental rights.

Tens of thousands of employees of Saudi Oger, a construction company headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, have been awaiting their salaries for months.

In September, workers for United Seemac, after almost two years without being paid, chose a response that’s revolutionary by Saudi standards: a strike. Striking, like all trade union activities, is a crime in the kingdom. To break up the sit-in, the company offered $266 to be divided among 215 workers — a little over a dollar apiece. The amount the company actually owed would have surpassed $1 million.

At the root of the protests is the despair of immigrant workers, who make up much of the workforce in Saudi Arabia and are rewarded with miserable salaries and semi-slavery.

The more than 8 million immigrants in Saudi Arabia (the total population is 26 million) make up 56 percent of the workforce, and 89 percent of those are employed in the private sector. They come mainly from India, Pakistan, Egypt, Yemen and Bangladesh and are slaves of the archaic system called kafala, in which a citizen “guarantees” the immigrant — becoming their master, holding their passport and forcing the worker to accept ignoble conditions, with no real opportunity to look for another job or leave the country. The workers are frequently subjected to physical violence, including against domestic workers, at starvation wages garnished to cover their housing expenses in crowded rooms with little sanitation.

Even with oil prices now on the rise after an OPEC agreement, there’s been a further deterioration. Many companies for nearly a year did not pay wages, preventing at least 150,000 workers from sending money to their families in their countries of origin and in many cases forcing them to beg for food at the respective embassies.

The large construction companies have come to the brink of bankruptcy, with Riyadh unable to pay the accumulated debts. The Saudi government has attempted to mask the crisis, which reveals the contradiction of being both delinquent on its bills and the third-ranked country in military spending, at $87.2 billion a year. The uninterrupted flow of Saudi war cash has inflamed the violence in Syria and Yemen, two lost conflicts that have not only left Saudi Arabia politically isolated but in a deficit of almost $100 billion, 15 percent of GDP.

To curb the bleeding state coffers, Riyadh officially laid out in late December its much-anticipated financial reforms, which aim to reduce the kingdom’s dependence on oil, diversify the economy and cut expenses. Not military expenses, of course. The government plans to introduce a VAT, slash public wages, curb subsidies for electricity and water, and increase fuel prices.

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