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Tue 12 Feb 2008 01:36 AM

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Saudi supports expat residency cap

Millions of foreign workers must be prevented from gaining political voice, says minister.

A residency limit must be imposed on millions of foreign workers in the Gulf to prevent them from gaining a political voice in the region, said Saudi Arabia’s labour minister in remarks published on Monday.

"We do not want the day to come when we are forced to allow the (foreign) workers to be represented in our parliaments or municipal councils," Ghazi Al-Gosaibi told the Arabic-language economic daily Al-Eqtisadiah.

He said he feared that international pressure would in the future force states in the region to enfranchise expatriate workers.

Foreign workers make up about 13 million or 37% of the 35 million population in the six GCC states. They come mainly from the Asian sub-continent and are relied upon heavily to drive the booming economies of the oil-rich bloc.

Gosaibi did not specify how long expatriate workers should be allowed to work in the GCC.

Bahrain's Labour Minister Majeed Al-Alawi proposed a six-year residency cap last October, fearing expatriate workers were eroding the national character of states in the Gulf.

The plan was initially backed by the six GCC member states, but officials admitted in January it could be shelved after it sparked outrage among expatriate communities, and was widely criticised by businesses already struggling to retain staff.

In a related development, Al-Watan newspaper reported that a human rights group in Saudi Arabia expects the heavily-criticised sponsorship system for migrant workers to be abolished within three years.

"We carried out a comprehensive study which showed the current kifala (sponsorship) system to be invalid," the deputy president of the National Human Rights Society, Mifleh Al-Qahtani, told the paper.

He added that Gosaibi had encouraged his group to undertake the study.

The sponsorship system, a set of regulations that limits workers' movements and puts them at the mercy of their employers, is in place in the GCC states but has been decried by rights bodies as akin to slavery.

Under the system, employers have the right to terminate foreign staff and prevent them from seeking other jobs in the country unless they fulfill a set of tough conditions.

Bahrain's Alawi has called for the Gulf's sponsorship system to be abandoned, saying it left foreign workers at the mercy of the individuals or institutions which employ them.

He called for the host government to oversee visas and work permits to protect the rights of foreign workers.

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