A worker from the land of Saud, where workers' rights are not allowed
WALES with Saudis? Prince Charles with Prince Sultan bin Fahad. Put not your faith in princes!
Blair and Bush say they are delivering "democracy" to the Middle East. (People in some Iraqi towns must think it's a brand name for white phosphorus or something). People in occupied Palestine are being told that democracy is fine so long as you don't vote for parties that George Dubya disapproves of. But how is freedom faring in those parts of the Arab world that are bastions of American power, reliable partners of Big Oil and loyal customers for British Aerospace?
Swansea Trades Union Council members who set up a stall to campaign and collect signatures about health services in South Wales were intrigued by the pleasant Arab man who came over to chat and offered to help them leafletting. Later, they asked him about his trade union background, and how he came to be in Wales.
Yahya al-Faifi, a Saudi Arabian national, was working for British Aerospace Engineering and Systems sat Dahran airbase when a new contract was proposed that would have meant a reduction in workers' earnings. Yahya managed to call a meeting of 500 workers to discuss the pay cut.
British expats often praise Saudi "law and order" except when they have fallen foul of it. Though workers from the UK and Australia enjoy protected contracts, and other benefits when working for companies like BAe in Saudi, local workers have few rights, either individually or as a workforce. (Bangladeshis and Filipinos, coming from poorer countries, are treated worse). Saudi workers are not permitted to organise independent trade unions. Yahya was sacked, in June 2002, while on vacation. He took his case to the labour law courts and argued it for eighteen months. The judge agreed that 14 articles of law had been violated, and acknowledged that the Minister of Defence, now Crown Prince, Sultan bin Abdul Aziz, had ordered the dismissal.
Taking his case to the King and to the International Labour Organisation, Yahya al-Faifi found himself being harassed by the authorities and under 24-hour surveillance. He began to worry that he could face up to 15 years imprisonment for trying to set up a union. (BAe now has a company "union", staffed by government agents, Yahya says). When a group of academics and lawyers who petitioned for trade union and civil rights were jailed for between six and nine years, Yahya decided to get out while he could.
Unfortunately his 17-year old son was visiting his grandmother in another city at the time and could not join him in the flight, so Yahya has just had to hope the Saudi authorities will not punish the son for the father's "crime".
As an asylum seeker, Yahya is not allowed to work in Britain, but Swansea trades unionists have ennabled him to join the Communication Workers' Union, and more important, they are supporting a Campaign for Democratic Trade Union Rights in Saudi Arabia. Cardiff Trades Union Council has added its support, as has the Wales TUC, and at the weekend delegates attending the national conference of Trades Union Councils, in Torquay, unanimously voted for a resolution supporting the campaign.
As "Union Eyes", the journal of Cardiff Trades Union Council points out in its May issue. "Successive British governments have had a long-standing business relationship with Saudi Arabia. British Aerospace alone has been in the country for the last 40 years". (Union Eyes, May 2006) As I've noted elsewhere, some BAe directors - and some well-know British political figures - did exceptionally well from the relationship. This might give added point to any demonstration in London supporting the Welsh trade union initiative.
For more information or to invite Yahya to speak to your organisation's meeting, you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org