A leading Saudi trade unionist is seeking asylum in Britain after facing persecution for organising workers at a British arms company in Saudi Arabia.
Yahya al-Faifi, an engineer who worked for BAE Systems in the Saudi city of Dahran, was sacked in June 2002 after he organised opposition to new contracts that slashed the wages and conditions of Saudi workers.
The workers were furious that the new contracts imposed harsh terms on Arab workers, while foreign employees — mostly British and Australian — continued to receive generous benefits.
“BAE Systems informed us that they were going to give us a new pay scale which would cut our pay. We were told to sign or be sacked,” Yahya told Socialist Worker.
“We started talking with our fellow workers about how their rights were being denied by the government.
“There were about 3,000 BAE workers altogether — we contacted about 500 across the whole kingdom and convinced them to make a joint complaint against the British company.”
The Saudi workers filed a legal challenge against the new contracts in a Saudi court. But the case was dismissed, despite the judge agreeing that BAE Systems had violated 14 articles of the country’s labour laws.
Yahya and two other organisers were sacked by the British company. “The rest of the workers faced the threat of the sack so they eventually accepted the new contract,” Yahya said.
BAE is the prime contractor of the Al Yamama arms deal signed by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. The deal, estimated at $25 billion, supplies the Saudi kingdom — a key Western ally — with defence systems and jet fighters.
At the time the arms deal was described as “the biggest sale ever of anything to anyone by anyone”.
BAE’s pre-tax profits for 2005 are estimated at £975 million, mainly from arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
New Labour has refused to publish an investigation by the National Audit Office into persistent allegations of corruption and bribery surrounding the Al Yamama deal.
Independent trade unions are banned in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s leading oil producers. Trade unionists can face up to 15 years in prison for organising strikes.
A group of Saudi democracy campaigners were jailed in March 2004 for between six and nine years for petitioning the government for basic civil and trade union rights.
In January 2002 the Saudi authorities accepted recommendations for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to allow more representation in enterprises employing at least 100 Saudi workers.
In June 2003 the ILO, with the blessing of the ministry of labour, held a public meeting in the Saudi capital and appealed for employers to allow workers some rights.
BAE Systems responded by setting up an in-house union that Yahya says is full of government agents.
The Saudi authorities launched a campaign of intimidation to silence the militants after Yahya and two of his colleagues continued to campaign against the contracts.
“The secret police began watching my home and tapping my phone,” Yahya said. “They followed colleagues who came to visit me.
“Then I got a phone call saying that if I didn’t stop what I was doing I had better say goodbye to my children. That was a real threat.”
Yahya sent his 17 year old son to safety with relatives and fled to Britain. Now he is taking his campaign against BAE’s victimisation to British trade unionists.
“I’m fighting for the rights of Saudi workers, and for the rights of all workers in the kingdom, of all different nationalities, without discrimination,” he says.
“So we’re petitioning Saudi government officials, the king, the minister of defence and the minister of labour and social affairs.”
Get your trade union to invite Yahya al-Faifi to speak at your branch, or send him message of support at [email protected]