Saudi women seek more employment opportunities

Private businesses are discovering that female applicants are less likely to accept jobs that re­quire long hours and low wages.

A Saudi saleswoman works in a boutique at a mall in Jeddah.


2015/11/13 Issue: 31 Page: 20


The Arab Weekly
Rob L. Wagner



Jeddah - Bassma al-Harbi had what she thought was a dream job. A rising star in a ma­jor Saudi Arabian private company that owns and operates a string of high-profile restaurants and department stores, she was groomed for quick ad­vancement.

Harbi, 25, and a university gradu­ate, rapidly moved up and became a regional supervisor but her dream soured almost as quickly. Her work­load doubled to two shifts daily, six days a week. Although she worked as a regional supervisor for a year and had significant responsibilities, a salary increase never material­ised.

It became clear, the Medina wom­an said, that she was one of many women who were being exploited in the private sector.

“By hiring women the company is making tonnes of money because more and more conservative wom­en trust us (female sales representa­tives),” Harbi said. “These custom­ers stay longer in the shop because they are dealing with knowledge­able saleswomen and not leaving quickly because they must talk to men. Revenue is up because they are hiring more girls.”

Harbi said she quit after three years of exhausting work and no prospect of a salary that reflected her management skills and educa­tion. She remains unemployed.

Her experience serves as a warn­ing that business practices in the private sector have not caught up with the explosive growth in the number of women working in Saudi Arabia.

Long accustomed to hiring com­pliant expatriates, mostly who work in retail and restaurants at modest salaries, the private sector is under pressure from the Saudi Ministry of Labour to hire Saudi women to maintain quotas of Saudi employees under the government’s Nationalisation Programme.

Now in the position where em­ploying women is a consideration to maintain nationalisation numbers or face fines, private businesses are discovering that female applicants are less likely to accept jobs that re­quire long hours and low wages.

Businesses have been slow to ad­just to the new dynamic of the fe­male employee.

“I see frustrations on many lev­els,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi women’s rights activist. “They need women to work but don’t know how to negotiate their salary.”

Harbi said Saudi employers are not considering the difficulty wom­en face in taking a job.

“A woman taking a job is a family decision and usually not everyone in the family agrees to the job,” she said. “The family’s priority is mar­riage. If you’re working two shifts and have time for nothing else, no one in the family will agree to you taking a job.”

In many instances, Saudi wom­en are desperate to find employ­ment because it means financial independence. Many work long hours for low pay and do not com­plain. According to the Saudi Press Agency, the Labour Ministry re­ported there was a 76.08% increase in female employment in private business in the previous year. The year before that, the increase was 23.92%.

During the previous year, an es­timated 174,827 Saudi women were working in private business in the Riyadh region while the Mecca re­gion had 114,173 women and East­ern Province employed 68,000.

The increase in female employ­ment is a step in the Labour Minis­try’s attempt to reduce the 34% un­employment rate cited by the Saudi Central Department of Statistics and Information.

The increase in privately em­ployed women is also due to the Labour Ministry’s aggressive cam­paign to reduce the number of male expat workers in lingerie and beauty shops. Virtually every mall in Saudi Arabia’s urban centres now employ all-female staffs.

Fassi cautioned that the Labour Ministry’s statistics may be mis­leading. She said the increase in the number of women entering the workforce is likely in the retail sec­tor with significantly fewer univer­sity-educated females finding work in professional fields.

“It’s a good number because it shows a need for low-income wom­en to find work. It’s filling this gap,” Fassi said. “But the high number in the Labour Ministry’s statistics are explained by women entering retail jobs and not reflective of women’s contributions to the economy. We still need a stronger level of protec­tion.”

One weakness in the govern­ment’s efforts to employ women in the private sector is the lack of enforcement and follow-through on a wide range of rights the La­bour Ministry granted to women. Rights granted include women are no longer required to obtain per­mission from their male guardians to work. The ministry also gives women maternity leave, mourning periods up to four months and ten days if a husband should die and paid leave for marriage.

“The Labour Ministry should be stronger in implementing its rules that protect women and preserve their dignity,” Fassi said. “The re­ligious police still breach some of these laws by harassing these wom­en by coming into shops and just standing there because they don’t like the way they dress.”

She said regulations against mix­ing between men and women and fines for women who violate the Islamic dress code target female workers and not men. “It’s accusa­tive of women, a bit hostile,” Fassi said.

“The reforms like [mourning] are a very good step towards more rights,” Fassi noted. “But it’s not very clear companies will follow the rights imposed by the Labour Ministry.”

A Labour Ministry spokesman was unavailable for comment.


Rob L. Wagner is an American journalist based in Saudi Arabia.


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