Saudi Arabia no 'gold mine'
special report: Times have changed since Thais last worked there in large numbers
The thawing of three decades of frosty relations with Riyadh has lifted the hopes of job seekers and labour exporters eager to get back in the oil-rich kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
But before they pack their bags, one question begs an answer: "Is Saudi Arabia still a gold mine of labour opportunities as it once was?"
"Not really," said Sarawut Aree, director of the Muslim Studies Center at Chulalongkorn University. ''Saudi Arabia is no longer ideal for unskilled workers 'digging for gold' ".
The phrase was popularised by Thai workers, particularly those native to the Northeast, who travelled in droves to the Middle Eastern country 30 years ago, drawn by its vast workforce, steeped in high-paying manual labour jobs.
The country has changed a lot since then, he said. In the time that Thai workers have been away, the job market there has been captured by labourers from some 20 countries.
Unskilled Thai workers who return now are bound to face competition left, right and sideways.
Saudi Arabia has also experienced some economic doldrums, dogged by rising unemployment. There is also less government welfare going around. Many job vacancies are filled by local residents first.
"We need to understand these changes so as to design the right labour export strategy," Mr Sarawut said, and Thai workers' potential must also be assessed.
Fewer Thais themselves take up menial labour jobs in their home country, which are left to migrants.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made a one-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Jan 25 to patch up ties.
Upon his return, Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha hailed the visit as a tremendous success, marking an end to three decades of strained relations and a beginning of cooperation for mutual benefit especially for Thai labour exports to Saudi Arabia.
Gen Prayut's visit at the invitation of His Royal Highness Prince Mohammad bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, the crown prince, was heralded as a historic breakthrough.
Quality before quantity
The academic said the government should put quality before quantity by exporting skilled workers in sought-after fields such as digital technology. "We won't have to send too many of them but the returns will be well worth it," he said.
He said it was unrealistic to expect to gain substantial foreign exchange from exporting a huge number of unskilled labourers to Saudi Arabia like in the past.
Although Saudi Arabia has large construction projects in the pipeline, it needs to hire specialists to work them.
Thai unskilled workers would compete with those from Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Egypt and Jordan. In many of these countries, low wages made working in Saudi Arabia a treat.
However, the wages which migrant workers receive nowadays are lower than the rate which Thai workers received 30 years ago.
Money in Saudi Arabia also does not stretch as far as it used to, given the country's steep cost of living, more or less double that in Thailand, according to Mr Sarawut.
Labour exporters and placement agencies have embraced the new regime in earnest.
Aranya Sakulkosol, chairwoman of the Thai Overseas Manpower Association (TOMA), said the association would negotiate with employers to foot some job placement expenses for job brokers.
The placement fees cover the screening of job seekers and skill tests while brokers pay for job applicants' passports, visa and medical check-ups.
Ms Aranya said job placement firms affiliated with the association agreed the workers to be offered to the Saudi workforce would comprise mostly the skilled and semi-skilled.
They would be paid more in certain industries such as oil, natural gas and shipyards, areas in which Thai workers command exceptional skills.
Monthly salaries ranging from 30,000-40,000 baht are enough incentive for job seekers.
But first, the association must review what employers look for in workers and match workers' qualifications with employers' criteria.
Ms Aranya, who is managing director of Boss Delight Manpower Co Ltd, said Saudi businesses liked Thai workers' hospitable disposition and also because they were hard-working and did not change jobs often.
Two years ago, some Saudi businesses contacted the association and expressed interest in recruiting Thais to work in their country. However, at the time the country was not issuing working visas for Thais.
MoU on the way
Accompanying Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha on his official visit to Riyadh last week, Labour Minister Suchart Chomklin said he was in talks with Saudi Arabia's Human resources and Social Development Minister Ahmad Sulaiman Al Rajhi to seal a labour export agreement.
The country has in store many building and infrastructure development projects with more than eight million vacancies to be filled by migrant workers.
Openings are also offered to skilled and semi-skilled workers in the service, hotel and health sectors.
The minister said he has instructed the Thai labour attaché office in Riyadh to expedite the labour agreement. A memorandum of understanding on labour exports has been completed and is expected to be signed in the next two months.
The ministry has been discussing with the TOMA job export procedures and other essential details.
Boonchob Suthamanaswong, the labour permanent secretary, will be on hand to inspect the KTC Technical Testing Centre, which screens job seekers' labour skills, in Pathum Thani. The centre is certified by the Department of Skill Development (DoSD).
Mr Suchart said Thailand has a vast pool of workers to be supplied to Saudi Arabia. The DoSD also provides training for workers before sending them overseas.
The minister allayed fears of workers being abused or taken advantage of by employers. He said electronic contracts on offer recognise the workers' labour rights.
The biggest employer countries for Thai workers are Taiwan (49,451 Thai workers), followed by Israel (20,044 workers), South Korea (14,310), Japan (4,347) and Singapore (1,487).
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the Thai workers sent home 200 billion baht a year on average.
Checklist for job seekers
Meanwhile, a job broker in his 70s, who declined to be named, hailed the restored Thai-Saudi relations as a new chapter for bilateral trade and tourism.
The countries must now re-establish the labour export process with agreements to be struck on necessary steps and documentation to formalise the exports, he said.
The important checklist for job seekers was employment positions, pay, welfare, and fixed expenses such as lodging and food.
Before diplomatic ties were downgraded, many Thais were employed as construction workers, mechanics, electricians or heavy machinery drivers.
A much smaller number were engineers, architects and cooks.
The veteran job broker said the money workers earned in Saudi Arabia provided a financial lifeline for countless families back home.
Most of the workers were from the Northeast.
"At any point in time, at least one member of extended families in the Northeast must have had experience working overseas," he said, adding that for many households the jobs were a ticket out of poverty.