Riyadh: Tens of thousands of foreign workers are trying to leave Saudi Arabia after the government of the world's No. 1 oil exporter said they would be forgiven any fees or fines for visa violations such as overstaying or switching jobs.
Riyadh is pursuing sweeping labour reform that would tackle domestic unemployment by pushing firms to hire Saudi nationals - who now hold only about one in 10 private sector jobs - instead of some of its roughly 9 million foreign residents.
The disproportion of foreigners in jobs arises, some firms say, from the fact Saudis demand higher wages and are harder to sack than expatriates. Other firms, particularly those in fields involving manual labour, say they cannot attract Saudi workers.
Earlier this year the kingdom began to crack down on many foreign workers who violated their visa terms with surprise inspections on streets and in company offices, followed in some cases by the deportation of offenders.
Saudi Arabia, whose total population is 28 million, has long turned a blind eye to the impact of its rigid foreign worker laws, resulting in a huge black market for expatriate labour.
On Tuesday, thousands queued in blazing sunshine outside the main passport office in Riyadh to secure exit visas, with many people saying they had waited in line for more than 24 hours.
"I just want to go back to Nepal because my salary is no good - only 600 riyals a month. I came here yesterday afternoon, slept on the ground and didn't eat anything. But when I got to the front of the line they said my papers were incorrect," said Dinesh Kumar Sar, 25, a labourer.
Local media quoted the spokesman for the Saudi passport office as saying 124,000 people had left the country since early April when the government announced a three-month grace period for illegal workers to rectify their status.


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