By Marwa Rashad
RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has agreed to assist thousands of laid-off Indian workers stranded in the kingdom without money or food, an Indian minister said on Wednesday.
A sharp drop in oil prices has forced cuts to state spending in Saudi Arabia, the world's top crude exporter. Construction firms have been squeezed financially and have laid off tens of thousands of south Asian and other foreign workers.
More than 6,200 of the stranded Indian workers were employed by construction firm Saudi Oger, a conglomerate owned by the family of former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, which has been unable to pay workers' salaries for months, according to Indian officials.
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India's junior foreign minister Vijay Kumar Singh, visiting Riyadh on Wednesday to meet Saudi Labour Minister Mufrej al-Haqbani, said the Saudi government had provided assurances that it would resolve the crisis and ensure workers' financial claims were pursued, even if the workers returned home.
"Things are not as bad as they have been shown and projected," the minister said in joint remarks with Haqbani after their meeting.
"Things are very fine. We are in constant touch with all the officials and the various departments of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."
Haqbani said Saudi Arabia's King Salman had directed officials to take all measures to resolve the problem at the government's expense, and Riyadh would hire lawyers to pursue the workers' claims and make sure their rights were respected.
"Yesterday, we contracted all the providers to provide health, catering, maintenance and everything, and we contracted the airlines to send back anybody who wants to go there upon the approval of the Embassy of India,” Haqbani said, according to a text of the remarks provided by his ministry.
A Lebanese newspaper reported on Wednesday that the Saudi government was in talks with Hariri on a proposal to take over Saudi Oger. Under the proposed deal, the buyer would assume all debts and financial obligations of Saudi Oger.
Saudi Oger officials and Saad al-Hariri could not be reached for comment. In the past, the company has declined to speak publicly about its finances. Saudi officials were also not available to speak about the reported takeover proposal.
A total of about 7,700 Indian workers were stranded, according to Indian officials. Of these, 4,072 were staying in worker camps in Riyadh while 2,153 were in Jeddah.
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj said on Saturday the workers faced a "food crisis" because employers had not paid their wages. The Jeddah consulate was distributing emergency rations to the workers pending efforts to repatriate them.
Saudi Arabia says it investigates any complaints of companies not paying wages and if necessary obliges these firms to do so or risk fines and other penalties.
Other foreign governments, including France, the Philippines and Bangladesh, have been pressing Saudi authorities and company executives to ensure that construction firms pay their workers.
Before the economic slowdown, about 10 million foreigners, largely from south Asia, southeast Asia and other parts of the Middle East, worked in Saudi Arabia, many in low-paid jobs in sectors Saudis spurn such as construction, domestic service and retailing.
(Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Andrew Torchia and Janet Lawrence)