Monday, June 15, 2015

Ramadan & Summer Work Hours in Saudi Arabia

One of the fun challenges of managing a construction project in a foreign country is learning how to anticipate the impact of local labor laws. Saudi Arabia is already infamous for being socially restrictive when it comes to protecting Islamic tradition, so you can imagine how things pretty much come to a screeching halt for the Holy month of Ramadan. Now factor in protective labor laws during the summer months when temperatures regularly exceed 100F (~40C). The schedule you end up with gives you maybe 6 productive hours per day, if you're up early enough.

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To be clear, Ramadan refers to both a month and a month-long religious observance. The month of Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Keep in mind that the Islamic calendar is lunar, so the associated Ramadan holiday seems like it drifts around the solar-based Western calendar. In 2015, Ramadan begins in the evening of Wednesday, June 17 and ends in the evening of Friday, July 17.

In the chart above, I've shown Ramadan in gold and the summer hours in blue. So that doesn't look so bad, right? Well, let's break it down hour by hour:

1) Summer hours: From 15 June to 15 September 2015, there is to be no outside work (in direct sunlight) between noon and 3pm in Saudi Arabia. That's similar to the summer work hours for other Gulf nations. Fun fact: oil and gas workers are exempt from the regulation protecting them from extreme conditions.

2) Ramadan work restrictions: During Ramadan, Muslims are only allowed to work up to 36 hours per week, but no more than 6 hours a day. Non-Muslims keep their regular hours. And regardless of what time of year it is, any time consumed performing Salah (prayer) will be considered as working hours. Most government agencies are effectively shut down during Ramadan, so don't expect to get any paperwork pushed during this time. And that also goes for the port authority...you could have a shipment waiting to clear customs for a month just because no one is around to process the paperwork.

3) Oh yeah, Ramadan is also a religious tourist season. Since I'm in Jeddah, the nearest airport to Mecca and Medina, we can expect some half-million tourists this month. Which directly translates into more traffic and greater transit time during a period of reduced work hours. Splendid.

So how does this all work out for my construction project? Well, I've put together the chart above that shows when work can't or won't happen.
  • The first column shows, in red, when no work under direct sunlight can occur. Arguably, working under a tarp satisfies this requirement, even if it's as hot as an oven outside. But you still have to consider implementing work-rest cycles that might limit you to 15 minutes of labor per hour in the extreme heat.
  • The second column shows the five roughly hour-long prayer times in green when everything in the Kingdom shuts down, every day of the year. The actual prayer times vary slightly from week to week, but these are fairly representative for the summertime. All that black area is just my way of showing the hours of darkness. 
  • The third column shows in gold when Muslims are fasting and not drinking, so any physical labor will be significantly reduced (if it occurs at all). It's basically from the first prayer to the last prayer. They can eat and drink after that, but generally there isn't any work going on during the non-fasting times. Fortunately, many of the subcontractors also employ non-Muslims, but those guys still can't rehydrate in front of the folks who are fasting without risking punishment, so that complicates things from a life-safety perspective. 
  • Lastly, most people observing Ramadan adjust their waking hours so that they sleep during the day and take care of personal business (and eating) during the evening and go to bed some time in the morning. Practically speaking, they might work up to 6 hours in the morning (last column, in blue). So, really, the best you can hope for is to marginally productive between 6 am and noon, and even then it's probably going to take longer than planned to get even the simplest things done.

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And while it's not directly related to Ramadan or summer work hours, there's another labor issue that pops up from time to time: the deportation of illegal workers. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has a massive anti-immigration program and is aiming to deport a million workers from Saudi Arabia for being in the country illegally. While it hasn't affected my project directly since we abide by the State Department's Trafficking in Persons policy, (so we're already making sure everyone on site has their paperwork in order), it's not hard to imagine something like what happened recently in Oman happening on this side of the peninsula. I've also heard from other expats that some have found themselves in need of a new housekeeper because theirs got picked up in a raid and deported. So, yeah, just because the workers are here today doesn't mean they'll be at work tomorrow.

Well, I'm starting to get off topic, but hopefully I've given you some insights into how local labor laws can seriously impact a project schedule.

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