Saudi Arabia is taking new measures to crack down on foreigners working illegally in the world's top oil exporter, Adel al-Fakieh, the labour minister, has said.
The new steps will include jail terms for small business owners and the hiring of 1,000 inspectors who will be accompanied by policemen when checking businesses, the minister said on Wednesday.
Firms will face penalties if they harbour illegals, Fakieh added.
"If an owner of a small enterprise conspires with an illegal foreign worker, he will be subject to sanctions," Fakieh said.
Possible punishments will include a $26,700 fine for each illegal worker, two years in prison or both.
Fakieh said Saudi Arabia still needed foreign workers but they had to abide by the country’s laws.
"We have and will continue to have millions of foreign workers. We have 7.5 million legal foreign workers and we need them," Fakieh told Saudi-owned MBC television this week, according to a transcript posted on the MBC website.
"We will continue to issue visas for others but those who want to come to this country have to respect the law."
Saudi Arabia has been deporting hundreds of thousands of illegal foreign workers as part of labour market reforms designed to reduce unemployment among its own citizens, which is officially estimated at 12.0 percent.
But the crackdown could have major effects on the Saudi economy, which has for decades relied heavily on foreigners from south and South East Asia as well as Arab countries in its energy, construction and services industries.
Yemen and India affected
In addition to legal foreign workers, analysts have estimated the number of illegals at one or two million, conceivably more.
The governments of Yemen, Saudi Arabia's neighbour, and India's state of Kerala have expressed concern about a sudden influx of returning workers because of the Saudi crackdown.
Fakieh said about 200,000 foreigners had been deported in recent months, and that 840,000 had left Saudi Arabia.
Most, he said, had left voluntarily since a quota system for companies to hire local citizens was introduced in late 2011.
As a part of new measures to be implemented from next month, the ministry will set up a toll-free line for the public to report violations, he said.
Business owners will be able to check online whether they violate the rules.
In the next version of its labour quota system, which will be launched in the next three months, requirements to hire Saudi citizens in the retail sector will be increased, Fakieh said.
Some businesses and schools in Saudi Arabia have reported difficulties operating over the last several weeks as some expatriate workers have stayed at home to avoid inspectors checking their work permits.
The economy has yet to be affected and the stock market and business sentiment surveys remain strong.
In early April, King Abdullah ordered that migrant workers breaking regulations be given a grace period of up to three months to sort out their papers.