HE IS PART OF A COLLECTIVE noun, a faceless man in a sea of humanity. He doesn’t work — he labours. He doesn’t return home from work — he goes back to a camp. He will build hotels where he will never dine; he will green and shade parks where his children will not play.
We know him by his blue overall and soiled boots — never by his face. We look through him when he crosses our paths — the ones he laid — and hope he is not staring at our wives.
We step into fancy cars that are never big enough to satiate our fancies and he is herded into a truck that should carry animals, not men.
We need him but we do not want him. He is out there balancing his life on tricky scaffoldings to erect our world but we do not have him in our lives.
He is inevitable.
He is dispensable.
And if he is lucky, he will be well fed and paid on time. If not, we will hear of “unrests” and we will look for a conspiracy theory to rest the blame. Or we will write it off as “stress” and forget the pain of an orphaned family as we flip on to the entertainment pages.
But today, we must salute him — for being the unsung hero who builds our smiles…, for the lesson in resilience he proves with his life…
Today is International Workers Day, a concept that would have more scope and meaning as the winds of change breeze through the GCC workplace. Yet, today will be no different for many thousands, who would have sweated a day’s perspiration before you finish your first cup of tea.
Space is everything
It is surprising (but is it, really?) that the cloistered cubicle of a make-shift room can be home to six people. Bunker beds bring economy of space, as dreams and sighs of two individuals interlock in less than an arm’s distance. A thin blanket, a bed and a steel cabinet — that is his world. For the man on the bunker bed above, even a slipper-space of floor is luxury.
Every inch of space must be economised and strategised. God, too, has His place. It is organised chaos – and they have found their rhythm amidst it all, even when intrusive iron beams support fragile roofs that spew plaster on their heads.
Space is precious even in the trucks that carry them to the workplace. The driver is licenced to carry only 12; there would be as many on the floor alone.
A high-ranking official called to rein in a labour dispute in a GCC country wasn’t amused when complaints of “poor quality food” reached his ears. A day later he told a news reporter: “I can eat that food.”
Would he, if fed on two slices of bread and weak lentil curry every day for breakfast? Would he, if fed on bland helpings of rice and tasteless curries for lunch and dinner?
Some of the “workers” can’t, which is why they resort to catching crabs at the nearby beach and cooking them, away from their camp, to have a filling that satisfies the grumbling stomach. Others slice onion and green chilies finely — a shared bowl would help take away the monotony of their dreary meal.
Oh yes, you could always say they are lucky to have their fill. But does the meal justify the hard work they do?
There are other stark realities they put up with — dark dining halls that reek, leaking pipes and washrooms that need an urgent wash…
Yet, when they stand across a carom board, or look up from a round of cards, how do they manage to smile?
As they dash across the road to the truck that is impatiently honking and moves even before they are seated, how can they still laugh, their moment’s mission accomplished?
And where did they learn to cling to the simpler pleasures of life — like a song from the transistor radio, a collective reading of many days old newspaper…?
Bahrain is the first country in the region to have a Migrant Workers Protection Society and also serves as a role model for others by allowing the participation of expatriates in the trade union movement, observes Faisal Fulad, regional and international director of Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society.
Trade union is still a boardroom concept for most other GCC countries. They now feel the pressure to initiate labour unions if they want to enjoy the perks of the US Free Trade Agreement. Alongside are reports of labour unrest spilling over to the streets and causing damage to property.
Fulad isn’t surprised. He says it is a reflection of the workers becoming more aware of their rights as well as that of NGOs and civil society organisations gaining ground in the Gulf.
From today, the society’s “Respect Movement” is focusing its attention on migrant workers with the aim of protecting their rights.
Fulad, a human rights activist for over 30 years, says living conditions in some of the camps are “bad.” His solution is that workers, the private sector and the government must work hand-in-hand. No strategy that sidelines any one of the three sectors will deliver desired results, he adds.
Awareness holds the key
Worker welfare demands a wider perspective, observes social worker R. K. Nair, who is general secretary of Surya Charitable and Cultural Association. Nair says it is a misnomer to describe the workers’ right to stop work for non-payment of dues as “strike.”
“The labour law states that if a worker is delayed his payment by 15 days, he has the right to stop work, and we have instances where workers have not been paid for 10 months. What do you expect them to do?” he asks.
He says living conditions in many labour camps “have improved” and only periodic meetings between representatives of the employees, the Ministry of Labour and the concerned embassy can ensure a smooth work environment.
Nair is aghast at the current trend of transporting workers “as if they are animals” in trucks. And stress related issues of expatriate workers can be addressed only if they have the facility to visit their homes at least every two years, he adds.
But it is easier said than done. Many workers fall prey to visa scams, observes social worker K Ashok Kumar. He lists out several instances where social workers have teamed up to help those who have been cheated by scheming visa traders. The most rampant con game now is to dupe workers by offering visit visas in place of job visas.
“It is only after three months that they realise they have been duped,” says Ashok Kumar. “They will then have no other alternative but to be at the mercy of their sponsor or to abscond.”
Add to it the issue of “free visas” where a worker pays some BD800 to BD1000 for a work permit. To renew the agreement after two years, the sponsor demands the same money, and when he cannot pay it, the worker absconds.
Nair suggests that workers leaving their country must possess a valid work arrangement attested by the Indian mission abroad irrespective of their emigration clearance status. Every worker must register with the embassy on arrival, and the employer must report to the embassy if the worker absconds. “If labour problems are solved, the suicide rate will also come down,” he adds.
Visa scams happen because of the ignorance of workers, points out S Padalingam, a social worker, who works on his own and has decided not be officially associated with any association any more.
He works at his own pace, visiting the Immigration Office, meeting people in need and lending a helping hand to those at the Asry Detention Centre. “Most Indian workers from Tamil Nadu, who are cheated, are from Kallakurichi and Viluppuram. Similarly, those from Andhra Pradesh hail from Karim Nagar or Nizamabad. What that shows is the need to have focused awareness campaigns in these places.”
He also suggests that every community association in Bahrain — and there are many of them — must set aside a social fund and have a social service secretary. “If every association can take care of the problems of those in at least their own community, half the problems will be solved.”
Money, money, money
But why do workers opt even for a low-paid job in the Gulf, for which they pay hefty amounts? Some of the workers at a labour camp had paid anything from BD300 to BD1,000 for a job that fetches them just over BD50 a month.
Mathew (name changed) was earning over Rs6,000 (BD60) in India, when he left behind his two sons and wife to work in a construction firm. He rues the decision but now he is sucked into the rut. He must repay a loan taken at cut-throat interest rates to pay the recruiting agent, and also tend to his family.
Mathew is one of many thousands. Now, put in his place, people like Prabhu Narayan, N Karuppaiah, Rajaiah, Abdul Rahman Badardin, Sher Nawab Khan, Prasanna Kumar and Juripothla Sailu, all among 27 workers in a labour camp in West Eker. They have been jobless and penniless for many months now.
Money isn’t everything, but for those who have sacrificed a life close to their heart, there is no substitute for money.
Nasser (name changed) says the only time his colleagues and he take a break from routine is on a weekly trip to Manama. “But I think twice before I even buy a softdrink – I think of it as 100 fils from BD50, which is ten rupees or a kilo of rice back home.”
These men, they will toil on; the least you can do is pay them for their work, and spare them a little respect.
And perhaps we could learn from them a lesson – to count our blessings and not to take our comforts for granted.
Image from Arabian Business
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