PR & the Exploitation of Migrant Workers in Bahrain

Skyscrapers -fitting tombstones to those who died building them

Often when people wish to illustrate Bahrain’s modernity, they will point to its brand new roads, its pleasant malls, and its huge skyscrapers.  In many ways, the logic of a neoliberal market system dictates the importance of these things, for in order to diversify its economy, a country must paint a picture of itself as a place worth of investment. While the logic of building colossal glass structures in a country where temperatures reach 50 degrees still eludes me, it continues to happen. But who constructs these giant greenhouses, and what does it tell about this so-called perception of modernity. Furthermore, who are the people who are brought to build and service a country whose very economy hugely outgrows the limitations of the soil it was built on.  Thanks to the fortunes of history, the small, environmentally hostile countries of the GCC demonstrate the inefficiencies and absurdities of bestowing upon tiny nations colossal sums of money.

Fueling and servicing much of this modernity are migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, The Philippines, Nepal and Sri Lanka. Many of these South Asians work in extremely low paid jobs, including domestic work, laboring, cleaning, retail, transport etc. The presence of these expatriate workers in Bahrain has sometimes caused tension with Bahrainis, as many see them as taking jobs that could otherwise go to locals. Many expats are also employed in the state security forces, further fueling the problem. However, since February 14th last year, these grievances have been exploited and manipulated by the regime in an attempt to discredit protesters by portraying them as xenophobic, racist and brutal. (Read this excellent article by Fahad Desmukh for more information on how the government seemed ‘suddenly concerned’ with the plight of expats)

Protesters Versus Expats

The latest repetition of this ‘protester versus expat’ discourse took place on Al Jazeera’s show the Stream (aired 4th June  2012), where spokesman for the Information Affairs Authority (read regime PR centre) Fahad Albinali suggested that 12 expats were killed after being targeted by ‘rioters’ (see 10.08). This statement is actually erroneous. While it is true that four expatriates were killed during the troubles last year, 2 were killed by civilians, 1 was killed by the Bahrain Defence Force, and another was killed in unknown circumstances. Activist Mohammed Hasan highlighted this on Twitter, and after his tweets* appeared on The Stream, he was promptly called in by the Criminal Investigation Department to be questioned**. Incidentally, Nabeel Rajab was also detained for seven days following his appearance on the Stream. The official reason was that he had publicly vilified the citizens of Muharraq and questioned their patriotism. I believe this was the tweet that got him arrested? Let me know if you find any ‘disgraceful expressions’.  If insulting one’s patriotism is a crime, I wonder why all those people who call protesters ‘traitors’ have not been detained? (Those like Falaifel and Mohammed Khalid) The arrest of Nabeel and Mohammed severely undermine Albinali’s claim that in Bahrain ‘the right to freedom of expression is guaranteed’ (5.34). 

Anyway, I digress slightly. Ultimately, Mohamed’s crime was to speak his mind, and although he was released, his interrogation illustrates the regime’s commitment to intimidating those whose rhetoric contradicts the official state narrative of last year’s protests. That narrative is that demonstrators/protesters/rioters are inherently violent, and therefore all those who want political reform are violent and xenophobic.  The importance of this rhetoric is highlighted by Albinali’s liberal interpretation of the truth. With regards to expat deaths caused in last year’s unrest, he stated (at 10.00)

If you take into consideration that 5 of the 35 [deaths] documented  in the BICI were police officers, 18 of them were protesters,  the rest were expats – who the BICI report states that they were targeted by rioters and some seriously assaulted and some killed

According to Albinali’s maths, 12 expats died (35-18+5) seemingly as a result of ‘protester’ violence. In actual fact, the BICI report states that of the five security officers killed, three were by ‘demonstrators, one was by the BDF, and one could not be attributed  to a specific person or agency. Four expats were killed, two by civilians, one by the BDF, and one by persons unknown (BICI, 848). The report also states that thirteen civilian deaths were attributable to the security forces (BICI – 862), while the death of eight civilians could not be attributed to a particular person or agency (BICI – 879). Furthermore, the mystery surrounding these 8 ‘unattributed’ deaths is a result of poor, flawed and biased investigative work by the MoI (BICI – 880). Let’s also not forget the fact that the BICI was highly critical of Bahrain’s justice system, further casting doubt on the integrity of any claims the government might make about civilian on expat violence. Not only was Albinali being misleading, but it is absurd that Mohammed Hasan was questioned by police when he was not the one issuing erroneous information on international television. Of course I am being a little harsh, as I’m sure Fahad just forgot the exact figures, though had he not been representing the government would he too have been hauled over the coals and threatened with rape?

Other recent attempt to depict ‘protesters’ as anti-expat were evident in the middle of May, when the Informational Affairs Authority released a video showing the burnt out remains of a house allegedly attacked by thugs with petrol bombs. They also showed close ups of the injured expats, one of whom was being loaded into an ambulance. I can only assume such footage was released in an attempt to vividly perpetuate the oft-repeated line that anti-government thugs continue to attack expats. Although the IAA didn’t explicitly use the term anti-government protesters, the pro-regime rag the Gulf Daily News (GDN) was less subtle. In a report written a few days after the indicent the GDN tacked on the following paragraph.***

It was not the first incidence of violence in and around Nuwaidrat, which has witnessed a series of potentially fatal attacks since the outbreak of anti-government protests last year….Gangs of anti-government thugs waged a campaign of violence against Bahrain’s Asian community in March last year, prompting many to flee their homes in Manama and seek shelter at the Pakistan Club and the Pakistan School.

The IAA have chosen not to release footage of two other similar incidents involving expats, one of which involved 10 Bangladeshis dying of Carbon Monoxide poisoning as their cramped accommodation caught fire. Instead, the press seem to focus on the fact that these Bangladeshis were working illegally, and therefore their accommodation was not subject to labour ministry scrutiny. In a strong letter to the GDN, General Secretary of the Migrant Workers Protection Society stated succinctly,

Poverty and exploitation link all these tragedies. It is disingenuous to blame the dead men themselves for being “free visa” (black market) workers for running away from their employers, or for “moonlighting” as is suggested in some reports. Who has illegally sold the thousands of “free visas” at exorbitant prices? Who has rented out these squalid units and called them “accommodation”? Who has failed to provide adequate safety supervision and equipment? And who has failed to either pay their employees at all or paid them so little that they find it necessary to resort to supplementary employment, or to run away in the hope of finding better-paid employment?

These tragic deaths were the second incident of CO poisoning this year alone, after four Indians died in Hamad Town in January while attempting to warm themselves by burning wood in a steel drum. In this instance, the press chose not to focus on illegality, but a lack of education on the part of the workers, who were unaware of the dangers of CO poisoning. The fact is, safer oil heaters and better housing are beyond the reach of many migrant workers.

Deaths,  Suicides and Structural Violence

The main problem with the regime’s attempt to deligitimise the protesters by framing them as violent and xenophobic is that it detracts from what Andrew Gardner describes as the ‘structural violence’ facing many expat workers. In essence, structural violence entails the exploitation of cheap South Asian labourer to fuel profits for businesses operating in Bahrain. Not only does the use of this ‘surplus labour’ allow for profiteering, but it also allows many locals and Western expats to enjoy a more comfortable standard of living. Such exploitation is permitted by a number of important factors, including the kafala system, an arrangement common throughout the GCC that places power in the hand of a sponsor. In this system, expat labourers are bound to a particular sponsor or citizen, who is responsible for paying their wages, setting holiday, paying travel costs etc.

Although Bahrain was lauded for changing the oppressive kafala system back in 2009, it was virtually resinstated during last year’s unrest. Having said that, the current parliament have approved a progressive new labour bill that is meant to further protect migrant workers. It is currently waiting to be ratified by the King. The legislation has been in the pipeline for four years, and apparently this is the closest it has come to being made into law. As far as I know, there is no clause to issue a minimum wage for migrant workers. It is also hard to anticipate whether or not the legislation will have a significant impact on the often appalling conditions migrant workers find themselves in. Sometimes it is not so much about issuing legislation, but actual enforcing that legislation and having a legal system that upholds the law without favoring sponsors.

Without enforcement migrant workers will continue to face extreme hardships. One only has to go onto Nexis (newspaper database) and type in ‘suicide’ and ‘Bahrain’ to see a real tale of woe.  Two days ago, an Indian man who was destitute due to his employer not paying his salary threatened to commit suicide. Two weeks ago another worker tried to set himself on fire at the Indian embassy, apparently protesting at the lengthy bureaucratic process involved in enabling him to leave Bahrain. Although figures are hard to determine, one report states that 24 migrant workers have committed suicide between the months of January and June 2012. Many of these workers hang themselves, either from roof beams or ceiling fans.  Take the example of Shanu Johnson for example, an employee of Yateem Air-conditioning Company who hung himself from a ceiling fanThe ceiling fan aspect particularly poignant, for it often tends to indicate that the migrants live in accommodation with no air-conditioning. Incidentally, I wonder if Shanu, an employee of Air-conditioning company, had air conditioning at home? (cc Marx Scholars). 

In addition to suicides, many migrant workers die as a result of what should be termed criminal negligence, whether it be on the work site or at home. Although some worksite accidents are unavoidable, the flaunting and ignorning of safety regulations will inevitably increase their prevalence. Unsurprisingly, the justice system tends to favour sponsors in cases brought against them by migrant workers (Gardner, 2010). According to Labour Ministry figures, worksite fatalities were were ’29 in 2007, 21 in 2006 and 18 in 2005‘. Ironically, (for the government PR machine perhaps), this general increase was interrupted by a decline last year – apparently as a result of the the anti-government protests. Anyway, despite the persence of rules and regulations, the justice system and LMRA clearly lack the teeth required to bring negligent sponsors to justice. Furthermore, how the government count these accidents is cause for concern. In Dubai for example, the Indian, Pakistan and Bangaldeshi embassies returned the bodies of 880 construction workers back home in 2004. In 2006, Dubai only reported 34 construction-related deaths.

As well as deaths, the abuse of domestic workers is widespread in the country. This is particularly true of women, who often

face long working hours, low salaries and late payment of salaries and poor and repressive living conditions. They suffer restrictions on movement, including the withholding of passports and are particularly vulnerable to psychological, physical and sexual abuse. It is extremely difficult for such victims of abuse to seek legal redress.

On this note, the organisation Migrant Rights recently addressed the issue of Bahrain’s ambassador to France, who was accused by his domestic servant of attempting to rape her.  The organisation argued that such behavior by reputable officials is often indicative of the ‘habitual subordination of domestic workers in the Gulf’. They also add that these authoritative figures ‘maintain the discriminatory laws that perpetuate their subaltern existence’.

Of course one cannot say that the Bahraini government and high up officials are solely responsible for such mistreatment  There are myriad of factors at work, from unscrupulous employment agencies working in Bahrain and abroad, to countries with remittance-dependent economies who are loathe to sour diplomatic relationships with the states that employ so many of their native workforce . Having said this, a more democratic and accountable cabinet in Bahrain with less vested interests would be more responsive to the needs of migrant rights. Furthermore, respect for trade unions and their demands would further allow migrants to lobby for better conditions. That migrants are allowed to join trade unions is irrelevant given how the government and private sector dismissed thousands of workers for engaging in legal strikes (BICI, 1708) last year. The uprising also appears to have been used an excuse by the regime to attack, divide and weaken Bahrain’s trade unions.

Prime Minister as Defender of Migrants

Despite this attack on the country’s trade unions and the continued existence of exploitative kafala system that often results in poor housing, squalid living conditions, low wages, illegality, the Prime Minister has attempted to position himself as a champion of migrant rights, ordering a probe into the fire that killed the 10 Bangladeshi workers.  This announcement came a week after the Prime Minister ordered a separate probe into another worksite accident that killed 3 workers (one Bahrain, one Pakistani, one Indian).   They died after suffocating in a sceptic tank in the village of Al-Eker.  Incidentally, Bahrain’s least state-controlled newspaper Al-Wasat focused on how the Bahraini dived into the sceptic tank to save his foreign colleagues. No doubt this was a deliberate attempt to emphasize the often harmonious relationships that exist between Bahrainis and migrants. It’s not the first time Al-Wasat have done something similar, and a few months ago they published a story about an Indian tailor who had lived happily amongst Bahrainis for many years. All in all, a little contrived.

Anyway, despite the Prime Minister’s ‘valiant’ stance, the repatriation of the bodies of the Bangladeshis who died was funded by donations mainly taken from the Bangladeshi community living in Bahrain. The Bangladeshi embassy also paid BD1000 compensation to each family of the deceased. It does seem unfair that the Bangladeshi community have to cover these costs, especially without knowing which landlord supplied the housing (Shouldn’t he be partly responsible?). Furthermore, we do not know whom the Bangladeshis were working for or why they were staying after their visas had expired. This is particularly relevant since many expats find themselves banned from leaving Bahrain if they are in debt, or indeed if they ‘abscond’ from a company due to unfair treatment. So although many workers may be illegal, many also have no choice but to remain in Bahrain illegally. As if things weren’t difficult enough, a new rule was introduced in hospitals that means those without valid CPRs (i.e. those on travel bans) are not entitled to medical treatment. (I don’t know the current status of this rule)

Final Points…

Life in Bahrain is tough for many migrants. Not only do they frequently face appalling and exploitative working conditions, but they are also exploited politically. Afterall, it is migrants who do a lot of the policing in Bahrain. Many have also complained of being co-opted into attending pro-government rallies. The fact they are used to discredit the pro-reform movement is simply an extension of systemic exploitation that views migrants as a form of economic or political capital . This is not to say that migrants have not been attacked by civilians or members of the pro-reform movement.  Civilian violence against migrant workers is not a new phenomenon in Bahrain, and should never ever be justified. The point is that it should not be used as a tool to undermine a legitimate political movement, and it certainly should not detract from the structural violence that results in so many suicides and deaths. The government also need to stop deliberately using expats to create a system that disempowers Bahraini citizens, by both recruiting them into the security service and using them to undermine a powerful indigenous labour force. This simply undermines Bahrain’s historic cosmopolitanism by exacerbating tensions between local and expat communities.

In my view, one of the fundamental drivers of such exploitation in any society is  the belief that some people deserve to be rewarded more than others for working equally hard (in many cases even harder). The fact that many labourers are paid a pittance for working insanely long hours in gruelling conditions is a tragedy.  I fundamentally disagree with  wage disparities, since  I can’t find a good humanitarian argument that justifies them.  If wealth is the means that dictates our life chances, then why is it fair to give some people a better life than others? Such arguments become particularly pertinent when the luxuries we enjoy are the result of someone else’s exploitation. Again, we are all guilty of this to an extent, whether it be buying a product built by underpaid and overworked workers, to buying a luxury house whose price is low because those who built are paid peanuts and live in squalor.  Such guilt should be exacerbated by the fact that those who allow us to lead more comfortable lives essentially work a form of indentured servitude, which is essentially what the kafala system is.  Having said that, many of us hold attitudes, particularly related to wealth distribution, that legitimize a system of inequality and exploitation. In this sense, changing attitudes is as much about personal reflection as it is the responsibility of the government. Without addressing these issues, a democratic government will simply reflect our own inadequacies and prejudices.

*This tweet also appeared on The Stream. Mohammed also said

** Mohammed also added ‘To be clear, I wasn’t called in for my tweet on @AJStream exclusively, they asked me about all tweets even the ones where I say goodnight’ https://twitter.com/safybh/status/210681421554139136

***An odd thing about this attack on expats is that it did not appear in the two main English-language daily papers the following day

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