Bahrain Keen to Help Out Expats on Edge of Living

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Bahrain MPs are in the process of doing an immense service to illegal expatriate workers by helping them in every way to enable them to sort out their lives and to make them happy. To achieve this they have come up with some innovative ideas.

Employment for expat blue-collar workers in the Arabian Gulf, whether in the organised or the unorganised sector, has always been a tricky game. For many years the practice had been that an expat worker on a low rung of the employment ladder arrived in one of the Gulf countries, sponsored by a company. And once hired on a particular low wage, he was forever doomed to go on plodding in the same groove even as he noticed his compatriots doing similar jobs on a higher salary across the road.

There was no way he could change his job unless he went out of the country for anything from six months to one year. Few were willing to take the chance because no sponsor would wait for a low-wage worker for that long to fill the slot. In other words a worker, once hired, became a kind of bonded labourer with little prospect of any change in his wages or perks.

The practice started in the early 1980s but Bahrain so far has been the only country to abolish the system thereby improving the quality of life of thousands of expat workers. As a consequence they benefited in many ways. They could switch jobs like any worker would elsewhere when he finds a better opening. The original sponsor could not stop him. This improved the wages of even those workers who were hesitant or unwilling to switch since a sponsor, afraid the worker might quit any time he felt like it, voluntarily raised wages.

expat manual workers
Expat manual labour workers with barely any writing or reading skills.

But there was still a grey area. The expat workers with barely any writing or reading skills, those who tended to survive only on the basis of their manual labour, unaware of the winds of change in Bahrain, tended to run away from their sponsors to take up odd jobs and be their own masters. But this gave them or their next of kin no protection against their sickness or death or disability in case of accident even on their job site since the casually-hired labourer with no official records would normally be disowned by the company which may have hired him on the cheap. If they tried to leave the country they would have to account for their status and pay the fine for the period when they were moonlighting which could be many years for some workers.

Bahrain, like other Gulf countries, did occasionally try to announce amnesty for such workers so they could leave without having to pay fines. But the down-at-heel workers found it expedient to hang on to their tenuous jobs.

However, when Bahrain announced a six-month amnesty for expat workers this time round [it ends at the end of December] it also suggested to them to look for an employer and thus regularize their status if they did not want to go back home. And imagine that thanks to this official nudge out of the 60,000 or so illegal workers some 18,600 had found legitimate employment whereas some 5,100 had left. But that still leaves around 36,000 floating about undecided while the end of the amnesty is barely three weeks away.

But imagine that instead of coming after these 36,000 illegal workers who are bound to end up in the clutches of rogue employers the nation’s MPs are trying to find ways to help them out. One of their proposals is to create a pool of expat labourers who could be hired by the private sector on short-term contracts.

The Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) committee at the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry has also stepped in at this point. According to committee vice-chairman Hamed Fakhro who was speaking to the local daily GDN: “We could have a procedure to legalise these free visa workers into a group, documented and classified based on their skills for employers to choose and hire them on a daily, weekly or monthly basis at a nominal fee. Thus the employees and those hiring them are protected under law and it will be easy to monitor that these workers are provided with their basic rights, including decent housing and healthcare.”

This and other proposals will be handed over to an MPs’ team for it to discuss the viability of the proposed solutions to the free visa issue in Bahrain. “By mid-January we will hold a round table where the proposals will be presented to all stakeholders including the ministries of Interior, Labour and Industry, Commerce and Tourism, the Labour Market Regulatory Authority and civil agencies responsible for migrant workers,” Fakhro was quoted as saying.

At forums and seminars a lot of countries speak of labour welfare but there are few countries which sincerely work towards improving the lives of expatriate labourers. Bahrain is one of those rare nations.

Brij Sharma is an Indian journalist and editor based in Bahrain. Brij tells us the interesting stories we don’t usually hear from the middle east country.