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Bahrain, Oman: The Lives Of Migrant Workers

Migrant workers, the majority from South Asia, form a large part of the population in the countries of the Gulf. In this post we hear the experience of two individuals who have come to the Gulf to work.

Mohammad Iqbal is an Indonesian who lives in Bahrain. He tells us the story of one worker he met:

I recently met a Bangali [Bangladeshi] who works for a hotel as a casual housekeeping attendant. He is actually Public Area attendant, one who takes care all public areas in a hotel, cleaning glass windows, or mopping floors of the lobby. He is not in charge for guest rooms. He does not make up rooms. What’s not fair? He spent BD1,500 (3980 USD) to get working visa in Bahrain. He’s entitled 2 year permit. He’s paid BD10 (26 USD) a day, it means he earns BD240 (636 USD) a month. It’s pretty good pay? Wait..! He has to pay his flat, water, electricity, meal and of course sending money home.

Let’s calculate. For housing, he spends a sharing flat for let say BD50 (132 USD) a month. Then water and electricity will be additional BD10 (26 USD), and then meal for BD40 (106 USD) a month. Don’t forget, since he has a landlord or agent who arranged his employment, including job placement in different places, he has to pay for the agent fee at least BD25 (66 USD). So, total take home pay will be only BD115 (305 USD) a month. In a year (12 month), he can save BD1,380 (3660 USD). This amount is still not enough to pay back the “visa” or “entrance fee” which is BD1,500 (3980 USD). I have no idea whether this amount is legal or not, but one thing I really don't get is that within 2 years he can only save BD1,260 (3340 USD) net. As a conclusion, he spends 1,500 (3980 USD) and sacrifices his two years working very hard for only BD1,260 (3340 USD). To extend another 2 years “working visa” he has to invest again BD1,000 (2652 USD). This means, within 2 years, he gets only BD260 (690 USD) net to save and I still have no clue how he pays for his flight ticket. I really don’t understand since it’s just not fair!

Francine Burlett, a French writer based in Bahrain, had a conversation with an Indian woman called Yasmina on a flight from Muscat to Bahrain in May. This is Yasmina's story:

“Pas facile, la vie à Chennai (Inde), chez moi, tu sais. J'ai deux filles au Collège. Un jour, elles seront docteur. Mais d'abord il faut payer, payer et payer encore. [...] Tu sais, je viens de vivre presque 2 mois à Salalah, à Oman. J'ai laissé mon travail là-bas hier. J'étais dans une famille Omanaise. Madame avait 10 enfants – 8 filles et 2 garçons- et fin mai elle va accoucher du 11e bébé. Tu te rends compte? 11 enfants… C'est beau ça. Mais je ne serai pas là pour voir si c'est un garçon ou une fille. Je dois partir. C'est dur de la laisser seule, sans aide, si prêt de son accouchement mais je ne peux pas rester.

It’s not easy, my life in Chennai (India), you know. I have two daughters in college. One day, they’ll be doctors. But first I have to pay, pay, and pay some more. […] You know, I’ve just spent nearly two months living in Salalah, in Oman. I left my work there yesterday. I was staying with an Omani family. Madam had ten children – eight girls and two boys – and at the end of May she’ll give birth to the eleventh baby. Did you get that? Eleven children… That’s wonderful. But I won‎’t be there to see if it’s a boy or a girl. I have to go. It’s difficult to leave her alone, without help so close to giving birth, but I cannot stay.

Tous les soirs, son mari venait dans ma chambre. Tous les soirs, je lui disais: “Je suis ton employée, pas ton épouse. Retourne chez toi, ta femme a besoin de toi. Retourne dans ton lit. Tu n'as pas le droit de me faire ça. Laisse-moi me reposer, je suis fatiguée…”. Tu imagines? Dix enfants, le ménage, la cuisine, la lessive avec chaque jour des tonnes de dishdashas et de abbayas à repasser, les draps, les couches en tissus, les serviettes… Mais moi, ça m'est égal de travailler. Je ne sais pas faire autre chose. Je suis courageuse. Je n'ai pas peur des lourdes tâches. Mais la nuit, il n'avait pas le droit de me faire ça. Me toucher, m'ennuyer. Je n'ai pas réussi à l'arrêter. Pas assez forte… J'ai du me me décider à faire quelque chose. Vite.

Every evening, her husband would come into my bedroom. Every evening, I would say to him, “I am your employee, not your wife. Go back, your wife needs you. Go back to your bed. You don’t have the right to do that to me. Let me rest, I am tired…” Can you imagine? Ten children, the housework, the cooking, the laundry with tons of dishdashas and abayas to iron every day, the sheets, the cloth diapers, the towels… But you know, I don’t mind working. I don’t know how to do anything else. I am dedicated. I am not afraid of difficult jobs. But he didn’t have the right to do that to me at night. Touch me, bother me. I didn’t manage to stop him. Not strong enough… I had to decide to do something. Quickly.

Tu vois, les employés de maison comme moi qui viennent d'Inde, du Sri-Lanka, de Somalie ou des Philippines, ils ont deux mois d'essai et après, ils ne peuvent plus annuler leur contrat, revenir en arrière. Nos passeports sont entre les mains de nos employeurs et s'ils ne veulent pas nous laisser partir, on ne peut rien faire. Tu dois honorer ton contrat de 2 ans avant de pouvoir retourner chez toi. C'est la loi. Moi, je leur ai dit que je voulais partir avant la fin de la période d'essai, que c'était mon droit. Malgré cela, monsieur ne voulait pas.

You see, the domestic workers like me that come from India, Sri Lanka, Somalia or the Philippines, they have two months’ probation, and after that they cannot cancel their contract, go back. Our passports are held in the hands of our employers, and if they don’t want to let us leave, we cannot do anything. You have to honour your two-year contract before being able to go home. It’s the law. I had told them that I wanted to leave before the probation period ended, that it was my right. In spite of that, the husband didn’t want me to.

Alors, j'ai attaqué une grève de la faim. Pendant 5 jours, je ne suis pas sortie de ma chambre, je n'ai pas mangé, pas bu, je ne me suis pas lavée. Ils ont appelé le médecin. Et c'est lui qui a appelé la Police. Voilà. Ils m'ont accompagné jusqu'à l'aéroport. Monsieur a dû payer mon billet d'avion jusqu'à chez moi, me rendre mon passeport. C'est la loi. Mais Monsieur a été méchant jusqu'au bout, tu sais. Moi, je ne sais pas lire. Sur mon billet d'avion, je ne pouvais pas savoir ce qu'il y avait marqué. C'est ici, à l'embarquement, que l'hôtesse de Gulfair m'a dit que je partais pour Ramanathapuram, et non pas Chennai, ma ville. Tu peux le croire, ça? J'ai refusé d'embarquer. Pour aller où? Dans une ville que je ne connais pas, sans argent, sans personne, à 600km de chez moi?… Heureusement, la Police a payé le billet de Ramanathapuram à Chennai. Monsieur devra leur rembourser. Ils ont été corrects, ces policiers, tu sais. C'était quand même 60 Rials (120€) de supplément… un mois de mon salaire!

So then I went on hunger strike. For five days, I did not leave my room, I didn’t eat or drink, I didn’t wash. They called the doctor, and it was he that called the police. There! They accompanied me to the airport. The husband had to pay my plane ticket back home, and give me my passport. It’s the law. But he was nasty right until the end, you know. I don’t know how to read. I couldn’t understand what was written on my plane ticket. It was when boarding, that the Gulf Air flight attendant told me that I was going to Ramanathapuram, and not Chennai, my city. Can you believe it? I refused to board. To go where? To a town that I didn’t know, without money, with anyone, 600 km from my home? Luckily, the police paid the ticket from Ramanathapuram to Chennai. The husband will have to reimburse them. They did the right thing, the policemen, you know. It was 60 Rials (155 USD) extra…a month’s salary for me!

Je suis déjà restée 5 ans à Dubaï où j'ai fait un “jump” (Faire un “Jumping”: partir de chez son employeur, en lui laissant le passeport, pour accepter une place plus lucrative ailleurs mais en tant qu'illégal). J'ai travaillé 2 ans en Arabie Saudite, 2 ans à Oman dans le passé. Je parle arabe couramment. Si tu as besoin de quelqu'un, n'hésite pas à m'appeler à Chennai. Je viendrai. Je t'aime bien. Mais pas tout de suite. Je veux d'abord voir mes filles et un peu me reposer… ”

I had already stayed five years in Dubai where I made a “jump” (to make a jump: leave your employer, leaving behind your passport, to take up a more lucrative job elsewhere, but illegally). In the past I have worked two years in Saudi Arabia, two years in Oman. I speak Arabic fluently. If you need someone, don’t hesitate to call me in Chennai. I will come. I really like you. But not straight away. First I want to see my daughters and rest a little…”

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