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BAHRAIN: Migrants Stuck With Added Problems

Suad Hamada

MANAMA, Mar 3 2011 (IPS) - Thousands of foreign labourers here are squeezed into houses the government says are uninhabitable, but they are unlikely to get any relief soon, with the non- stop protests in the capital hurting many businesses.

After Tunisia and Egypt, it is Bahrain’s turn to witness protests in the centre of the capital. Seven protesters have died, although there has been no clash between demonstrators and security forces since Feb. 17. Protesters have refused to budge from the Pearl Roundabout, a few kilometres from Bahrain’s Financial Harbor and World Trade Center.

Businesses in the area are reporting losses, with customers choosing to stay away. Among those affected is Bahrain’s largest central market, which employs thousands of migrant workers.

The protests have likewise brought the hotel industry to its knees, with numerous room bookings, conferences, exhibitions, and even wedding parties being cancelled, said Anwar Abdulrahman, columnist and editor-in chief of the first Bahrain-based newspaper Akhbar Al Khaleej.

This decline in business means that employers will be unable to afford proper labour camps for their workers.

Businessman Isa Mohammed said the current situation makes it impossible for him to provide proper housing for his workers. Isa owns a barber shop and three mobile phone stores that employ eight workers, all of them renting an old house for less than 150 dollars a month.

“Even before the unrest that badly affected my incomes, I wasn’t able to shift them to a better place, because I’m paying monthly around 25 dollars as a tax for each of them,” Isa said.

A huge number of foreign migrant workers here in Bahrain live in crumbling and unsafe homes, the only kind most of them can afford.

“In 2009, we have issued warnings for 250 home owners to renovate their homes before giving them for rent and got orders from the Public Prosecutor Office to demolish 80 homes in the same city for being unfit for living,” said Minister of Municipalities and Urban Development Dr Juma Al Kaabi. “If all concerned official organisations will apply rules and conditions related to labour camps, then 90 percent of those camps should be evacuated for being unfit for living.”

Official statistics show Bahrain had 290,000 foreign labourers as of 2009. More than two-thirds of them live in Manama and Muharraq, Bahrain’s second largest city. The 2010 Census released in February shows that expatriates have been streaming into Bahrain over the past nine years, and are the reason the population has nearly doubled from 650,000 in 2001 to 1,234,571 in 2010.

Expatriates workers, who make up 54 percent of the population, fill a wide range of occupations, from labourers to company chairpersons. But the majority of them are employed in low paying jobs as construction and factory workers, shopkeepers, tailors and crafters. The majority are poor Asians – Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis – who cannot afford high rent or are unable to get better accommodation from their employers.

Migrant workers’ living conditions caught public attention, after 33-year-old Indian Susheel Kumar was killed when the roof of the bedroom he shared with another Indian collapsed due to heavy rains in January. Kumar’s roommate, Nandhi Kishore Bimal, who was sleeping under a table, survived with leg fractures.

The house in Manama where Kumar died is one of many old houses that are rented out as labour camps. In 2006, 16 Indian workers died when their home, also in the same area, caught fire.

Fire is common in these houses, since most of them are made of wood. Labourers cook in their rooms, because kitchens have usually been converted into additional rooms to take in more occupants, municipal councillor Fatima Salman told IPS.

“Moving those labourers from old houses in residential areas isn’t expected soon, because with the financial problems companies wouldn’t risk paying 20 dinar monthly for the accommodation of each of them in the only ready labour camp built by the government in Muharraq,” municipal councillor Ali Al Muqla told IPS.

“I don’t have another option but to live in old houses and that what I have been doing in the last 15 years I spent in Bahrain,” said Bangladeshi Anwar Mohammed who repairs houses for a living. “My monthly earning is less than 200 dollars and most of it I spend on my family back home, so paying 25 dollars monthly to share a room with other four roommates is affordable to me.”

Anwar doesn’t worry about the risk of living in such old homes. “Throughout the years I lived in Bahrain, I have shifted three homes and all of them were in bad condition but nothing happened to me, so let’s hope luck will continue to be on my side,” he said.

Shortly after the death of 16 Indian labourers in the fire in 2006, the government announced it was building three huge labour camps to accommodate more than 600,000 workers in different cities. So far, only one is ready in the Salman Industrial area, and very few have moved in.

“Labour accommodation far from residential areas couldn’t be a good choice for many of us,” Pakistani workers Iqbal Aslam told IPS. “I’m a self-employed plumber and I have to be close to my customers because I don’t own a car and don’t want to waste my money on transportation.”

Salman Mahfoodh, general secretary of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Union, said the government isn’t doing its best to deal with the problem. “There should be proper legislation to deal with labour camps to give the Ministry of Labor the power to inspect all camps, including those being rented by labourers themselves to ensure their safety,” he told IPS. “Without strong legislation, poor labourers will remain at risk.”

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