By Hana Buhejji
What does a physically private space of 1.7 sqm mean for a man, keeping in mind that this area is the living space for an unknown number of years, this area is a shabby bunk bed attached to similar bunk beds at the head and foot ends of the bed.
This bed is glued to the wall from one side, which leaves only one open side that overlooks the space shared with 16 other men, each having similar area of private space.
On the bed, there is a pillow and a thick blanket, which I found when I entered the room, either covering one of the sleeping Asian bodies who were unconscious to the people who entered the room, or thrown slovenly like everything else in the room, which was crowded with people and things.
On the wall next to the bed, several nails were pinned and used as hangers for clothes; personal toiletries could clearly be seen through plastic bags hanging also on the wall. Beneath the bed, lies worn out cooking utensils and food leftovers that may be kept for the next meal. For the privacy of the occupants of the lower bunk beds, a rope was stretched between the pillars of the upper bed where a Lungi sarong familiar to workers from Indian Subcontinent was spread on it. Under desperate conditions, this bed is rented out on shift basis as a rest place for exhausted bodies.
In the crowded room, a window air conditioning, a ceiling fan and a white neon light are kept on all the time as the resting time for occupants vary during the day.
The above-mentioned situation of the room which, barely fits four standing adults as the 5 or 6 bunk beds take up most the space, is repeated in nine other similar sized rooms, four of them are located in the ground floor and three on the first floor which can be reached by narrow cement stairs. Additional two wooden rooms are constructed on the roof. A wooden stairs is used to reach to them.
On each floor, there is a common area, which is a storage for piles of used plastic bags, empty containers and dusty, ruined tools
On one of the corners, a kitchenette is located which is apparently used by everyone to prepare common meals, old door less cabinets kept on one side that contains a jumble of cooking essentials and empty containers. On the floor around it there were many small gas cookers, there were also large sized gas cylinders all tied with chains and locks as a precaution to theft. On the wall, facing the user of the single metal sink in the place, there was a paper glued to the wall, written on it “clean after use” in Bengali!
In this same common area, many worn-out pairs of sandals, shoes and slippers in front of the rooms’ doors. Most spaces on the walls of this area were covered with hanging cloths. The colors of most of them were faded under grey, brown and black shades. Some of them were tainted by spray paint, which clearly indicates that it belongs to a construction worker painter. On the upper part of the wall there are jumbled, worn out and exposed Interconnecting power cords, which provide an explanation for the frequent fire occurrence in these workers’ accommodations. In each floor, there is a bathroom that is only equipped with remnants of sanitary ware, torn ceilings with ruined wires dangling from it.
All the surface of the floors and stair steps are covered with layers of dust, dirt and the corners with spider webs. Cleaning duty seems a responsibility of none of the tenants of the building.
Once inside the building, it is difficult to overlook the tremendous number of water containers labeled by numbers and signs. I understood afterwards that these were used to secure water availability at times of recurrent water and electricity shortages. Each resident is assigned a small plastic container of water. Some secure their daily requirement of water before going to work every morning for car washing on the streets.
The building that houses 102 Asian workers ( the number increase at times to 120), all of whom are migrant workers who arrived to Bahrain on what is called locally “free visa” deals, and internationally, as human trafficking, is one of hundreds of houses which have been transformed to workers’ accommodations in many areas of Bahrain. In the situation of these accommodations are similar to their renting arrangements. The worker rents a bed for BD 20 ($ 53), electricity bill inclusive, none of the tenants knows the landlord. There is always an intermediary, usually from the same nationality of tenants that rents the house from its owner, and with the owner’s knowledge or without it, he transform the building into workers’ accommodation. A process that allows him to earn 3 times the rent he pays to the original landlord.
I started writing about the shocking situation I saw in one of the workers’ accommodations I visited recently when I received photos of a new collapse of a similar building, which had just occurred on “Bnghali ghali” or Banghali road. In this recent collapse, 4 workers died under the debris, 27 workers were injured and 200 workers were left homeless. All of them where living in the building which the length of its façade on the road is no longer than 3 small shop units. The owner transformed it to workers’ accommodation by dividing it into three units; each has a separate entrance.
When I went to the see the remains of the collapsed building, I took similar photos to what I took in the building I visited few days earlier, but this time the photos were 3 D cross sectional photo that shows the accumulated misery in the building, not only for who can enter and see the remains closely but for everyone purposely ignored the potential catastrophic collapses which is due to continue to happen in the future unless sincerely dealt with by responsible departments in the government.
The new photos I took of the collapsed building from outside is like the photos I previously took, but this time from outside after the collapse of the wall that covers the misery of tenants’ life. It exposed the crowded rooms filled with bunkbeds which doubles the income of the rented space, the hanging clothes on the walls, the additional rooms that is constructed on the roofs, and the numerous numbers of small gas cookers. The walls collapsed to reveal the greed of landlords, middlemen and human traffickers who lured these people to come to Bahrain with fake mirage promises. A situation that would never had happened if there are strict laws and regulations which criminalize these inhumane practices which resulted in the misery of tens of thousands of migrants who are now filling,thenot difficult to find neighborhoods in Bahrain, or if strict requirements of workers accommodations were applied.
Out of 700,000 migrant worker in Bahrain, only 150,000 live in the 3100 officially registered labor camps, which are subject to inspection by Ministry of Labor. When excluding around 110,000 domestic workers and housemaids, most of the 400,000 remaining migrants, are forced to find their own accommodation, which is covered by responsibility of Ministry of works, municipalities, and Urban planning (MWMUP).MWMUP said that 1000 out of the 3653 buildings used by workers are found to be non-compliant to constructional safety criteria “and not humanitarian”.
Living conditions are not the only thing that is similar, but also the mechanisms by which these migrant workers reach Bahrain and the prices paid to middlemen or brokers, and the pressure applied on them to get retrieve their documents in order to change their sponsors. It is the same type of exploitation that stretches along the distance from Bahrain to the countries of origin from which these workers are exported as type of “living good”. In the collapsed building, as well as many of the other workers accommodations I visited, most of the tenants are “free visa” holders.
As per official Statistics, there are around 50,000 free visa workers in Bahrain, whereas labor NGOs estimate them by no less than 80,000. Systems, roles and pricing are developed in this “slavery” market and areas and streets named with special names relates to them. Worse than that and below the “underground” world where these humans are living in, there forms an even “under” world where forbidden and unacceptable services are made available to fulfill the needs of these people with low prices suitable to their tight budget.
The space of this article is limited to cover and research this overgrowing problem that has been occurring for more than 3 decades, nor to fully uncover the situation. This situation is so obvious and known to officials of all levels whom their very responsibility is to fix this dire situation. This article sets to document the fear of this situation, which has become even more dangerous than recognizing its existence and developing superficial glorious solutions enough to only convince international labor and human rights organizations to receive a fake rating or recognition.
The collapse of a building is like Symptomatic headache for diseases that are more serious. Well prepared systems to deal with catastrophic incidents when they happen is not the proper cure for it. What is needed is a more comprehensive and radical approach by reviewing the labor regulations, initiate them and accelerate proposals still laying in the parliament agendas since the beginning of the decade and insure fair and firm enforcement.
This situation, which is exploited by a handful of human traffickers, is, in addition to its humanitarian cost due to our laxity towards fixing the situation, make us contributes to the international human trafficking which effects 21 million victims globally, including those who are victims of sex trafficking and forced labor. Internally, the situation costs much higher than the fees collected by the government for visa and work permits, as the government on the other side pays for the infrastructure used by those migrant workers that includes roads, sewage systems, health services and other free or subsidized services. There is also the cost of disruption of local labor market, in addition to the social cost that is borne by Bahrainis who must deal with these consequences in their neighborhoods, jobs and their future, which is expected to worsen due to a sluggish economy. All of this has its toll on the legacy we are leaving to our successor generations and to Bahrain’s real image towards the world.
In addition to humanitarian cost due to laxity in fixing the situation, which is exploited by handful of human traffickers has its toll on Bahrain’s reputation as it sort us as contributors to the international human trafficking business which effects 21 million victims around the world, exploited in sex trafficking and unfair work situations. Internally the situation is definitely has a cost higher than the fees collected by government for visa and work permits. The government on its side pay for the infrastructure used by those migrant workers that includes roads, sewage systems, health services and other free or subsidized services. There is also the cost of disruption of local labor market, in addition to the social cost that is borne by Bahrainis who have to deal with the consequences in their neighborhoods, jobs and their future as it is expected to worsen according to the foreseen lower performance of the economy. All that is bound to have its tall on the legacy we are to leave for our successor generations and to Bahrain’s image in front of the world.