A Story of A Legal Slave

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Jun 25 2007

He greeted me every morning as I opened the backdoor and entered the office. Some time back when I first joined I had asked for a cup of coffee, with cream and no sugar. Ever since, every day at the same time he would come with my morning coffee. He received my “Thank you” with a wide smile, “welcome madam” he would say back. At times when I was stressed and so were my colleagues he seemed to be the only smiling face in the office. Malcolm was different- he did everything cheerfully. More than once my co-worker had commented on how good our “office boy” was that maybe the company should consider opening a restaurant.

While asking him to move some boxes I clearly remember the probably only chat I have had with him. I asked why he was not considering working directly for the company, rather than for the agency that is contracting him to us. I offered to talk to the manager about it, as I had no doubts everyone in the office loved Malcolm. He said he could not. He signed a binding contract with the company who paid for his Visa and expenses, and he had to finish the four-year contract with them, or pay a big sum of money which he could not afford. His hometown is Mangalore, India. He spoke English well enough to communicate flawlessly with all of us, and I never knew or asked what his mother tongue was.

Two weeks ago I was surprised my coffee was black, but I did not even think twice about it. Later that week someone had asked for their water bottle to be filled, and I watched as Malcolm carried the bottle away, and then back, empty. He had just moved some boxes out of the store when he, for some obscure reason, moved them back in. It was evident that same afternoon that something was wrong with Malcolm. He stopped responding, sat on his chair staring at the empty space and saying nothing. He was repeatedly asked what was wrong with him with at no avail. Finally I asked a co-worker who spoke his mother tongue to ask him to go home and rest, but also to try to find out what was wrong with him.

He told her about his girlfriend, a famous Indian singer whose songs were frequently aired in the radio. He asked her to sing, and asked her if she herself was a singer. He said random things about how he could not leave the office because he should be serving water, coffee and lunch.

Some, like many of you might be, found it hard to believe that Malcolm was not mentally stable anymore, but he was. He was not acting because he has stolen something like some had suspected. When asked if he has taken anything from the office he enthusiastically said yes, and even named the very person who was interrogating him, along with Jesus, as the people who helped him to steal. He seemed rather happy saying it. On his last day in the office he was exercising and dancing to the rhythm of music that he was singing.

His agency was notified and his replacement was there next morning. The contact person in the agency did not even seem sceptical or surprised. He even offered to check Malcolm’s room to find out whether he is a kleptomaniac. They did, and all they found in his room was two pairs of shoes, and three pairs of his uniform. That was all Malcolm’s property that next day when he was leaving to Mangalore he was only carrying a plastic bag on him.

Never will I forget Malcolm or his smile. How little I knew about him the person. How I had previously been under the impression that Malcolm was amongst the luckier ones whose office had nice people who never shouted at him and always thanked him for what he did. When Malcolm was gone I was disgusted with myself for what I, shut in my own world, had previously thought.

He worked in our office from 9 to 5. He then worked at a hotel from 6 to 1. The weekend was shared between the two premises. He lived in a room where there was nothing but his uniform, and as per his earlier conversations with some staff members, he had no friends. He only spoke to those in our office, on the random occasions when my likes thought about chatting with the “office boy”. He was alone. In a foreign country among people who spoke a different language, most of which are better-off than he was. He had no right to quit or change jobs, and he did not have the money to arrange for his emancipation. He was a legal slave, with little attention from everyone.

He left, to his hometown; his legacy from Bahrain was only a plastic bag.

Cradle of Humanity

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East