Interview with migrant workers in Bahrain

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Jun 1 2007

I conducted several interviews with housemaids, a farmer, and a public bus driver in Bahrain. The language barrier made this very hard. I had to mix several languages. Originally I wanted this to be a podcast, but interruptions happened frequently, and also I had to repeat or re-phrase some questions since not all of them understood the words. Finally though, after days of trying to get as much information as possible from their experiences, I managed to pull this through and to organize each interview session. By the end both my questions and their answers were clear enough for me to be able to fully understand and publish this.

I'll do this in section, to make it easier for the readers.

The first interview I conducted was with an Indonesian housemaid who works nearby. I interviewed several maids who work nearby but I found this to be the most alarming so far, so this is the first one I chose to translate and post.

This is a recording that I had to change to proper English (it was in Arabic mostly, and some Indonesian.) It's very time-consuming to try and translate this as accurately as possible so that I don't in any way misrepresent her. I had to leave some parts out due to lack of relevance. In any case, I did my best, and here it is. [My comment within this interview are placed between brackets.]

Name: Razan
Nationality: Indonesian
Occupation: Housemaid/Nanny
Age: 31

Me: Razan, I'm recording this interview for a case study I'm doing on migrant workers in the Gulf. I hope you won't mind if I share this. Is it okay for me to publish this recording and make it available for others to listen to?
Razan: Yes.

Me: How long have you been living in Bahrain?
Razan: 9 years now.

Me: Did you ever go back home?
Razan: Not a single time.

Me: Why not?
Razan: I am not allowed a vacation.

Me: But it's not a vacation. Most have contracts that don't last over 2-4 years, until it is renewed. In this period they can go home for up to 1 month or slightly more.
Razan: Contracts?

Me: Yes, the agency provides a contract which you are required to sign when you go to a new house.
Razan: I don't know.

Me: Do you like being here?
Razan: It's not the best.

Me: Why not?
Razan: I'm disrespected.

Me: Disrespected by whom?
Razan: Sir, Madam [note: this is what most maids here call their employers], children, all.

Me: Where do you work and sleep, can you show me?
Razan: It's the outside room.

Me: Which one?
Razan: Outside. You can't see it. Behind the house, next to the garage [note: the garage is filthy. I expect her room to be in similar conditions if not worse.]

Me: Can you show me inside?
Razan: Right now, I have to prepare laundry, Madam doesn't allow me inside the room only if I sleep. I must be here, or if they call me and I am not available, you do not want to see their anger.

Me: Were you ever physically abused?
Razan: I am not certain how to explain it. Feelings hurt more than my body sometimes.

Me: What is the best thing about your job?
Razan: [laughs] Maybe when the family is away, I can sit at home and think. That never happens now. When they leave this house, the responsibilities for me grow, and it only makes it hard. If they come back and the work is not completed, that is big trouble.

Me: Your Arabic is excellent.
Razan: After 9 years, I learned.

Me: Do you ever consider going home?
Razan: When I left my child and husband, my child was only 1 years old. Now he is 10. I did not see him grow. This is the thing that I hate the most. I want my family so much.

Me: Do you ever write letters, or call?
Razan: Calls are not allowed.

Me: Letters?
Razan: I cannot really write.

Me: But after 9 years! What do you do?! How do you communicate with your family?
Razan: I don't.

[At this point, quite honestly, I was on the verge of tears.]

Me: On behalf of your employers I truly apologize... you don't deserve this treatment.
Razan: I thank you. It is not your fault.

Me: Why did you come here?
Razan: I did not have options... we are very poor. My child depends on me for money, my husband is the one feeding and taking care of him. We also need to pay for his school. They need me to work here, and I send the money.

Me: How much do you get paid?
Razan: 1 month, I get BD 40 [this is about $106]

Me: You send this yourself?
Razan: No, I have copy of address in Indonesia. I give to Madam, she sends by air [she means mail here.]

Me: And how often do you work per day?
Razan: I don't stop. I can't stop. When they go to sleep, they leave me the entire laundry and dishes, and they want it done by the morning. Madam wakes up at 7, if it is not done, I am in danger. Sir wakes up at 4 or 5 for his morning prayer. I must clean his car every day. But they have people in their house maybe until 10 or 11, and they leave the house dirty. I sleep for no more than 3 or 4 hours, and the rest I am working both inside and in the garden or washing their cars.

Me: Wow, mashalla! You are amazing.
Razan: [laughs] I am used to it.

Me: But for all this Razan, you get BD 40 per month? That is far too little. For the work you do, you deserve much more!
Razan: If BD 40 puts food in my son's mouth, I am happy.

Me: Well, knowing that you go through all this, I am not happy!
Razan: What can we do? This is life.

Me: This isn't life. This isn't living. How can you accept that?
Razan: Where do I go?

Me: The agency. Tell them what is going on.
Razan: What agency? Do you see me have a car? I don't know anything. I can't leave this house without being lost. I think of leaving many times but where do I go?

Me: Razan you have to tell them to show you the initial contract. You can see there for how long you signed for. 9 years, it sounds a bit funny.
Razan: They give me trouble. Sir and Madam are strong.

Me: You can ask them, no? Tell them, I am just curious about my work. Since next year will mark my 10 years of being here, can you please allow me to visit my son in Indonesia?
Razan: I think about it.

Me: Think about it.
Razan: If with my own money, I cannot. Not enough.

Me: If you are going to come back to them after 1 or 2 months, many employers offer to pay for a 2-way ticket to ensure your return.
Razan: I think about it.

Me: Thank you for this interview Razan. I would like to show the world what people like you are going through.
Razan: It's not a nice life, but you will find it everywhere. I do what I can to survive. Allah gives me the power.

[End]

If I manage to edit this correctly; I would also like to feature this in an Arabic podcast here. Let me know if any readers here are interested.

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East