Sandeep Singh Grewal - AHN Middle East Correspondent
Manama, Bahrain (AHN) - Being a maid here equals money troubles and misery. That sums up what many domestic workers go through after they leave their countries to earn a better living for their families, according to a union official.
Bahrain, like many other Gulf Cooperation Council states, is heavily dependent on maids. Almost every household has housemaids, an essential commodity in the country's changing lifestyles. Maids are supplied by local recruitment agencies at a fixed price stipulated in the contract. But a leader in a union that represents many foreign workers says that the terms of the contract are violated, as the agencies illegally take three months of advance salaries of the maids from their sponsors without informing them.
Suad Mubarak, assistant general secretary of women and child affairs at the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), told AHN, "I was shocked to come across an Ethiopian maid who was crying when she was told that she had to work for free for the next three months or risk losing her new job. The agencies cannot take advance salary from the maids who are eagerly waiting in vain for their pay at the end of the month."
The unionist took the case to the Ministry of Labor, which said the advance salary practice was illegal.
"These agencies exploit the maids by pressuring them to work against their wish and warn them to send them to their country," Mubarak said. "The maids in Bahrain are unaware of their contract terms and they continue to suffer as returning home is not an option. Sponsors should not support recruitment agencies by refusing to pay them the salaries."
Mubarak said what was more disturbing was cases where domestic help of some nationalities were excluded from the practice.
"This is clearly a case of discrimination. They take advance salary from families who select a maid from certain nationality, but on the other hand they do not open their mouth when a maid is from another country," the unionist said.
Mubarak said the GFBTU represents all workers whether Bahraini or non-Bahraini and works for their welfare. Activists have been lobbying for years to include domestic workers in the Bahrain labor law. A bill now being considered in parliament does not include housemaids.
That situation may soon change. The Labor Market Regulatory Authority, a government body mandated to issue work visas, regulate and control manpower licences, recruiting agencies, employment offices and business practices of self-sponsored expatriates, and Ministry of Labor officials have said there would be a separate law to address the plight of foreign maids. The law is due to be discussed after the summer break and is expected to be enacted this year.
"A temporary mechanism to protect the rights of these workers should be enacted immediately," Mubarak said. "They should have medical insurance, compulsory day off and other privileges which is not a demand but a right of every worker. Expatriate welfare bodies and associations should join hands to push for enacting this mechanisms till the law is approved."
Marietta Dias, a noted migrant's welfare volunteer, has said that 50 percent of domestic workers had no clue what was the nature of their job. "Women from the interiors of the country who have not even seen a refrigerator come here to work as housemaid and face cultural shock. They do not know what to do and run away from their employers within a month."
Dias heads the action committee of the Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS), which runs a temporary shelter for abused women and victims of human trafficking here. She said in the past three years they have repatriated 250 women to their respective countries.
"These were cases of nonpayment of salaries, rape and mental abuse," Dias said.
Bahrain earlier this year signed a Memorandum of Understanding with India and Sri Lanka to ensure protection and welfare of the workers. India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka are the main countries supplying domestic workers in the Gulf States.
In recent times, the sending countries have taken initiatives to protect their countrymen. India has set a mandatory security deposit of $2,500 in the form of bank guarantees at the Indian missions of the destination countries. The Philippines has implemented a $400 minimum wage for its nationals working as domestics in the GCC.
According to reports, the Bahrain Recruiters Society (BRS) said the average Bahraini household can only pay $160 to $200 monthly to foreign housemaids - a wage that the foreign governments will no longer accept, particularly with the rise of their currencies over the past year.
The Bahrain government conducted a five-month general amnesty for illegal workers to legalize their situation that ended Jan. 31. According to official statistics, a total of 12,977 people left the country, of which 507 were housemaids.
The total population of the kingdom in 2007 was 1,046,000, of which 517,000 were non-Bahrainis.