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Reforming Law and Culture for Migrants' Rights: an Interview with Bahrain Trade Union Leader Karim Radhi

On June 15, 2014

 Translated by Saqer almarri

In this interview, the poet and trade union activist Karim Radhi, of the Secretariat of the General Federation of Workers Trade Unions in Bahrain, speaks on the situation of migrant workers in Bahrain and the efforts and difficulties of including them in the workers’ movement. Radhi calls for a revision of cultural attitudes in order to stop excluding migrants from legal frameworks and society. Radhi also believes that migrant workers should be at the center of the political and legal activity in the Gulf since they make up the largest proportion of residents in the region.

Some believe that the legal exclusion of migrant workers and the threat of deportation prevent them from participating in trade unions, how do you deal with such a reality?

Unfortunately the issue is far more serious than simply politics or activism. The issue is cultural, and changing the culture is the most difficult endeavor. The Gulf/Khaleeji citizen, unfortunately, believes that it is normal for migrant workers to suffer. The Khaleejis believes that they are being hospitable when offering them a job in their country. Even when they empathize with the migrant workers, this empathy is more like pitying migrant workers. This empathy does not come from the belief that they should have the same rights as he/she does, such as a fair wage, decent housing, healthy nutrition, and a good job. He/she accuses migrant workers of crowding the job market, and the available services, but cannot live without their existence. Even the less affluent Gulf citizens today cannot live without a migrant worker. If you wanted to know about this condescending attitude, look no further than the articles, papers, and studies published. The proportion of those published discussing migrant workers legally and sociologically is much less than those that discuss the remittances sent back by migrant workers to their families, or the pressure migrant workers put on public services. I believe that the amount of migrant workers’ remittances is not as much as the foreign investments owned by Gulf citizens outside of the Gulf region. Think about how we treat workers sending money back to their families, for whom they’ve migrated in the first place, and compare that to how we treat local investors who prefer to invest their capital outside their country.

This culture must change. The term “foreigner” must be removed from the vocabulary of activists working with workers, as well as the term “servants”, it must be replaced with “domestic workers”. Trade union activists must shake off the condescending attitude that has become a part of the Khaleeji culture. We should consider that the right to transfer oneself from one job to another is the same as the right to transfer one’s capital. This is not a shameful thing to do, nor an invasion, or an occupation, but rather each person’s natural search for a living. Gulf citizens should remember that they too were migrants in the recent past. They had migrated from Kuwait to Bahrain, Bahrain to Oman, as well as to the Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, and vice versa. Migration is a fundamental part of our history.

If we do not change our culture first, we will not be able to deal with this reality. This is imperative before anything else. And even for us as union or social activists, how could we conduct our activism and hold sessions on domestic workers or migrant workers and call them “foreigners,” and speaking of them from the perspective of employers, or a simple person who was uneducated in the trade union mode of thinking, and describing domestic workers as “servants that run away”, etc.

We should consider that the right to transfer oneself from one job to another is the same as the right to transfer one’s capital

We have noticed that some civil society groups in Kuwait and Bahrain, such as the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFTBU), give attention to legislation dealing with migrant labors. What, in your view, is the obstacle that prevents the federations and trade unions in the Gulf from including migrants in their union activity?

Just as I have mentioned before, there are a number of laws in some of the Gulf countries that restrict the membership of migrant workers in trade unions. There are even laws that restrict the establishment of trade unions, even for citizens. The issue for us is if we have the will in Bahrain, Kuwait, and Oman to allow migrant workers to participate in trade unions. This should be regardless of legislation, for it is us who writes the legislations. When the trade union movement in Kuwait tried to deal with the situation of migrant workers, they established an office with the General Federation in order to protect the rights of migrant workers, however, is the union movement in Kuwait ready to take a step further? In Bahrain, the trade union law was established by the King in the Edict 33 of 2002. The law was the product of legislative and political reform. It is considered a progressive law as it did not mention the nationality of the union members. However on a practical level, union activists do not show much enthusiasm or power in attracting migrant workers into the unions. In fact, it is unfortunate that even Arab countries with migrating citizens have now become importers of migrant workers from Asia, and refuse to allow the latter to organize themselves into trade unions.

Do you work for domestic workers?

Yes, we do. However we should be aware of the level of work done in any of the union federations in the Gulf today. We must also be aware if this federation is serious in its activity towards domestic workers, and does not consider it a minor focus on the side of its major focus. Trade unions should consider this a main focus, and should establish units or offices that focus on organizing migrant workers, and exerting pressure to amend domestic legislation to cover migrant workers, and especially domestic workers, along with organizing with workers’ unions in the originating countries. It is also important to end this attitude of looking down on migrants and ignoring their issues. The work is extremely large, and a part of what has kept many Gulf citizens away from it is the undeniable fact that migrant workers represent more than 75% of workers in Bahrain. This means that it must be the main focus of our work. Domestic workers are about 15% of workers, and the fact is that we, as union activists, employ domestic workers in our own homes. Those domestic workers have rights that are forgotten. Our work as union federations will remain minor unless we cooperate with other unions, women’s societies, and the rest of the civil society to create social pressure as a group in order to protect the rights of domestic workers, and to amend our legislation in order to achieve that.

Trade unions should focus on organizing migrant workers, exerting pressure to amend domestic legislation to include domestic workers

Do you believe that Bahraini labor laws would soon include domestic workers instead of the current legal exclusion?

The previous labor law was mended by a new law, 36 of 2012. This new law did in fact include domestic workers in much of the articles. The previous law almost excluded domestic workers entirely. This is a good progress, but it falls short of covering their rights entirely. Also a lack in organizing of domestic workers means a lack of voice for them, and therefore a lack of rights for them. The best labor laws will not be useful unless there is a strong union to protect those domestic workers. You are aware of the grave situations that besets domestic workers, even though media organizations only focuses on these workers’ mistakes or crimes against the families, or their children. These crimes are of course unacceptable, however media outlets rarely ever discusses our own crimes and mistakes towards the domestic workers.

The best labor laws will not be useful unless there is a strong union to protect domestic workers

What are the recent problems facing migrant workers and are there any suggested legislations or solutions for these problems?

Among the biggest problems faced by migrant workers is, as I have just mentioned, our culture which looks down upon these workers. There is also the problem of slum housing which catch fire in the winter when unsafe heating appliances are used, or collapse on the people residing within them. There is also the problem of non-payment of wages because of the funder’s late payment to contractors, who in turn delay the payment of wages to workers. There is a law that penalizes employers for late payment of wages, however it is not applied most of the time, and in many cases the workers end up being sent back home without receiving their compensation. We have a program to attract migrant workers into the trade unions however it is not large enough or sophisticated enough to do so rapidly. The political events unfortunately took away much light from the situation of migrant workers. The opposition and the government should both keep migrant workers away from the effects of the political events, for the migrants came here to seek a living. Among the worst things legislatively is a parliament that is controlled by businessmen and capitalists who exploit migrant workers. This is the case in both the elected lower house, as well as the appointed upper house of parliament. Both houses or parliament in 2011 removed an article from the labor laws that allowed migrant workers the freedom to move from one employer to another without the approval of the original employer. And recently the two houses produced a farcical law that prohibits foreigners from driving. This law was produced in a country that has the worst public transportation network. Most migrant workers are forced to use private cars to carpool to and from work. It may be said that this is among the laws that were prehistoric, just like the parliament that produced it!