Labor Strikes in the GCC: Deportations and Victories in 2014

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Oct 29 2014

The crackdowns on migrant workers in the GCC do not succeed in silencing migrant dissent. Last year, hundreds of thousands were deported, after being targeted, detained, and mistreated in the Gulf region. Stringent nationalization laws maintain a xenophobic atmosphere around migrant populations who constitute the majority in GCC (up to 85% in countries such as Qatar). As authorities and media continue to make migrants more vulnerable, some resort to labor strikes as a solution to their continuing oppression.

Here, we examine the different ways in which major strikes were handled by authorities and employers across the GCC.

“They often had to cut five or ten minutes from their 30-minute lunch breaks and restrict toilet breaks just to meet their production goal.”

Bahrain: Widespread Exploitation in Garment Factories

In Bahrain, 2,000 factory workers went on strike to demand better working conditions and wages. While authorities and employers relented to a small wage hike, they sought to stifle further demands by arresting and deporting the 12 Bangladeshis accused of organizing the strike.

In statements to Migrant-Rights.org, over seven labor activists and journalists based in Bahrain said they were unable to find more information about the deported strike-organizers, but two organizers from the General Federation of Workers Trade Unions in Bahrain (GFWTUB) have confirmed their arrest and deportation. A report by the US-based Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights said "Over 70 Sri Lankan, Indian and Bangladeshi garment workers have been forcibly deported from the MRS Fashions sweatshop on June 16, 17 and 18, and cheated of their back wages.”

The factory workers were threatened for organizing an “illegal strike” in a country that criminalizes any form of organization and mobilization of migrant workers. These foreign workers were employed by MRS Fashions which provides clothing to mega corporations such as Walmart, Macy’s, Gap, and JC Penny.. Bahrain’s labor ministry had warned the garment factory workers and directed them to return to their jobs. The workers had a set of 12 demands to improve their payments and conditions, including better quality of food and medical care. The vast majority of these workers are from India and Bangladesh, and are paid a monthly salary of 55 BD (145$).

According to the Gulf Daily News, Tariq Iqbal, a 25-year-old Indian machine operator attempted to submit his resignation, protesting the low wages and poor working conditions. He was ridiculed by his supervisor, and Iqbal reacted by slapping his supervisor. Iqbal’s co-workers were told that he was being held by the police and will be deported, resulting in the workers rioting in the factory. A spokesperson for the workers, Pavan Kumar, met with officials and the factory’s management and refused any exit deal that would not meet their demands. A Bahraini journalist (who requested anonymity) said the factory has only met the demand for higher wages, while slightly improving other conditions and treatment. The management has falsely claimed to have paid fair wages without any delays, despite workers’ complaints, according to the same journalist. Similar false claims were made about the workers’ access to health care.

A key consequence of the strike is the workers re-gaining possession of their passports. Though illegal, the passports of most low-income migrant workers are confiscated by employers.

Another report cited striking workers as saying the factory’s arbitrary management norms have resulted in the deportation of hundreds in the past few years. Shortly after deportations, new workers from Bangladesh were brought to replace those fired. The report says the wage increase was “modest” (only 8 Bahraini dinars) from 75 BD ($198.91) to 83 BD ($220.13) per month. For years, the workers have been victims of exploitative working hours and wages. They were supposed to work 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. After their arrival, they were ordered to work 10-hour shifts, without overtime pay. Repeatedly, objections were met with deportation threats. The report describes how the workers were exploited on a daily basis:

“They often had to cut five or ten minutes from their 30-minute lunch breaks and restrict toilet breaks just to meet their production goal. They were often cursed at for falling behind on their production goals. No sick days were allowed. At the very most, sick workers could take just one or two hours off, but were then ordered to go back to their line.”

In another incident last year, the suicide of a 22-year-old Nepalese factory worker in Bahrain provoked his colleagues to strike. The man was asking for medical help but was only given pain-killers when he was nose-bleeding on and off for several days. Workers complained that they were not given medical help, rest days, breaks, fair wages, or sick leave. Security guards hired by the factory blocked journalists from talking to striking workers, and have assaulted one of them for trying to speak to workers.

“During the strike, migrant employees were expected to pick up the slack. This was used against the migrant workers on social media, as it was seen as an attempt to counter the strike.”

Oman: Strikes against Migrants

Despite the increasing restrictions over their employment and labor rights, migrant workers in the Sultanate of Oman have not organised strikes in the past year. The only noteworthy strike was at the Lulu Hypermarkets across the Sultanate. The strike included over 1300 Omani workers with 16 demands for better conditions, wages, and promotions.

According to media reports, striking workers claimed “Omanis are not promoted while expatriates rise up the hierarchy quickly” echoing the regular discourse of self-victimization that Gulf citizens tend to invoke. During the strike, migrant employees were expected to pick up the slack. This was used against the migrant workers on social media, as it was seen as an attempt to counter the strike. It is not clear why the 1300 Omani workers did not organize a strike that included non-nationals as well.
Migrant-Rights.org had reported earlier this year on the restrictions imposed by Omani authorities on immigration. Oman announced that companies failing to employ nationals will be effectively prohibited from operating starting March 1. Similar to Saudi Arabia’s Nitiqat, Omani companies are ascribed different grades based on the proportion of nationals in their work force.

This month, Omani workers at the Oman Aluminum Industries (OAPIL) have been on strike for over eight days demanding equal pay, better contracts, and “stopping the recruitment of expatriates.”

“[T]he [Indian] embassy would like to alert all Indian nationals in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against the nefarious attempts of such self-styled social workers and illegal agents.”

Saudi Arabia: “Self-Styled Social Workers”

Last year, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia had deported almost a million migrant workers to ‘boost public security’ and create more jobs for citizens. An Ethiopian migrant was killed during Al-Manfouha riots when police and citizens were lynching migrants around the neighborhood in Riyadh. A Yemeni migrant was also killed in one of the detention centers where up to 2000 migrants were placed with no proper facilities and accommodations. Stories of abuse and injustice are reported often from Saudi Arabia.
This year, a group of Indian women (from Kerala) went on a strike to demand their payments and labor rights. They work at a hospital in Riyadh that had not been paying them for several months. Moreover, the workers complained that their employer did not allow them to go on vacation or return home permanently despite completing two years at their jobs. Maniyamma Rajan Vilasini, one of the workers, told Gulf News that they had filed a complaint with the Indian embassy but nothing has happened so far. “They are discriminating against Indian workers. All the other workers have received payment. We have had many problems because of this,” she said. As expected, the Indian embassy in Riyadh stood against these striking women in a statement to the press: “the embassy would like to alert all Indian nationals in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia against the nefarious attempts of such self-styled social workers and illegal agents.”
Last year, cleaners at a hospital in Mecca organized a strike for the second time, to demand better wages (700 SR instead of 400 SR).

In 2013, the kingdom witnessed a major strike when 6000 cleaners stayed away from work, demanding the payment of delayed wages and renewal of their residencies. The workers, who are mostly South Asian, complained that during the crackdown on migrants, they were regularly harassed and threatened by the police. After five days of striking, the streets were a complete mess, which created enough pressure to have the workers' residencies and contracts renewed. In 2012 too, cleaners organized a successful strike protesting the delay in salary payments. In October 2013, five cleaning companies announced a new policy to not hire workers from the same country in order to “prevent them from going on strikes.”

Another successful strike this year involved porters at King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah who refused to work for two days, demanding higher wages. The 380 striking workers, mainly from Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, work eight hours a day and do not get paid a monthly salary. The company that hired them demands a daily revenue from each of them (110 SR), which forces them to work for more hours in order to earn a living.

“Out of 3000 striking workers, 300 were arrested, tortured, and deported after two days of striking. They only had one demand, to increase their wages from 198$ to 265$.”

UAE: No-Strike Land!

Last April, a report by the Emirati newspaper The National said 34 labor strikes took place during 2013, compared to 45 in 2012. The report does not provide any information on these strikes, their demands, or their results. Instead, it was focused on promoting the success of national laws and policies in handling workers' complaints. In reality, labor strikes in the UAE are handled with extreme repression, especially after the story of NYU-Abu Dhabi construction workers this year.

Out of 3000 striking workers, 300 were arrested, tortured, and deported after two days of striking. They only had one demand, to increase their wages from 198$ to 265$. One of the deported workers, Mohamed Sirkar, narrated his story to NYT: “They beat me up, asking me to confess I was involved in starting the strike.” Many of these workers had paid recruitment fees of up to a year’s wages to get this job, and were still in debt. They work for 11 or 12 hours a day, six or seven days a week, without being paid overtime wages. It is no surprise that all of them had their passports confiscated upon arrival. Some of the rooms would have 15 workers in each, despite the initial agreement between NYU and Abu Dhabi to have only four in each. Authorities acted as if the mistreatment and deportations were not approved by them, claiming to be helpless with this case because workers are employees of contracted companies, not the university itself.

The same story was covered by the Independent, which spoke of the complicit role of a British contracting company in handing in striking workers to the police. The British firm (Balfour Beatty) claimed that “companies are obliged to report the formation of any workers' committee to the authorities.” Forty of the arrested workers were detained for 9 days in inhuman conditions. They remained in the same clothes and were not allowed to exercise or talk to others. Before being deported, the workers were given their possessions back but some of their valuables were not returned.

Similarly last year, construction workers at the Louvre branch in Abu Dhabi were not paid their salaries for nine months. When one worker went on strike in protest, he was forced to work for three months without payment and then deported alongside 19 others to Pakistan.

Despite having deported a 1000 workers in a move of collective punishment, Dubai-based company Arabtec had to raise the salaries of 36,000 workers by 20% following a two-days strike. The company claimed that the decision was not a result of the strike and denied to have deported hundreds of its employees, saying they “had left on their own accord.” In 2011, 70 workers were arrested for planning a 3000-persons protest over wages.

“Without better wages and benefits, migrants are left to face economic inflation and higher living costs that come in result to pay hikes in citizens’ incomes.”

Kuwait: Small Strikes

Perhaps Kuwait and Bahrain of all GCC countries have experienced the biggest number of labor strikes among citizens and migrants, especially in the past few years. What is apparent is the good mobilization of Kuwaiti state employees for better wages. Yet such labor mobilizations can also be problematic as they continue to exclude migrants from their demands and calls for strikes. As a result, better wages are granted to Kuwaiti employees who already enjoy benefits and salaries that are at least two times higher than migrants working in the same sector. Without better wages and benefits, migrants are left to face economic inflation and higher living costs that come in result to pay hikes in citizens’ incomes.

This year, reported migrant strikes in Kuwait were mostly limited to small groups. Last August, we reported the story of Egyptian health technicians who were fired after striking and submitting a labor complaint against their exploitive employer. The workers are still waiting to get paid their salaries and compensations before leaving the country. Another group of workers from Sudan have also had resort to several strikes every time their salaries were delayed. The labor ministry has handled their case in the worst ways as officials continued to intimidate and threaten the workers for suing their employer company.

Last month, 150 cleaning workers went on a strike for few hours before being promised to have their demands fulfilled. The Bangladeshi and Nepalese workers demanded their rights to annual holidays and better wages. They said the contracting company has not allowed any of them to leave on holiday without leaving their bankcards with the company and guaranteeing their return to work in Kuwait. After ending their strike, the workers promised to strike again if their demands weren’t met.

Also in September, stateless and migrant dentists working for the health ministry decided to go on a strike for not having been paid their past two salaries. The ministry blamed the contracting company for causing the delay. Some of the striking dentists told al-Seyassah newspaper that they were threatened to be fired if they go on with their strike.

“In June, construction workers were attacked by security guards for attempting to take a rest break. The workers were badly beaten by the armed guards, yet they were blamed for “rioting.”

Qatar: No break

Last year, 120 bus drivers went on a strike demanding better wages. Unfortunately, strikers were demonized as selfish opportunists for not performing their usual job of taking students back and forth from school to their homes. Instead of meeting their demands, the school management sued 10 to 15 workers for organizing the strike. For five years, the workers have been demanding an increase in their salaries without being heard. Two months later, bus drivers working for “Gulf House” went on a strike for delayed salaries.

In June, construction workers were attacked by security guards for attempting to take a rest break. The workers were badly beaten by the armed guards, yet they were blamed for “rioting.” Workers on site said “guards would not allow them to step out of line while going on their lunch breaks to use the bathroom and grab a drink of water.”

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