Bahrain: Expat Workers Strike as Earnings are Hit


MANAMA, Feb 18: A series of strikes by low-paid Asian workers in Bahrain has shaken their image as compliant labourers and has been blamed on the erosion of their meagre earnings as the US dollar slides, experts say.

The latest of three strikes by hundreds of workers over the past fortnight ended on Saturday when labourers agreed to halt a week-long stoppage in return for a wage rise of 15 dinars ($40) a month, a union official said.

Around 1,300 mostly Indian workers helping to build the Durrat al-Bahrain development in the south of the Gulf archipelago went on strike on February 9 to demand a pay rise.

They demanded that salaries be increased from 57 dinars ($151) to 100 dinars ($265) a month for unskilled labourers, and from 69 dinars ($183) to 120 dinars ($319) for their skilled counterparts.

Sayyed Salman, deputy head of Bahrain federation of labour unions, said that workers representatives had informed the union that they had accepted an offer to raise basic salaries by $40.

'In the past they were obedient because their remittances were sizeable. The slump in the value of the dollar has eroded their purchasing power and they are feeling the pinch,' economist Khalid Abdullah said.

The Bahraini dinar is pegged to the dollar, like most other Gulf Arab currencies.
Another factor that has encouraged the workers to protest is 'the growing international interest in the (conditions of) migrant workers, especially in the Gulf,' Abdullah added.  International rights groups often criticise Gulf states for their treatment of expatriate labourers.

Bahrain has about 270,000 expatriate workers out of a total population of 707,000. Mostly from the Asian sub-continent, they are employed mainly to do unskilled work.

Workers employed in non-vital sectors are permitted to strike, but foreigners do not belong to local labour unions.

The deal which ended the strike on the Durrat al-Bahrain Arabic for 'Pearl of Bahrain 'development was reached after Labour Minister Majid al-Alawi formed a commission to settle what he called the 'illegal' stoppage.

Alawi attributed the strike to wrong interpretation of a statement by the Indian ambassador to Bahrain over his country's policy of seeking higher wages for its overseas workers.

Businessman Samir Naas, who heads the construction committee at the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry, accused the Indian embassy of 'inciting' the workers to strike.

Naas said an across-the-board hike of 40 dinars ($106) a month for 200,000 foreign construction workers would cost employers 96mn dinars ($255mn) a year.

Bosses would not object to a minimum wage for foreign workers if the government asked them to introduce one, “but it would not be acceptable to do so under pressure from an embassy, he said.

The Indian ambassador in Manama, Balkrishna Shetty, dismissed any link between the latest strike and his recent remark that no worker would be permitted to leave India for a wage of less than $265 a month.

'This is an official Indian policy announced one year ago' Shetty said.

'I think the increase of prices in the region and all over the world and the change in currency rates pushed the workers to demand an increase in salaries' he said.

Bahraini labour activist Abdullah Hussein said the construction sector was the worst for wages and working conditions.


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