Crackdown on Bahrain camps

The construction industry in the Gulf has generated plenty of bad press over the last few months, with fighting among workers, fatalities on sites, suicides, and rows over living and working conditions. But as Angela Giuffrida reports, one country is doing its utmost to ensure that it is making the headlines for all the right reasons.

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By  Angela Giuffrida Published  June 24, 2006

As more stories about the living conditions among those building massive projects in the GCC feature across the pages of the local and international press, one country making huge strides to obliterate any association with lurid labour camps is Bahrain. A swift response to a series of protests over pay and living conditions earlier this year was made by the country’s Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs when it launched a campaign to wipe out any camps that fell short of providing workers with a safe and healthy place to live. The three-month investigation of 270 labour camps — 120 of which belong to construction companies — is now offering clear evidence that the protests by those living in them are more than justified: one construction camp was closed last week after labour officials ruled that it was akin to ‘living in a cattle shed’. The owner of the 38-man camp, a construction company, now faces prosecution. Steps have also been taken to ensure that the unnamed firm provides its staff with alternative accommodation until a new camp is built, while work permits will not be issued or renewed unless all conditions in the new camp are satisfied. Around 30 camps have had visits from a team of 15 inspectors so far and several owners have been found to be in violation of standards by providing less than adequate living conditions, from tin-roof shanty camps to those with a severe shortage of basic living facilities, such as a clean kitchen and bathroom. “We are mainly targeting camps owned by construction companies as they employ the largest number of people,” says Nidhal Al Banna, head of the occupational health and safety section, Bahrain Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs. “We’ve inspected about 25% so far — out of these, around 10% are considered to be ideal, and about 15% are below standard.” Inspectors are paying close attention to the facilities in workers’ rooms, such as adequate air conditioning and decent beds and furniture, as well as ensuring access to a clean and reliable supply of water. The ministry is also clamping down on the number of workers to a room. “Some of the camps are poor, older housing, and lack good kitchens and bathrooms. In others, there are more than eight people sleeping in one room — when there should be no more than four — this causes health and hygiene problems,” says Al Banna. He adds that most companies have been cooperative and are attempting to raise the standards of the accommodation they provide their workers with. “They know that if they don’t they will be sued,” he says. “If the accommodation is bad, we issue them with a notice to improve it within two weeks, and if they fail to do this we’ll take the matter to the authorities and recommend that they close the camp.” The next part of the ministry’s campaign will see camps owned by small- to medium-sized construction firms targeted. “Part of the problem, and this affects all of the GCC, is that rather than provide accommodation, some employers give allowances to their staff — and because the labourers are trying to save money they opt for cheaper places to live,” says Al Banna. “We’re now trying to find ways to make sure that employers have a contract saying that they will provide their workers with accommodation — and we will not release work visas unless they do this.” Bahrain is also taking steps to address other issues affecting its construction industry, such as contractors hiring staff without work permits, or failing to cover the cost of essential health and safety equipment. A number of workers went on strike at a camp in March, alleging that the management had been deducting up to US $13 (BD5) from their wages whenever they needed new safety shoes or overalls. However, as Al Banna confirms, the companies themselves should be responsible for this. A shake-up of the country’s sponsorship system earlier this year led to the introduction of a law lifting restrictions on expatriate workers changing sponsors at the end of their contract. And in a bid to prevent companies delaying the payment of wages, a regulation will be in place from next week (1 July) stipulating that those employing more than 10 workers must pay salaries direct into bank accounts. According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, the move would make it easier for workers to prove whether they’ve been paid or not. With a summer working ban from midday until 4pm also under review, as well as a ruling that contractors must provide their staff with air-conditioned buses to and from work, Bahrain is certainly looking after the needs of its workers. And with the country barely featuring in newspapers across the Gulf, surely it is time for those that do, to follow its lead.

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