Everybody has a stash of ‘bad domestic worker’ stories, however good an employer they are. I consider our household a liberal and broad-minded one and our part-time help gets Friday off and a generous salary along with perks such as a festive bonus. Even then, I remember one worker (many years ago) who used our home to store stolen goods and went missing for a day claiming she was at Salmaniya Hospital to treat a migraine. These were the pre-cellphone days and the level of stress and worry is unimaginable.
However, such bad experiences do not stop good employers from building a good workplace for their house help because these are the people – the cooks, the chauffeurs and domestic cleaners – who rule the rhythm of our lives and not the other way around. It is in our interest to make them comfortable and feel trusted and liked in order to get the best out of them.
Similarly, with contract blue-collar workers. Docking a percentage of their salaries in anticipation of their running away so that the money can be used to buy their return ticket is an unfair suggestion and I hope it is binned. Do these MPs even know the hard physical labour that these workers do? Up at dawn and working in sun and wind at the sites, covered in cement dust, climbing scaffolding to dizzying heights and then returning to dormitories which, while adequate and comfortable, are hardly a place called home. Many companies renege on even the basic promises and the GDN reports often about inhumane conditions in worker camps.
At the end of the month, the workers get a salary that covers the needs of their families but is hardly a princely amount. And this, dear reader, is why Bahrainis do not want to be construction workers or municipal trash collectors – and they are not wrong. These jobs are considered dead-end drone work, poorly paid and not likely to offer promotions and come with a big psychological burden for the workers who are away from their family support system.
You may argue that they signed up for this and I agree. But the circumstances are tough and we are dealing with humans after all. Instead of these frankly vindictive suggestions such as getting workers who run away to pay for tickets and the relatives of dead workers to pay for the repatriation of their bodies, business owners would do well to invest in a strong HR care system that would add value to the lifestyle of these workers. A person who feels valued and cared-for and is treated as a stakeholder in the success of an organisation, is hardly likely to run away if offered a few dinars more.
A dissatisfied worker going AWOL or employers having to deal with the human tragedy of a death among the staff are matters that should be taken as part of the human challenges and business risks of running an organisation. To create laws that penalise the most vulnerable workers for these matters is draconian. As LMRA chief Ausamah Al Absi rightly pointed out, the law is designed to fail because the category of workers who run away can’t pay the cost in most cases and would need to be kept in Bahrain at government cost indefinitely. The only people satisfied with such a law would be the MPs who can tick the box that they had passed a law in favour of businessmen.
Let’s get humane and practical too, shall we?