Bahrain has an open policy and encourages trade unionism and representation of workers – even expat workers are given a voice in trade unions, unlike in many countries.
Of course, the fact is that many blue-collar workers prefer to bury their grievances for fear of losing their jobs and unless really pushed to a corner, we don’t hear of flare-ups.
Months of unpaid wages, inhumane living conditions in worker dorms or poor work conditions can lead to mass protests by workers and often, Bahrain’s Labour Ministry handles such matters with sensitivity and even-handedness.
Come May Day and social organisations inevitably organise outreach programmes for workers and connect with groups of mainly male labourers.
It is only now beginning to percolate that one group is rarely represented and that is the female worker – and especially the omnipresent domestic worker. Mainly female and almost 100 per cent expat, they live and work in a surreal middle world, where their personal lives and rights are suspended – not quite erased but not claimed either.
They leave behind their families to serve ours and do not have the right to unionise and despite vast advances in attitude towards them and
channels for legal redressal, they are still the invisible workers who hold up the sky for us all so we can track the stars.
And then there are the other women workers – sanitation workers in malls, waitresses, shop assistants, entry-level workers who scrape a living with minimal education and basic skills. Have you
paused to think of the courage required to travel halfway around the world with just this much to offer a picky workplace and very little chance of augmenting these skillsets going forward? Very few women progress from domestic worker to driver, for example – a route that takes many men out of the home and into the higher paying zones of office work and possible promotion.
It’s good news therefore that social workers are waking up to the need to address the gaps in emotional and social support for women blue collar workers.
The Indian Ladies Association has been organising medical camps and health awareness drives for low-income women workers, dry ration distribution and even spoken English classes. There is a Women’s Helpline and forum which is part of the Indian Community Relief Fund and the informal support group Women Across also offers this vulnerable group access to free or subsidised healthcare, care packages etc.
The realisation that women need more than just emotional support has been slow in coming. What they will vastly benefit from is a social space where they can be themselves and gather their reserves of
psychological energy to continue the soul-grinding sacrifices that they make for their loved ones.
Often change comes walking softly – it is not the big and dramatic actions that alter the theatre of our lives but the little ones which incrementally build up.
Acknowledging the role of women workers at the bottom of the pyramid will help attitudes to percolate upward until we learn to take such things as the right to equal opportunity, equal pay and the dismantling of the glass ceiling in our stride.
Happy May Day to my sisters – and brothers.