One of the first lessons I learnt at an ILO-sponsored workshop on reporting labour issues, is to be politically aware of framing my stories. Calling someone who works in your home a ‘maid’ is incorrect. The terminology should recognise the nature of her/his work and the correct term is ‘domestic worker’.
By reducing the scope of a domestic worker’s full day of ceaseless duty to a word that is more gender-specific than work-descriptive, we take the first step towards brushing off the rights of the person and not seeing their aspirations as worthy.
We devalue their work and pay less salary, we don’t give them days off or overtime money or the emotional support and physical comfort that a workplace demands.
There are fewer occasions these days, but readers will remember the time when we often heard about ‘runaway’ maids or workers. That word smacked of slave history and put the onus of the illegal behaviour on the worker rather than on the work conditions or the employer who is morally bound to ensure the best workplace. Of course, Bahrain has come a long way from the early 80s when worker rights were just being processed. Even after the more enlightened 2000s, there was a case of a construction worker who made a dash for freedom across the busy highway near Adhari Park and met with a fatal road accident and was promptly dubbed a ‘runaway’.
Whom do we hold responsible when talking about such incidents?
A recent news story about Bahrain’s humane policy of not allowing outdoor workers to work during the hottest part of the summer day, said most of the ‘cheats’ who disobeyed the rule were flexi-visa staff. In this case, what we are doing is framing the story so that the blame is apportioned to the worker rather than the employer who clearly condoned the rule-breaking.
There is, of course, a lot of grey areas on how to enforce the rule on flexi-visa holders who are legally their own masters. Their back story is usually that they want to make the money spent on their visa in the shortest time possible and are willing to work harder, longer and, unfortunately, bend the rules like the summer work ban to get that quick buck. Sure, they have broken the law – but my question is, why are we letting the employers get away scot-free? These workers could not have been on-site during the work-ban hours without the supervisor or manager knowing.
As with all safety rules, the responsibility of making staff follow them lies with the management – wearing a safety harness when cleaning skyscraper windows, wearing goggles and visor when using a welding gun, wearing the right safety uniform as a waste disposal foot-soldier – there are rules for every possible occasion but unless the management shows willingness to make them compulsory, they don’t work. And, most often, when these rules are broken, they speak of management connivance – the flexi-worker takes the fall in the eyes of the law, the company gets a few extra hours of work done, the management looks the other way and everybody is happy.
“Flexi-workers used to break summer work ban rule” – there, doesn’t that sound more factual?