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Sat 19 May 2007 12:00 AM

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Fresh doubts over Bahrain camps

A fire in a Bahrain labour camp last week has awakened the debate over the living conditions faced by migrant workers in the country. Monika Grzesik reports.

In June last year,
Construction Week

reported on the huge strides being made by the government in Bahrain to improve living conditions of construction workers. The Ministry of Labour vowed to raise standards, and launched a campaign to wipe out any labour camps that failed to provide workers with a safe and healthy place to live - a seemingly swift response to a series of protests over inadequate pay and squalid accommodation. Inspections of all camps were promised and the ministry pledged to clamp down on companies failing to adhere to regulations.

But last week's fire in an East Riffa camp, which led to the hospitalisation of three construction workers, has once again brought the reality of the living conditions faced by much of Bahrain's migrant workforce into the spotlight.

The Bahrain government has laws covering almost all aspects of employment of migrant workers. But it’s the enforcement that isn’t really happening.

Marietta Dias, head of the Migrant Workers Protection Society, said that the blaze, which occurred when a stove left burning on the roof of the building led to the explosion of two gas cylinders, is typical of incidents in Bahrain due to unsafe and hazardous conditions in labour camps.

"The fire was an accident waiting to happen. The whole roof was simply made up of corrugated sheets and plywood, and people should not have been cooking on it. People should not be housed in those kinds of conditions."

Dias claims that similar unsuitable conditions can be seen at labour camps throughout Bahrain. "It is just like hundreds of other unlivable camps here that are not fit for human beings. Roofs falling down, open cesspits and overcrowding are common."

However, the Ministry of Labour has insisted that camp inspections have been greatly stepped up: more inspectors are employed and a raft of regulations have been introduced stipulating how camps should be set up.

According to labour relations director, Shaikh Ali bin Abdulrahman Al Khalifa, around 2,565 camp inspections have been carried out over the last year.

"We have regulations set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). We have increased the number of inspectors, all of which are certified and have engineering degrees. We have seen a 180-degree change in the way camps are structured."

Despite these moves, Khalifa added that while registered camps are obliged to follow a set of stringent regulations, there is a problem with unregistered camps. "We have put together a taskforce to address the specific issues of non-registered camps. Firstly, we have to identify the non-registered camps; we have set up a hotline for people to call us if there are makeshift labour camps we don't know about, which we go and investigate. Once camps are legalised, they will be put under the stringent regulations."

Khalifa admitted that not all camps are up to scratch. "We had a camp where the whole roof was held up by jacks. That was the worst one. It was not even a place where animals could live. The camp was shut down immediately."

Dias added that despite the good intentions by the ministry to improve conditions for workers, the real problem lies in a lack of enforcement of the law.

"The Bahrain government has laws covering almost all aspects of employment of migrant workers. But it's the enforcement that isn't really happening. Getting the laws implemented is where the system falls down and the sponsors are able to use all sorts of loopholes. There needs to be more frequent and strict monitoring of companies employing construction workers. We want to know what they are doing to take corrective measures."

Incidents such as the East Riffa fire highlight the fact that some construction companies are still getting away with serious violations in terms of labour accommodation.

Despite an inspection six months prior to the fire, owners Dundee Construction carried out highly dangerous additions to the building including a makeshift structure on the roof which labourers were living in, according to Khalifa.

It seems clear that despite increased regulation and a number of moves in the right direction by the Ministry of Labour, a stronger enforcement of the law and a greater clampdown on those that break it, is needed to ensure increased protection of workers. Fortunately, evidence of this seems to be coming into play.

Khalifa said that a law banning the transportation of workers in open top trucks, which was relaxed following objections from Bahrain's business community, will be brought back into full force by next year.

"The law was relaxed after comments from the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce that workers would get sick from being in air conditioned buses. But I do not want to see any workers in the back of pick-up trucks. All workers require humane transportation. We will go ahead with this on 1 January 2008."

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