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Elsewhere in the Gulf, conditions are little better. Behind a high wall in Bahrain's capital, Manama, about 300 workers live in a row of small concrete rooms, each of which houses eight men who sleep on bunk beds. By noon in late March the temperature in the labor camp is a blistering 35°C (94°F). Yet there is no running water, so the men must buy their own, paying 25¢ per bucket. "Water is one of the most expensive items," says Sohel Sahid Ulla, 25, a carpenter from Bangladesh who earns $185 a month revamping Manama's sewage system. Still, he expects to stay in Bahrain for the foreseeable future, not least because it will take him a year to pay off his debt of about $1,500 to the labor recruiter in Bangladesh who financed his visa and air ticket.
Crippling debts like these lock workers into contracts that roll over year after year while they scrape together savings to repay the creditors who helped them get hired. In Sharjah, the third largest emirate in the U.A.E., Banwari Lal Baiwara, 32, lived with no water or electricity for months after his sponsor declared bankruptcy in 2004, leaving workers with no source of support not even to take a plane home. He and scores of other discarded employees walked several miles to court every few days to demand their back pay of about $2,450 each. Only after Human Rights Watch intervened in 2006 was the money paid. Baiwara returned home, but within months he was back in Dubai, working on another huge development. Now he is saddled with two debts to recruiters one from each stint in Dubai that amount to a crushing $5,000. "I thought I would never come back to the Gulf," he says. "But I could not find enough work back home."
Grim as the labor camps are, conditions can be even worse for the migrant housemaids hired to work in Gulf homes. In the back of a half-constructed apartment building in Manama, 10 women live in a shelter for migrant housemaids who have fled their employers. One of them, a 23-year-old Sri Lankan, says she was beaten repeatedly by her former employer and fed just one bowl of rice a day; she finally ran barefoot from the house, and was taken to the Indian embassy by a nearby store owner. After six months of working in Bahrain she had sent less than $120 back to her family, and was about to be deported to Sri Lanka since she no longer had a job.
Indeed, workers in Bahrain who leave their employers even when running for their lives are "branded runaways, which is a crime in Bahrain," says Marietta Dias, who heads the action committee of the Migrant Workers Protection Society, a local NGO. The island's Indian ambassador, Balkrishna Shetty, says he hears countless tales of misery from migrants: "This is the most stressful job I have had. Sometimes I feel so, so sad."
Bracing for Trouble
Yet despite the back-breaking work, low pay and prisonlike housing, flights to Dubai, Manama, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf cities are still packed daily with thousands of migrants who arrive on three-year labor contracts. For South Asian economies their earnings however small are crucial; last year India's remittances from the Gulf were about $12.15 billion. In parts of Punjab in northwestern India almost every family has a man working in the Gulf. "Many villagers think it is better to pawn property, land or jewelry to pay an agent 1 lakh rupees [$ 2,560] to get a job abroad," says Sumit Pal Singh, who runs a labor-recruiting agency in the Punjab town of Jalandhar, and sends more than 60 men to the Gulf each month. Many Indians find good work there, says Singh, but others fall victim to less scrupulous recruiters. "Often, agents run away with their money and passports without taking them abroad," he says. "Others get them work in shady organizations where they are ill-paid and ill-treated. In both cases, they are hard-pressed to pay back their loans."
For many migrants, the rewards prove to be small, even after many years of grinding labor. Mohammed Hussein, a 30-year-old builder from Hyderabad who lives in Sonapur, says it has taken him 10 years in the Gulf to send home just $7,500. But the fact that the Gulf still draws millions of foreign laborers is a measure of the poverty they hope to escape. "In the next 10 years I expect expatriates [in the Gulf] to reach 30 million," says Bahrain's Labor Minister, Majeed al-Alawi. The flood of migrants is so relentless, he asserts, that if they settle in the Gulf permanently, "we will be finished as Arabs."
These days, Alawi has more urgent worries. Bahrain faces serious labor shortages, especially for skilled workers. That's likely to worsen as India's economy continues to boom, potentially luring home many angry workers from the Gulf. In February, hundreds of migrants in Bahrain were locked in the labor camps after planning a protest march to Alawi's office. That incident blew over within days, but Alawi is bracing for a rash of explosive protests unless changes are made. Since last year, Gulf and Asian officials have attempted to thrash out new working conditions for migrants. Alawi says he is determined to levy onerous fines this summer against companies that compel migrants to work on construction sites during the searing afternoon hours a violation of new laws in both Bahrain and Dubai. Alawi, who lived in the U.K. for several years, says he would have been "very unhappy" if British companies treated him the way most migrants are treated by their Gulf employers. Starting in July, he plans to end the long-held practice of "sponsorship" common throughout the Gulf whereby workers cannot switch jobs, since their visas tie them to a specific employer. Alawi also wants to crack down on South Asian labor recruiters, whom he calls "the Mafia." India, meanwhile, is planning a new legal-advice center in Dubai to help its citizens abroad.
Those changes might ameliorate labor tensions. But low pay not hot summers or controlling sponsors remains the workers' most bitter source of anger. The protests of the past few months have won small pay raises in Dubai, while migrants in Bahrain say their wages have also increased since the recent strikes, rising in some cases from around $145 a month to $185. Still, that's a mere fraction of the roughly $530 minimum that the government is considering for Bahraini citizens. "Contractors are all aware that they have to be more compassionate," says Indian ambassador Shetty and with the Gulf awash in profits from $120-a-barrel oil, "it is not as if they can't afford it." Faced with the threat of further protests, employers might well be coaxed into offering higher pay as a matter of enlightened self-interest. Maybe then Raju Singh will finally get his house in Rajasthan.