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FEATURE-Poverty drives migrant workers in Bahrain to suicide

MANAMA, June 17 (Reuters) - A patch of congealed blood still stains the road where Ashokan Vammoora hit the tarmac, the second Indian worker in three months to jump from a bridge spanning one of Bahrain’s busiest highways.

Hamza Kannu, an Indian salesman who also jumped from the bridge, crashed through the front windscreen of a passing car.

A growing number of migrants who have left their homes and families behind to make a living as low-wage workers in the tiny Gulf kingdom in Bahrain have been taking their own lives, apparently unable to cope with financial difficulties.

Bahraini newspapers regularly feature reports on the sometimes grisly suicides of mostly Indian immigrant workers, who make up about a third of the population of the island.

“There have been many suicides,” Rajgopalan Raghunathan, second secretary at the Indian Embassy, told a recent workshop to train Indian counsellors. “Some of these deaths could have been avoided if there was a way they could air their grievances.”

Raghunathan said the number of suicides among deaths recorded by the embassy was “quite large”, but gave no figure.

Indian welfare worker John Iype, who up to October was head of Bahrain’s Indian associations, estimated at least 20 percent of the 96 deaths recorded by the embassy up to June 4 this year were suicides.

He said that figure was higher than last year, because the rising cost of living in Bahrain was making it harder for low-paid workers among the 260,000-strong Indian community to make enough cash to send home and pay off debts.

“The dinar has gone down very much. My salary goes to India. My family is feeling it ... Coming to Bahrain has been of no benefit,” said labourer Ramusamy Veeralum, at a crumbling house meant for a small family, but which houses 65 Indian workers.

ECONOMIC PRESSURE

A 10-minute walk from a Ferrari showroom, the house is divided into tiny rooms that sleep up to 10 each.

Wooden boards demarcate rooms, bunk beds are stacked from floor to ceiling, corrugated iron covers the roof, and clothes and other personal effects take up every inch of space.

Ramusamy, and others nearby, explained that they had paid up to 1,000 dinars ($2,650), to Indian or Bahraini recruiters who had promised them a monthly salary of about 100 dinars.

Most workers, including Ramusamy, borrowed heavily to pay the fee, using their land in India as collateral. Once in Bahrain, they found the average unskilled wage was about 55 dinars. Ramusamy’s loan payments are 37.5 dinars, he said.

One person at the house had committed suicide, Ramusamy said, and he knew of workers elsewhere who had considered it.

“Everyone has the same problem,” he said.

Poor working conditions are common across the Gulf, a region rich in oil where impoverished men and women from South Asia have for decades come to toil on construction sites or oil installations or work as domestic help.

Welfare workers say the sponsorship system, in place across much of the Gulf, and the lack of a minimum wage allow migrant workers to be exploited.

But Bahrain is the only state to have a fully implemented free trade agreement with the United States, which obliges signatories to protect worker rights.

The Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) has called for an investigation into the deaths.

“SPONSORSHIP CURSE”?

Speaking at a lavish event to celebrate Bahrain’s workers, Labour Ministry Undersecretary Abdul Rehman Al-Khalifa said unscrupulous recruiters were to blame for worker suicides, and that abusive sponsors should be reported to the authorities.

He said it was difficult to apply a minimum wage, as it would have to be the same for Bahrainis and expatriates, and Bahrainis would demand a minimum of 200 dinars.

“Labourers have come to help us. They’re not slaves. They’re coming to build Bahrain. They must have the right standard of living and a fair salary ... We are trying hard,” Khalifa said.

All foreign workers must work for a Bahraini sponsor, and it is legally difficult to leave the sponsor before an employment contract ends unless you have the sponsor’s consent. Many sponsors keep their workers’ passports, the BCHR said.

Workers who flee a sponsor are liable for deportation at their own expense, a fine, and are blacklisted from Bahrain.

“If a worker does not get paid what was promised, the sponsor can say, you got a choice -- stay or go back to India,” the Bahrain Migrant Workers Protection Society’s Marietta Dias said. “That man (the sponsor) literally owns you body and soul. The sponsorship system is a real curse.”

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