Bullied and helpless in Bahrain

Lankan victims of abusive treatment in the Gulf emirate have no diplomatic mission to turn to for help. Nadia Fazlulhaq reports, Pic by Berty Mendis

Sri Lankans working in the Middle East kingdom of Bahrain are seriously handicapped by the lack of a legal body or diplomatic representation to look after their interests and give them the protection they need as overseas employees.

“Not having a Sri Lankan embassy is a major setback for our Sri Lankan community. … We hear stories of sexual abuse, house confinement, deliberate starvation, denial of wages, abnormally long working hours, and even physical attack.”
– Delrine Embuldeniya, Migrant Workers Protection Society, Bahrain

Delrine Embuldeniya is a Sri Lankan who works in the Bahrain-based Migrant Workers Protection Society. She is on the society’s action committee, and has 20 years’ experience working as a volunteer in Bahrain.

She says migrants in Bahrain are not protected by the emirate’s labour laws, and have no one to turn to for assistance when they suffer ill-treatment at the hands of their employers. She says there is an urgent need for Sri Lankan diplomatic representation in the emirate.

Ms. Embuldeniya says that volunteers working on behalf of Sri Lankan workers in Bahrain have no legal status or diplomatic immunity to represent these workers at the respective Bahraini authorities, such as the Immigration or Labour Ministry. She said an embassy or consular representative qualified in local labour laws would be able to do the job much more effectively.

“Not having a Sri Lankan embassy is a major setback for our Sri Lankan community, and it only makes our work extra hard,” she said. “There are 38,249 Sri Lankans working in Bahrain, and 28,008 are female, all domestic helpers.”

Delrine Embuldeniya says countries that are not diplomatically represented in Bahrain should not allow their nationals to go there for work.

Ms. Embuldeniya said one of the main functions of the Migrant Workers Protection Society was to work with the various foreign missions in the kingdom. She said the society has been successful in assisting Indian nationals with the support of the Indian Embassy in Bahrain.

“Very few Sri Lankans come to us when they are in trouble,” Ms. Embuldeniya said. “Those who run away from abusive homes or places of employment expose themselves to all kinds of dangers. Some even resort to prostitution to survive.

“I have seen all manner of abuse. We hear stories of sexual abuse, house confinement, deliberate starvation, denial of wages, abnormally long working hours, and even physical attack. Factory workers put in extra long hours and many end up with major health problems, such as kidney failure.

“There is also a great need for care homes or shelters for abused migrant workers. These should be set up by the migrant workers’ respective diplomatic missions. The shelters should come under diplomatic jurisdiction. This would greatly alleviate the problems that labourers and female domestics face in Bahrain. Sri Lanka has the second highest number of cases of abuse. This is a shocking situation.”

Migrant workers suffering the most at the hands of abusive Bahraini employers are, in descending order, from India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Philippines and Indonesia. “According to the Sri Lanka embassy in Kuwait, labour officials come to Bahrain only once in three months. There is a labour attaché to handle the huge load of complaints and paper work. Four visits a year are not enough. You need a year-round service to take care of documentation, legal work and ticketing.”

The Migrant Workers Protection Society is registered with Bahrain’s Ministry of Labour. The society’s multinational staff includes representatives from Bahrain, India, Sri Lanka, the United States, Canada, Finland and Britain. The society’s main duties are to provide shelter to victims of abuse, assist in the recovery of unpaid salaries and other dues, and provide medical attention.

Bahrain newspaper focuses on overseas workers.
A labour camp in Bahrain. Migrant workers face hazards and hardships.

If the migrant workers wish to return to their home countries, they are taken to their respective embassies or consulates and given whatever help they need for their safe repatriation. Services include the issue of exit passes in case the workers are unable to retrieve their passports from their sponsors.
According to Ms. Embuldeniya, the Migrant Workers Protection Society believes that countries that are not diplomatically represented in Bahrain should not allow their nationals to go to the kingdom for work. She said the Migrant Workers Protection Society needs the help of designated officials at each embassy or consulate.

“It would be of great assistance to the society if each embassy or consulate appointed a labour welfare officer, full-time legal officers and case workers.” Ms. Embuldeniya said she sent a request to this effect to President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s office in 2007, and personally met the Minister of Foreign Employment and Welfare, Keheliya Rambukwelle, in 2008.

“Last year, President Mahinda Rajapaksa met the Bahrain Labour Minister Dr. Majeed bin Mohsin Al Alawi and a memorandum of understanding was signed in regard to migrant worker rights and welfare,” she said.

“We hope to establish a Sri Lankan embassy in Bahrain in the first quarter of 2010,” the Minister of Foreign Employment and Welfare told the Sunday Times.

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