Spotlight interview with Fadhel Abbas Ali (GFBTU-Bahrain)

"We promised migrant workers we would always be on their side"

At the age of just 19, with the support of the Bahrain trade union centre GFBTU (1), Fadhel Abbas Ali took on the struggle for workers’ rights, although there was still no union in the construction sector at the time. The result of his initiative: a 70% fall in the number of accidents, better living conditions, and pay rises. Now aged 25, he is heading the committee bringing together 10 company unions and that aims to found a sectoral union for the construction industry, with the support of BWI (2), even though the law only permits unions at company level.

How did you get involved in the trade union movement?

I started working in 2004 at Precast Concrete Company, after finishing secondary school. There was no union in the construction sector at the time. The health and safety conditions, the pay, the promotion opportunities and the treatment endured by the workers were truly appalling. The average salary for a Bahraini worker of my level was BD 150 ($398). For migrant workers, who represented 80% of the workforce and were mainly Indians and Filipinos, the salary was only BD 70 ($185) or even less. Three months after joining the company I decided to fight to improve the situation and started to organise the workers to form a union.

Was being so young not an obstacle?

It’s true that I was afraid that I would not be accepted as a leader because I was so young, I was only 19. So I involved older colleagues in the preparatory committee. As our company was part of a major industrial group, our strategy was to tell our brothers at the parent company to also form their own union, to take the pressure off of us. So we launched our two trade unions at the same time. It was quite easy to convince the Bahraini workers to join as they are employed on permanent contracts. But the migrant workers were very reticent, they were afraid of losing their jobs.

How did you manage to convince migrant workers to join the union?

We promised them that whatever the dispute, we would be on their side and not the management’s, we told them to judge for themselves whether our action was positive and then to join us afterwards. Today, 150 out of the 400 workers are unionised, locals and migrants alike. A lot remains to be done to organise more workers.

What gains have you secured?

We have managed to change the situation, especially the way the workers are treated. Now the management comes to talk to them face to face. We have also made progress in terms of safety; accidents at work have fallen by 70%. We have secured better living conditions, although there is still room for improvement. As regards wages, we have managed to raise them from BD 150 ($398) to 250 ($663) for the locals and from BD 70 ($663) to 100 ($265) for the migrants.

How did you convince the management?

We took a very firm stance from the very outset. We clearly told the management that if they did not come to the negotiating table, the problems would escalate, and that we were even prepared to go on strike, staging a sit-in so that there would be no way of replacing us with other workers. They realised we meant business and we actually succeeded in initiating a dialogue.

Were you not afraid of losing your job by taking on this struggle?

Of course, we were all afraid of this. We told ourselves that if we were sacked, other leaders would take over and would end up meeting our objective and, ultimately, there would be no more dismissals. We were quite confident of our chances of succeeding as we had very good relations with many workers and even with certain members of the management. We were privy to a number of secrets concerning problems within the management team, which we held on to as cards we could play if the pressure became too high.

Nineteen is very young to take on such a role. Did you receive advice from the trade union federation, GFBTU?

Karim Radhi (GFBTU Assistant General Secretary) is like a father to me, he was there for me around the clock if I needed him. He would advise me. I knew he was behind me from the very outset.

What are the chief grievances of the ten unions in the construction sector, especially with regard to migrant workers?

The wages are too low, and there are far too many accidents, especially falls. So pay and safety are our main demands. But we will not be able to make adequate progress until we have a sector-wide union. Legally, workers can only be transported by bus, but the law is not respected and trucks can plainly be seen transporting workers under the blazing sun.
In summer, the temperatures can reach 45 degrees, with a very high rate of humidity. This makes it very hard to work on the building sites. We were able to reach an agreement with the authorities on staggered working hours in summer; it is not unusual to see building sites fully operational in the middle of the night.

We do not have a separate approach for locals and migrants. We defend all the workers in the sector who suffer, above all from the low wages and appalling health and safety conditions.

The appalling living conditions for migrant workers are often denounced. Is the situation getting any better?

There have been terrible fires in the camps, which have drawn attention to these places where the living conditions are really atrocious. Some companies have made improvements thanks to the pressure brought to bear by trade unions. But the legal equation on the number of people per square metre is often not respected and a great deal remains to be done.

Do you have any contact with trade unions in other countries?

We are in touch with Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI). We have taken part in conferences in Tunisia and in Egypt. The most useful are the many seminars held by BWI here in Bahrain on health and safety, wages, migration, etc.

How can these international contacts be used to help migrant workers?

We spoke with the BWI representative for Asia as well as with a number of trade union leaders from the countries of origin during a workshop held by BWI. We have asked for our labour legislation to be translated, as most workers have no idea about their rights when they get here. It hasn’t been done yet, but I hope it soon will.

The problem with the sending countries is that they do not educate their workers to defend their rights but, rather, to make themselves liked in the destination countries, so that they get as many jobs as possible, which means more money sent back home. We understand the difficulties facing poorer countries, but one also has to put oneself in the migrants’ shoes. Before coming here, local recruitment agencies ask them for ridiculously large sums of money. When they go back home they often haven’t been able to save enough money, they are not given adequate help to reintegrate and often find themselves in a really wretched situation.

It would seem that the large population of Indian construction workers are starting to be replaced with Vietnamese workers. Why is that?

Indian workers are well organised. They live together in the same camps. They have staged highly organised strikes in the construction sector. They have their embassy’s support and have managed to have some of their demands met. It is unfortunate, however, that there were incidents with the police when they were staging peaceful actions and that some leaders did not have their contracts renewed.

With the economic boom in India, Indian workers are now asking for better wages. They are well skilled, they know basic English and are renowned for being open to dialogue. It’s the same thing with Indian domestic workers, who are asking for better wages.

The Indian government has now set a minimum wage of BD 100 ($265) for its nationals working in construction. As for the most highly skilled workers, Indian companies are coming to the entire Gulf region to take them back to India. To my mind, it is a good illustration that if you want to help migrant workers, it’s important to help their countries of origin to develop. As a result of the situation in India, Bahrain is bringing in more and cheaper Vietnamese labour to replace the Indians.

Interview by Natacha David

(1) GFBTU: General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions

(2) The GFBTU affiliated to Building and Woodworkers’ International (BWI) in 2009. "BWI supports the establishment of a national trade union federation for the construction industry, to promote decent work, safe working conditions and better pay for the 136,000 migrant construction workers in Bahrain."

- See the Union View on migrant workers, with testimonies and on the ground reports from Bahrain (16 pages)

- Also see the spotlight interview with Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh (Bahrain-GFBTU) "We are fighting for the application of trade union rights in Bahrain"