Early this September, the Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS), a Bahrain-based nongovernmental organization (NGO), announced that suicides among foreign workers was up to 60 people this year. This figure does not include failed suicide attempts or those categorized as traffic accidents or work-related injuries.
The MWPS’s spokeswoman said that the increasing number of suicides was mostly linked to poor financial conditions. A number of employers have dismissed foreign workers “as a result of the Bahrain events’ impact on the economic situation overall, not to mention other personal reasons that lead workers to commit suicide.”
The phenomenon of foreign workers committing suicide is not only limited to Bahrain. It is a notable phenomenon in all Gulf countries and the number of victims is on the rise. Not a day goes by in these countries without a suicide story being reported by media outlets.
Even though there are no official statistics and available figures do not include unregistered cases or cases registered under other categories, one cannot ignore this phenomenon, often overshadowed by the sparkle of the Gulf cities’ night lights.
Individuals who find themselves forced to commit suicide have different stories with different details. Therefore, the circumstances and factors leading them to commit suicide require serious studies. This, in turn, requires academic efforts from Gulf countries and labor exporting countries. However, this needs the approval of the responsible authorities in Gulf countries and their recognition of the seriousness of the matter, knowing that the victims are at the bottom of the social pyramid.
Gulf countries have changed tremendously during the four decades that followed the oil boom in the 1970s. The most striking features of this change are probably exemplified by two factors. The first is the enormous shift in growth along with the infrastructure development of the region’s countries. The second is the changing demography in all of the region’s countries, whose more than half of their populations are expats. These changes, however, along with their consequences, entail a price that is assumed by some migrant workers.
A suicide attempt is officially deemed a deviant behavior that violates applicable laws, not a cry for help from someone no longer able to escape the situation they are in. Security authorities consider those who fail to commit suicide as criminals and take them to detention centers. After a certain — short or long — detention period, those who have attempted suicide are tried. Courts usually sentence them to leave the country, pay a fine or go to prison.
Naturally, those who end up in detention centers or prisons do not get the necessary care and therapy. This aggravates the reasons that originally pushed them to commit such desperate attempts. This is why a number of detainees repeat their attempts while in police custody. Media reports show that fear of such fate has recently prompted many to choose fail-proof suicidal means.
Media coverage contributes to the marginalization of both the suicide phenomenon and the reasons behind it. They say that the most important cause behind suicide is “weak religious morals.”
Reports issued by NGOs involved in monitoring the suffering of foreign workers have noted that the media fails to tackle the role of the squalid conditions most expats live in, pushing them to commit suicide.
Media outlets often rush to get scoops, using racist terms and focusing on “something wrong” in the victim’s personality. This approach to the phenomenon of suicide is tightly linked with the trend of “demonization” of foreign workers in the Gulf, a trend that pleases ruling authorities, as it overexposes the “dangers” of Asian labor on the traditions and culture of the Gulf countries.
The vicious cycle of poverty
When migrant workers decide to take their own life in one of the cities of the Gulf, their misery — which started the moment they decided to look for a job in the Gulf region — does not end there. The misery usually starts when these poor workers seek to make enough money to migrate to the Gulf. They need money to pay for the passport and required health certificates, including bribes to be paid to the staff of concerned agencies and commissions to be paid to the labor import agent to provide a work visa, not to mention the price of the ticket itself.
The amount of money that workers need to move from their country to the Gulf differs according to several conditions, making it difficult to generalize. Recent field studies indicate, however, that a worker from Bangladesh pays about $2,700 to move to the Gulf — that is, the average wage they would make in 15 to 18 months. If we add the expenses of their stay, we discover that these workers need more than two years to pay off their debt.
Immigration to the Gulf as a collective investment
Most immigrants come to the Gulf to escape poverty belts in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. In Bangladesh, where the minimum wage is less than $35 a month, and where a third of the population lives below the poverty line, workers need financial assistance to make the necessary money required to work in the Gulf.
Most migrants collect the sums by selling properties or borrowing from family and relatives, which turns the plan into a collective investment involving many family members. In many cases, migrants borrow from moneylenders with high interest rates.
When migrant workers reach Dubai, Doha or other cities, they usually carry with them their dreams and the dreams of their families and relatives. They think that they will quickly get themselves out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
However, many of them soon discover that the Gulf is not the gate to paradise. Some discover that the promised work was a hoax, and that they would have to push and shove and compete with thousands of other foreign workers, who are also looking for a job in every corner of the country.
Some of them discover that they would barely be getting half the amount agreed upon, prompting them to work overtime or look for another job in parallel. Some of them discover that their employer often tricks them when calculating their wages, delays paying them for months or even declares bankruptcy before paying.
The suicide of a metalsmith named Masubathi Maripan
Among those who have committed suicide in the past year is Masubathi Maripan, a worker who came to Bahrain from the Tamil Nadu province in southern India. His story shows hints of the vicious cycle of poverty that claims the lives of migrant workers in the Gulf. It is a cycle where pre- and post-migration factors are intertwined. Maripan worked as a metalsmith for a major construction company whose owner had commercial ties to the prime minister of Bahrain. The company breached its agreement with Maripan and his co-workers and lowered their monthly wage to 45 Bahraini dinars [about $120], instead of the agreed upon monthly wage of 100 dinars [about $265]. After several attempts involving the Indian Embassy and the Ministry of Labor, workers were not able to get their agreed upon wage. They decided to stop working. The construction company filed a lawsuit against the striking workers,and courts ruled in favor of the company. Workers were sentenced to compensate the company for suffered losses. The fines ranged from 400 to 600 dinars [$1,060-1,590]. According to protocol, a decision was issued preventing the workers from leaving the country before paying the fines.
Maripan, along with more than 100 of his Indian co-workers, found themselves unemployed and banned from working for any other employer without the consent of the construction company that was demanding they pay their fines. On top of that, they were barred from traveling without the consent of the company, which had only paid them half of the agreed upon wage from the outset. Maripan saw no way out other than suicide. He was only 33 years old.
The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.