Jeejen, a Bengali worker in Na’em in Bahrain’s capital, lives in a three bedroom house with 36 other workers. With twelve in each room, they all share the same bathroom. The dilapidated house is overcrowded with beds, clothes and scattered personal belongings. Jeejen, recalling his living conditions, smiles and says that this is completely normal.
Healthwise, it’s not.
Today, and since the spread of COVID-19, social distancing, personal space and hygienic bathrooms are some of the most recommended measures for primary prevention. Yet, these recommendations don’t seem to apply to migrant workers’ housing in Bahrain. On the contrary, ARIJ found that these environments became extremely fertile for the outbreak of the coronavirus during its first wave in the country, during which there was a delay in communicating safety precautions or awareness measures in workers’ languages.
The media focused on communicating these vital messages, instructions and warnings in the country’s official language of Arabic. Their communication in other languages including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Urdu and Sawahili was delayed until the second half of March. Yet these workers constitute 52.7% of the population, and constituted 60% of the total number of COVID-19 infections in the pandemic’s first three months in Bahrain.
Last February, the Labor Market Regulatory Authority announced that they sent short SMS messages to all foreign workers and employers to do urgent medical tests. But in reality, these tests were useless considering the workers’ precarious living conditions.
Beyond the traditional awareness campaigns including posters and flyers, on April 7 — five weeks after the country’s first recorded COVID-19 case — police began ramping up efforts to check violations of COVID-19 precautionary measures in areas where Asian workers gathered, especially regarding the mandatory use of wearing masks, and to ensure their abiding.
But health awareness alone won’t stop the spread of the virus.
Wafa Al-Ghatim, an academic researcher and head of a research laboratory, has been following up on urban planning phenomena in the country for 15 years. Regarding workers' housing in particular, she says that discussing housing deterioration is important at this time especially, because overcrowded housing means workers can’t practice social distancing. Alternate bed sharing, poor ventilation and insanitary bathrooms only breed the virus.
Tracing these cases indicates that the health of those living in well-ventilated and sun-exposed houses is much better than those living in closed spaces without adequate ventilation.
Bahraini authorities are aware of the problems surrounding migrant housing, as reported by the press for nearly two decades. The parliament and municipal councils have hosted several debates seeking solutions to these problems, yet these discussions were not directed towards the health and safety of the workers. Instead, they discussed the potential exposure of families living near migrant housing to "celibate" workers and dangers threatening safety or "honor".
Mid-2006, the capital’s municipal council announced a series of protocols to restrict and localize workers’ housing units in the governorate, which was known to have the largest number of Asian workers.
In February 2016, the Coordinating Council of the Capital Governorate expressed its resentment at the spread of informal housing and demanded the establishment of special housing areas for migrant workers far from residential areas. But in November of the same year, the House Services Committee announced its refusal to define isolated areas for workers to reside outside residential areas. They justified their refusal by suggesting that doing so would have "negative economic and security effects".
Soon, official bodies sided with this announcement, and the ministries of labor, industry and municipalities, in addition to the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry, supported the parliament’s opinion.
Today, the spread of the coronavirus in Bahrain has prompted official authorities to pay more attention to the unsanitary conditions of migrant housing. These authorities have issued a series of strict protocols and decisions aimed at improving housing conditions in an attempt to save what can be saved and reduce the number of cases.
These decisions made by the municipality were originally due to a fire that broke out in a building housed by migrant workers in Al-Qudaibiya in July 2006. Due to a lack of safety mechanisms in the building, 16 workers suffocated to death.
In October 2018, Bahrain woke up to a similar incident when a gas cylinder explosion at a second migrant house left four dead and 26 injured. Yet, again, it was not given adequate attention.
In 2013, and in between both accidents, Osama Abdullah Al-Absy, the CEO of the Labor Market Regulatory Authority –– the government agency primarily concerned with regulating work permits for foreign workers and verifying the legality of their status –– confirmed: “Official authorities do not have the right to control the housing that the workers rent, since legally speaking, it is not considered labor housing… the responsibility is shared between the owner of the property who must rent it in good condition, and the tenants must in return ensure that the place is safe and secure.”
Majdi Al-Nashit, former municipality member, says that the housing issue of expatriate workers has not been resolved because it concerns several parties, including the governorates on the one hand, and the ministries of Labor, Health, and Municipalities on the other. A permanent solution requires great effort and extensive meetings to make strict and rapid decisions.
Unexpectedly, and in light of the pandemic, Bahrain realized that the solution it has avoided finding had become a dire problem. During the first three months of the pandemic, there was much finger-pointing at workers’ housing, as they were the reason behind the high number of cases, due to their precarious living conditions.
Jeejen, for instance, says he did not have trouble looking for housing, as homes in the Al-Naim area are widely available. Regarding the statements of official authorities, Jeejen is one of 80,000 other illegal workers. Workers and civil organizations estimate their number at more than 100,000. Each worker can rent a single bed for eight hours in rooms with another 12 to 20 workers. Sometimes, the workers sleep on the same mattresses, and even next to each other on the floor. With the low amount these workers pay per bed –– around 20 Dinars per month ($53) –– they are forced to accept these precarious living conditions.
To ease legal concerns, real estate owners and their brokers preferred to accumulate large numbers of workers in the real estate in order to easily replace them if they are unable to pay. This is unlike the Bahraini citizen, whose residence in rented housing can last a long time without paying rent.
What the owner of the property receives per month may range between 1,600 to 2,000 Dinars (around $4,255-$5,420) depending on the capacity of the house, taking into account that this is not the usual rent paid to such dilapidated homes.
In June 2020, the governor of the capital visited 82 workers' dwellings, and found that 60 of them are violating the housing regulations and conditions. The poor are the most vulnerable and most affected by the spread of the virus.
The deputy head of the Migrant Workers Protection Association, Hana Buhaji, told the reporter, “They do not have the option of committing to social distancing because they live in overcrowded labor housing. In some rooms there are around 15 workers, and the current economic situation has put more pressure on them. Many of them no longer have the ability to buy the basic needs such as food and toiletries”
Buhaji said that an important consequence of the inadequacy of these dwellings is that workers share one bathroom and one bedroom. “This contributes to the rapid spread of the virus among them, due to the lack of social distancing," she said.
Most people living in shared housing do not comply with COVID-19 safety measures, including social distancing, and many share the same bathroom. When asked if he was watching the daily news and monitoring the number of cases, Jeejen said no. His friend named Banja said, “We are poor, and COVID-19 does not infect the poor.”
Jeejen and Banja are only two of many other workers who are just like them: people forced to work more than one job per day to pay the rent, send their families money and pay for their visa, bought through a patreon who is also owed money. They barely have time during the day to pay attention to advice, instructions or awareness campaigns.
Even if the timing of these awareness campaigns was apt, those behind them did not consider the living conditions of these workers. Workers did not interact with these campaigns, and were unable to do even the simple safety measures outlined by them.
It is impossible for these workers to practice social distancing when living in such overcrowded spaces. Workers who violate the rule of no more than five people gathering are safer in those situations than in their own homes.
Besides workers’ unsanitary housing conditions, financial hardship also made government measures and recommendations useless. Most of the wages provided to Asian workers in Bahrain are low –– so low that the wages barely cover their daily needs. With the new supplies that COVID-19 demands, like masks and sanitizers, workers are at a disadvantage with no income to support these new expenses.
After coming home from a tiring day at work, Jeejen takes off his face mask that he has worn all day, puts it in a water bucket, washes it and uses it the next day. When asked if he realises the importance of wearing it, he says that all he knows is that taking it off will cost him a 5 dinar (about $13) fine.
The same applies to Jeejen’s co-workers. The reporter observed that no one paid attention to social distancing, used hand sanitizers or minded proper hand washing.
A coronavirus outbreak among Asian workers in Bahrain was only a matter of time. Since mid-April, the Ministry of Health detected 212 new cases in one day alone, 206 of which were migrant workers. By the end of April, Bahrain had confirmed 1,700 new cases among workers, which is more than 80% of the total number of confirmed cases. Cases kept rising, and by the end of May, Bahrain confirmed more than 6,100 new cases, all of which were among migrant workers.
The outbreak of the virus among Asian workers has pushed Bahraini authorities to find urgent but temporary solutions. In an unprecedented move, the Ministry of Interior announced that it would use government schools as temporary housing centers for workers to ease overcrowding. Labour Minister Jamil Humaidan also announced that a number of companies will transfer workers to new housing to avoid overcrowding, while allocating a special space for precautionary quarantining.
The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry donated 60,000 Bahrain Dinars (about $160,000) to the Capital’s governorate to allocate temporary housing for Asian workers, and in return, the Ministry of the Interior evacuated the Asian workers stationed in the capital, Manama, and transferred them to a temporary accommodation center in Ain-Adhari Park.
Wafa Al-Ghatim has warned of these rapid, superficial solutions, claiming that they will not solve the overarching problem.
“These overcrowded houses are surrounded by narrow alleys that are filled with shops from both sides, so it is impossible for workers to practice social distancing,” she said.
On May 27, 2020, Gulf Daily News reported that xenophobia is gaining new attention. The outbreak of the virus among immigrant workers has, although not yet widespread enough to be considered phenomena, led to xenophobic prejudice and harrassment against immigrant workers.
Jeejen denied that he had been subjected to harassment from Bahraini people, insisting that he was never exposed to any kind of bad treatment or verbal assault although he was living in the allies of the Al-Naem. On the Internet however, cyber bullying ran rampant on social media, accusing migrant workers of spreading the virus.
Various websites, journalists and media platforms considered that the lack of safety measures being implemented in workers’ housing will put Bahrain on hold, thus taking more time to eradicate the virus. The persistence of these suboptimal housing conditions have had serious repercussions on workers’ economic and living conditions.
As Bahraini commentator “Al-Rifai” tweeted, “Bahrain’s experience with Corona would have been the most successful one if it had not been for immigrant workers. It would have ended with the lowest number of cases and without any lockdowns.”
Another citizen tweeted that “immigrant workers are the main reason for spreading the virus. So the government must realize that their presence is a threat to the citizen’s health and safety, and therefore must issue a legislative law to deport them to their countries”.
Claims regarding the deportation of foreign workers to their countries were not limited to individual citizens, but were also made by official daily newspapers, such as “Al-Bilad”, which in mid-May published Najat Al-Mudhaki’s claim that the epidemic will not cease in Bahrain, and that “in light of the presence of foreign workers that exceed the number of citizens, Asian workers are corrupting the land."
Al-Mudhaki also claimed that the pandemic is to the worker’s advantage –– due to the provision of free treatment and food they receive –– and that immigrant workers “destroyed society economically, healthwise, socially and, tomorrow, will destroy it politically”.
While it is not believed that this harassment will worsen, the pandemic - disrupting daily life - has revealed one of the country’s most chronic problems left without a solution. Considering its size, the problem has not been taken seriously. Previously seen as a humanitarian issue, easy to ignore, the treatment and living conditions of workers have now been brought to the surface by the pandemic.
-Allocating an area of no less than (40) square feet for each individual
-The height of the room should not be less than ten feet
- Not more than 8 people in the same room