Like the rest of the Gulf, Bahrain depends on imported foreign labor to build its skyscrapers (and keep them clean), run small mercantiles and drive taxis. These migrant laborers don’t set up expatriate life as you or I do. They leave their families behind in India, Pakistan or the Philippines – they might get to go home once a year, many don’t – and send back precious remittances. They are usually an anonymous factor in the Gulf economy. But Andrew Gardner, an anthropologist at the University of Puget Sound, spent a few years talking to these workers and and getting to know how they fit into Bahrain’s economic ecosystem.

I wrote this review on his book from those days for The New York Times.



Migrant Workers on a Treadmill in Bahrain


DUBAI — The Philippine government said Tuesday that it was suspending the processing of labor applications for its citizens to work in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen as popular unrest and violence continued to sweep the Middle East.

The Philippines sends nearly a quarter of its adult work force overseas to work in a wide range of jobs, providing a major source of low-wage labor.

Anonymous, in some ways almost invisible, armies of Filipino and other low-income migrant laborers have built the gleaming skyscapes of the Gulf’s cities in particular. Andrew M. Gardner, a professor of anthropology who has spent a decade in the Gulf, has written about these workers in his book “City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and the Indian Community in Bahrain,” published in August by Cornell University Press.

Workers in Bahrain (University of Puget Sound)

Other economies also depend on expatriates, but many Gulf Arab states import nearly all their labor, from chief executives to taxi drivers and street sweepers. Mr. Gardner focuses on the cohort of unskilled labor that works in Bahrain.

His study of the complex social hierarchies in Bahrain comes at a pivotal moment in the kingdom’s short history. Since Feb. 14, large numbers of most Shiite Bahrainis have taken to the streets, protesting their exclusion from their country’s economic progress.

“In Bahrain, you have a large disenfranchised lower middle class in the citizenry that has been left out of the economic opportunity,” Mr. Gardner, who teaches at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington, said in an interview in Dubai. “It’s really led to the uprising that’s in the news right now. This disenfranchised youth, they’re competing with this foreign population.”

“City of Strangers” offers a glimpse into the fragile social contract that supports the development of the Gulf nations. For two years, Mr. Gardner visited workers’ camps and blocks of decaying urban apartment buildings, often with the help of social organizations whose goal was to aid these workers. Bahrain, with about one million residents, is now home to more than 438,000 migrant workers from such places as South Asia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, according to the International Labor Organization, an agency of the United Nations.

Starting with the pearling industry in the early 1900s, Mr. Gardner chronicles how the modern-day system known as kefala came about. Kefala sets out the terms by which a laborer’s visa is dependent on a local sponsor, usually his employer, a system giving that employer great control over the life of his workers.

This set of migration guidelines, in essence, allows countries like Bahrain to profit from the global economy without submitting to its logic, Mr. Gardner writes. It allows nations to import masses of laborers without having these flows be affected by normal principles regarding wages or labor conditions.

Many of these workers live in large labor camps, six to eight to a room, with a bunk bed to call their own and a six-day workweek. They have often paid as much as $2,000 for the right to work there. By the time he left Bahrain, Mr. Gardner says, the monthly wage had dropped to around $100 a month.

The migrant-worker system has led separate societies, dependent on one another but kept apart, even after decades of coexistence, as naturalization is basically impossible.

Bahrain’s expatriate population jumped during the 1970s, when the Gulf oil producers first found themselves awash in petroleum riches, to 112,378 in 1981 from 37,885 in 1971, far outpacing native Bahraini population growth, which expanded to 238,420 from 178,193, according to government statistics.

That demographic shift, and the way it was managed, Mr. Gardner said, created a system of “structural violence,” one that encouraged “violence between citizen and foreigner in Bahrain.”

“Illegality, deportation and other forms of removal,” he writes, “are tools the state uses to control and govern the transnational movement of people.”

This control holds even when employers fail to live up to the contract.

The workers themselves have a vested interest in putting the best interpretation on their experiences in the Gulf, Mr. Gardner notes. They do not want to worry relatives, since most of them are the sole breadwinners for their families.

Mr. Gardner has expanded his research in Qatar, where he chronicled the lives of 10 migrant workers, from their arrival to the end of their contracts. This time, he wanted to dig more deeply into the lives of a smaller group of laborers.

“Some of them had serious problems,” he said. “Some had great success. I think it’s pretty obvious to anyone who spends time looking into the lives of these men and women that there are some serious and systemic problems with the migrant population here.”

Mr. Gardner said he had seen a willingness on the part of Gulf governments to adapt and change policies that might ultimately make life better for these laborers. In fact, he said, Bahrain has led the way in reforms to the migrant worker system, including a program to allow them some freedom to change jobs.

Traditionally, the residency visas of expatriate laborers have tied them to their employer. Now, Mr. Gardner said, “we’re seeing incremental change in the policy framework that shapes migration.” Still, actual implementation of the new policy has been slow, and Mr. Gardner acknowledges that it is “not a scrapping of the sponsorship system.”

In the United Arab Emirates, the authorities have in the past month set out several reform proposals, including more supervision of recruitment agencies; a requirement that they reimburse recruitment fees paid by laborers; and a prohibition of “contract substitution,” in which a laborer’s terms of employment and salary are changed by his employer or recruiter after his arrival in the Emirates.

Locals made up only an estimated 13.3 percent of the total U.A.E. population last year, down from 24.4 percent in 1995, according to Tanmia, the Emirates’ employment and human resources authority. Of the 86.7 percent who were expatriates, about 80 percent were low-skilled workers, it said.

Still, if the potential problems associated with so large a migrant population are not going away, they are at least being recognized.

“The very fact that these issues are in the public sphere,” Mr. Gardner said, “marks a significant change from my past experiences in the Gulf.”

2 thoughts on “A different Bahrain story

  1. Interesting how an American professor looks at migration in Bahrain without referring to the US.
    The migration guidelines in the Gulf allow them to profit from the global economy just like the US without submitting to it’s logic. With some 11 million illegals in the US Gardner doesn’t need to look very far from home to see the effects of globalisation.
    I don’t agree with the sponsorship system and find it a modern form of slavery but it’s very orientalist in approach to point at the Gulf while ignoring the issues back home.

    1. i see your point, but from his point of view, he does have to focus his research, doesn’t he? there are lots of academics looking into mexican migration to the US and i, or my talented colleagues at the DMN, would write about their books as well.

      the drivers of both groups of laborers to come to another country to work are the same but their experiences once in country aren’t always. gardner wrote about the “illegals” in bahrain, too, but i couldn’t get into everything in the book. the illegals in bahrain have it far worse than those in the US. (to compare the two would probably be a separate story, if not book!)

      in any case, the issue is something i’m very interested in and hope to write more about. and hopefully, that will add greater context in my portfolio of work as well. (thanks, as always, for your comments!)

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