Why Have 26 Workers In Bahrain Committed Suicide This Year?

Wage disputes and a travel ban have trapped many workers in the Gulf state.

Pasupathi Mariappan, 33, originally from Tamil Nadu in South India, became the twenty-sixth Indian expat to commit suicide in Bahrain this year. The blacksmith who worked at Manama-based construction giant Nass Contracting Company, a subsidiary of the Nass Corporation, a wealthy Bahraini company, was found by police three days after he hung himself with a rope from a palm tree in a public garden in Hamad town last month.

He (Mariappan) was one of many workers stranded in Bahrain after the Nass Group imposed a travel ban on them in 2006, an Indian Embassy spokesman said.

More than 100 Indian laborers are trapped in the clutches of Bahrain over a wage dispute with Nass Corporation. The workers say that they had to take extra jobs to make ends meet because they were paid just BHD 45 ($119) every month rather than the promised BHD 100 ($265). 128 Nass workers complained to the Indian Embassy about the Abdullah Nass Construction Company, which lodged a grievance against them years ago, for not showing up at work.

A court ordered Nass employees to pay a fine ranging from BHD 400 ($1,061) to BHD 600 ($1,591) for allegedly heaping losses on the firm by violating their contracts. Disgruntled and broke, many workers left the company long before they realized they were impeded by a travel ban. They found they were stuck in Bahrain only in 2010, when they attempted to leave during an amnesty for illegal workers.

Unable to work or leave, some workers have been languishing in pain, poverty and debt. Killing themselves is the only option when they find they have no money to support their families in India and no hope of escape from the fetters of their captivity.  

Nass Corporation has been notorious for hiring scores of semi-skilled and unskilled Indian workers by transferring them illegally with promises of visa sponsorship -- a pledge that leaves its workers severely indebted. The company earned a net profit of $5.11 million in the first quarter of 2012 -- a 6.1 percent jump from the year before.

Nass Contracting recently joined hands with a Scottish company, Braemar Golf, to introduce golf to rich Bahraini residents. Nass, which slapped its travel ban to prevent Indian workers from returning home, has turned a deaf ear to the Indian Embassy's request to reverse its policy. The company is now facing pressures from lobbyists and human rights groups that are threatening to petition its business partner Braemar to consider the plight of Indian workers in Bahrain and back out of its agreement.

Bahrain remains a home to more than 350,000 Indians. International human rights organizations say that 70 percent of them work in deplorable conditions for wealthy Bahraini companies like Nass that abuse, underpay and impose travel bans on their staff.

In recent years, travel bans on foreign workers in Bahrain have become an increasingly common feature of exploitation under the shield of Bahrain's Kalafa system, a scheme that encourages slave trade. Often companies pay their employees pittance or take a massive cut from their wages for sponsoring their work visas. When workers attempt to leave or find new jobs, these companies approach the courts with claims of contract violations -- a move that wins them the right to forbid workers from leaving.

The case of the travel ban on workers is yet to be resolved. Some workers have left the country. However, most of them remain shackled to Bahrain, unable to leave until the case is resolved, the Indian embassy told media groups. The Indian Embassy earlier forwarded the case to a law firm in a bid to mediate between the company and its workers to resolve the dispute. However, it remains unclear how many individual claims will be settled.

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