May 14, 2006

battling the poor co.

When it comes to acting with complete disregard for the poor, this country is truly world-class. Government and big business alike have so fantastic apathy to the misery of the working poor, they live in a green zone –a la Baghdadi- of their own.

Batelco is a prime example of that. This is the company that used to tout a “laptop+internet” bundle as costing nothing more than mere low “BD50 only” per month. Talk about a devalued Dinar. The company that charged BD 40 for 256 k line, month in and month out, in a country where 60% of its private sector employees – citizen- earn less than BD200 per month. And if you prefer the blender average of the public and private sectors, it is BD 325 for all, which is still lower than the poverty line of BD339 per family of 4. How would my neighbour, with BD180 per month salary and three other mouths to feed afford the BD 40 for an ADSL line? Or Would Batelco be content to just leave his kids of 8 and 6 with no access to the world web for life?

Well, the ingenuity of this land manifested itself in a unique collective answer. People formed their own sharenets. Each household would pay from BD5 to BD10 depending on the no of shared lines. And Batelco and others have the gall to call them “thiefnets”? They are no more thieves than the tens of millions of Americans and Europeans and Koreans who pay similar rates for a single line. And what would you do, if the only baker in town refuses to lower the price of your loaf of bread and prohibits you from sharing it with others as well?

And who is the thief here, Batelco Bahrain that will from now on charges me BD 480 per year for a line of advertised speed of 1 Mbps and an “enormous” threshold of 15GB, or Batelco Jordan which charges my former teacher in Amman for a line of same speed and 12GB threshold JD399 per year ( or the equivalent of BD 212 or BD 17.7 per month), or if he is only content with the 5GB threshold only JD299 per year or BD 13.3 per month?! Flexibilty ? you bet.

Economics clearly is not the reason here. Is it politics then? The wish and want to shut the Bahraini youth from using the whole world wide web as their anti-government graffiti world wide wall?

May 01, 2006

labour day

Happy and -most importantly- restful Labour Day to you.

(If you are not happy or restful on this May Day, then you may very well belong to that blue-collared sect, where the u in labour stands for the disproportionate share of the unemployed, underpaid and the underemployed).

Thirty years ago, there was a debate by this island’s first and only parliament on declaring May Day a public holiday. Deputies on the left moved the motion. Deputies on the turbaned right, fearing a socialist twirl, resolved not to be moved. A visiting cleric was seen doing a head twist from right to left and saying “why are they against people having a deserved day off?”.

26 years later, the government heeded that cry and signed on to a day off. If all public land and sea are declared by now off and royally privatized, there is no harm in granting the working classes at least a day off. It just comes natural in this island's tradition of generosity and sense of sharing.

But of course, a modern history of labour goes back seven decades earlier, to the start of Bapco, the oil company, or simply Al-Sharikah, “the company”. Fresh from under the heels of the corvee of the diving era, the first generation of modern day local labourers had to endure the unendurable to scrape by. Burning sun and boiling drinking water was their due, while air-conditioned offices, cool facilities, and washing rooms were all marked “Staff only”. Staff meant white only employees. Shade was not the privilege of the locals.

It was not until 1956, that a shade of dignity started to rise in the treatment of local workers, an elder retiree recalls. Before that celebrated year of the “Haya’ah”, it was entirely up to the Sahibs’ discretion. Being an exclusively granted concession, they owned it, they managed it and they ran it as they see fit, with full entitlement to the oil of the land, subject only to the paltry wages and royalties they pay. (It was not all the fault of the Sahibs. When deciding on a local worker’s daily wage, a local merchant suggested to the management not to pay less, as the locals are willing to work for half the said amount. The amount was thus halved.) For much of the ensuing decades, there wasn’t much of a choice to the local workers inside the company’s gates, either oblige in or oblige out.

Fifty years later, something funny happened on the road to May Day. With the stroke of a sole, unilateral constitutional signature, the legal status of the country practically changed to one resembling a privately owned oil concession. So much so that the elected members of the parliament, the presumed representatives of the will of the people, have as much power as the workers representatives in a guild or a union at a private, limited liability company. They can certainly appeal, plead, beseech or even suggest and protest. But they certainly do not have the right to look at the books, affect legal change, or decide on the future or managers of the company. (Few months ago, the Bapco Workers Union actually tried their luck requesting – for the purpose of determining how much of a bonus they can negotiate- to know the grand total of the company earnings. They were told they could see the numbers on the operational costs of production and refining. And that’s that).

Much has changed since, but one thing is back to original form “one island, one company”. And of that you can rest assured.