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.


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