One of Bahrain’s first female trade union leaders and equal rights activist, Suad Mubarak tells us why women need to take up leadership roles rather than waiting for men to represent them.
Suad Mubarak is a far cry from the fire-breathing trade union activist. The soft-spoken accounts supervisor at The Gulf Hotel has spent over a decade campaigning for the rights of working women in Bahrain. Suad is assistant secretary-general at the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), the largest trade union body in Bahrain with over 60 unions under its umbrella representing 30,000 members. She speaks to us about women’s empowerment, choosing a path less trodden and what it means to sacrifice personal gain for higher ideals.
Woman This Month (WTM): What brought you into trade union activism?
Suad Mubarak (SM): I became a member of the employees committee at The Gulf Hotel back in 1998, which later converted to a union. I think I joined without knowing what I was getting into. I had some leadership qualities and represented my colleagues in interactions with the management. I ended up getting elected in every subsequent election.
WTM: Has it been worth your while?
SM: Well, this work is really stressful. You devote so much time fighting for the rights of others that you often lose out on your own career. I’ve been working on the same salary for six years and sometimes I feel I should’ve done more for my family.
Also, people expect a lot from you when they’re not ready to do their bit. Sometimes it feels demoralising when we fail, but this role has also opened a lot of doors for me. I feel proud knowing that I represent thousands of workers who trust in me. I’m happy with the work I’m doing.
WTM: Why do you insist on women getting involved in trade unionism?
SM: It’s simple. Women are part of the workforce in Bahrain and as workers they have certain rights. Unless they’re on the board of trade unions they’ll not be involved in the decision making, which is unfair since so many decisions relating to social insurance and medical rights affect women more. Men will not take up these issues as a priority; so we need women in these positions.
WTM: What is your top concern as a trade union leader in Bahrain?
SM: The situation of migrant workers is worrying. Migrant workers are part of our workforce; their numbers are huge and the problems are increasing. For instance, the trafficking of women is going up.
As part of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), we’re signatories to the ILO convention 89, which relates to the rights of domestic workers. This includes providing them with decent working conditions. We have to be involved.
WTM: What form will this involvement take? Are you calling for a revision of the labour law?
SM: The law as it stands protects neither the worker nor the employer. With the awareness levels being where they are, employers won’t apply the law.
We’re starting a series of workshops from September. Families in Bahrain have this mindset that a domestic worker is their responsibility and no further laws are required for their protection. We’re trying to convince them that they are workers and should therefore be treated with professionalism, even though they work within the house. Workers have the right to decide when they go on leave, how they spend their money and who they meet after working hours. This is the difficult part for employers. They cannot treat someone in their house as a professional and honour that.
WTM: Which other segments do you think are underrepresented in trade unions?
SM: Expatriate workers in general don’t take ownership or interest in getting unionised, with the exception of the construction sector. We don’t know how we can help them unless they come forward.
WTM: What in your view are the top challenges faced by working women?
SM: Implementing the labour law of 2012 has been problematic as it gives women certain rights and privileges with regard to maternity. Companies have shirked from hiring women because they don’t want to provide two months of paid leave. There’s also discrimination when it comes to promoting female staff.
A prominent Bahraini woman told me that although she’s an advocate of women’s rights, when it comes to her business, she thinks twice before hiring a woman. I was quite shocked. When women themselves refuse to support other women, our job becomes so much more difficult.
WTM: You’ve also been vocal about sexual harassment in the workplace and the lack of acknowledgement about this in Bahrain.
SM: Well, we don’t have any figures because no one reports sexual harassment or wants to talk about it. At the CEDAW convention in Geneva earlier this year the Bahrain government was asked why provisions for dealing with sexual harassment aren’t included in our labour law. To this, the government replied that it’s already included in civil law, so there’s no need for a mention under labour law. But who will go to the police to report sexual harassment, especially when it’s so difficult to prove it in the first place? The only way to address this issue is under labour law.
WTM: What more would you like to accomplish in this position?
SM: Well, we have reached a certain place in terms of women’s rights, but it’s not enough. I’d like to see at least 30 per cent of GFBTU membership being women. We’re launching a media campaign for this very soon. Before I step down, I would love to see women sitting across all boards of the union. That will make me really happy.