Chennai: A school dropout from Thanjavur has taken on a giant contracting company in faraway Bahrain - and won.
Shankar Mariappan, a driver with the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, kickstarted an online petition that forced the Nass Corporation to allow more than 100 migrant Indian labourers held back against their will in Bahrain for about six years to return home.
The company also promised a new policy which would ensure that foreign workers will no longer face travel bans. Nass has further assured that it will refrain from continuing or instituting legal action against employees who were accused of "absconding from work".
Shankar, 41, who lives in Thanjavur’s Poyyundarkudikadu village, turned an unlikely activist after a terrible personal tragedy.
His brother Pasupathi Mariappan hanged himself to death in a public park in Bahrain on June 14 this year - the 26th Indian worker to commit suicide in Bahrain because of a travel ban.
Pasupathi had arrived in Bahrain late last year after an agent promised him a job as a welder/fitter. The family took a loan and spent over Rs 100,000 for his work permit and his passage to the island country.
"But once he got there, he realised that his job at Nass corporation was that of a construction worker... The salary he got was also nowhere near what the agent had promised," recalls Shankar.
Things went further downhill when Pasupathi fell ill and had to be hospitalised.
"The hospital charges alone were Rs 45,000," Shankar told sify.com.
After returning to work and falling ill again, his brother quit Nass, but his contract did not allow him to seek another job, and his passport was with his employers - as per the laws in Bahrain.
He was also legally barred from leaving the country because he had left the firm before completing his contract term.
Pasupathi was forced to go without pay for two months, and though he approached a few travel agents in a desperate attempt to make his way back to India, no one was able to help.
Defeated, the 33-year-old took the extreme step of ending his own life.
But even death did not help him fulfill his wish of getting back home. The family couldn’t raise the money needed to bring Pasupathi's body back to India.
"The workers from our village got together to perform his last rites," explains Shankar.
Pasupathi's shocking suicide made international news.
Avaaz.org, the social campaign website that made news in India for its petition supporting Anna Hazare's fight against corruption, spotted the story in a local newspaper.
"We verified the story with the Indian Embassy in Bahrain who then put Avaaz in touch with Shankar. Avaaz called Shankar to offer our condolences and inform him that there are 100 others like his brother who he could potentially help," says Ian Bassin, campaign director at Avaaz.
Shankar, who had never used the Internet before in his life, liked the idea of his brother's death helping other workers, and gave Avaaz permission to launch a petition in his name.
The petition, which was launched on June 28, has since been signed by over 20,000 people.
This was the first Avaaz campaign highlighting the plight of Indians facing unjust restrictions on their right to travel - a right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"Nass Corporation had refused to budge on this for years but in just three weeks, people power has brought an end to the construction company’s cruel ban," says Avaaz Executive Director Ricken Patel.
Nass had previously resisted efforts by the Indian Government and other human rights organisations to permit the workers to leave Bahrain.
But this time, the target was Nass's financial interests and its Scottish business partner, Braemar Golf.
"Nass has entered into a partnership with a Scottish company to bring golf to rich Bahrainis. If we raise the alarm now, we can urge Braemar Golf to pressure Nass on worker’s rights or walk away from this partnership. Nass did not listen to a poor labourer's cry for justice, but they will certainly listen to their prestigious business partner," Shankar's petition had said.
Within days, Braemer's CEO, Keith Haslam, in co-ordination with Avaaz, reached out to his Nass partners.
A few days later, Nass agreed to meet with the Indian Embassy in Bahrain and opened negotiations that ultimately resulted in Wednesday’s announcement.
A statement by Nass Coorporation said it held discussion with the Embassy of India to resolve the issue relating to some Indian workers "who were absconding from work without notice"..... Notwithstanding the hardship and the financial and non−financial detriment being caused to the company over the years, as a policy the company will not hereafter institute any legal proceedings against runaway workers except in cases of criminal offence, if any, committed by them.
Nass has also confirmed that it will withdraw all court cases pending against runaway workers, and enable Indian workers to leave Bahrain at the earliest.
For Shankar, it's a sweet victory.
"I didn't expect that this would happen - that my petition would go around the world...One hundred people have been saved, so I'm really happy."
Hopefully, the petition will also lead to the Bahrain government cracking down on the visa sponsor system.
There are nearly 400,000 Indians in Bahrain and many live in extremely poor, unhygienic conditions. Like Pasupathi, they're often not paid the wage they are promised and their passports are seized. In 2009, Bahrain's own labour minister called this visa sponsor system 'akin to slavery'.