There was a marked increase in strikes and walk-outs by both local and migrant workers in 2010, with most strikes in construction companies. Migrant workers, estimated at some 70-80% of the workforce, continue to face discrimination despite a welcome end to the sponsorship system. Workers enjoy only limited trade union rights, and only one union is allowed at each workplace.
Elections were held in October despite a boycott from several opposition parties and amid allegations of vote rigging and the detention of several opponents for criticising Bahrain’s human rights record. The economy is forecast to improve but unemployment continues to be a long term problem. In April the Bahraini Parliament approved a minimum wage law but only for government employees and members of the Armed Forces.
Trade union rights in law
Despite some initial guarantees, trade union rights are not adequately secured. The Constitution recognises the right to form a union for lawful objectives and by peaceful means, provided that the fundamentals of the religion and public order are not infringed. Only one trade union is allowed at each workplace, and all unions must belong to the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. A law that would have allowed more than one trade union per company was vetoed by the Shura council in February 2009. Workers in the private sector are protected against anti-union dismissal, and the law provides for the possibility of reinstatement. While foreign workers may join trade unions, they are not sufficiently protected in law.
Workers are not allowed to engage in collective bargaining, however the government has promised to adopt a law in this regard. A lawful strike can only be called after three-quarters of the members of the union’s general assembly approve of the action. The list of “essential services” vastly exceeds the ILO definition. Additional information regarding the legislation*
Migrant workers: abuses remain:
Bahrain has taken serious steps to reduce human trafficking, but problems remain. Bahrain was the first country in the region to grant migrant workers the right to organise and the first country to abolish the “Kafal” (sponsorship) system. Anti-trafficking laws are also in place. Nevertheless, the Labour Market Regulatory Authority estimates that approximately 10% of migrant workers are in Bahrain under illegal “free visa” arrangements - a practice that can contribute to debt bondage - while others put the figure at 25%.
Most migrant workers are employed in domestic work, entertainment and construction, and come mainly from Asia and some African countries. Despite the end of the sponsorship system they face serious discrimination and women migrant domestic workers are particularly vulnerable to abuses. The withholding of passports remains the norm. In January 2010 alone, Bahrain saw two cases of suicide and two cases of attempted suicide by migrant workers.
Nursing union closed:
On 23 March authorities closed down the Bahrain Nursing Society. A member of the trade union, Ibrahim al-Demastani, was released on bail after a week in detention. Al-Demastani, a nurse, had reportedly administered first aid to Husain Ali Hasan al-Sahlawi, who was accused of violent demonstration and subsequently shot at by Special Forces. Another defendant, Abdul Aziz Shabib, an X-Ray Technician, was also arrested and later released on bail. Both individuals were accused of abusing their professional positions and hiding a wanted man.
The Bahrain Nursing Society defended al-Demastani and asserted that he was carrying out his ethical duties and that even in a state of war, health care professionals are obligated to treat everyone. It is believed that this statement led to the closure of the society.
Striking migrant construction workers forced to leave:
Hundreds of construction workers went on a two-day strike at the start of July to protest underpayment and poor living conditions. The strike was called off after the strike leaders reportedly agreed to leave Bahrain and return home. The company director said that 10 men who had been “instigating the workers” to strike had agreed to voluntarily leave the country and return home while complaints about living conditions, wages and overtime would be looked into. However, the Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society stated that the men had feared they were made into scapegoats and would be victimised if they stayed at work, so they had little choice but to accept repatriation despite their right to protest.
Strikers scared back to work:
Some 450 workers, including 50 Bahrainis and others from India and the Philippines, at the Al Sharqiya Mixed Concrete Company staged an impromptu strike over pay issues on 2 November. The workers complained that they had been unfairly discriminated against over pay rises. They returned to work a day later after management threatened that their strike was illegal due to a lack of notice and that they would therefore be sacked or, in the case of the foreign workers, deported. The workers however warned they could strike again if their demands for pay rises were not met. Bahraini employees were paid twice as much as non-Bahrainis.
Forced labour and withholding of documents:
In late July it was reported that around 115 migrant workers from the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh were stranded in a Tubli labour camp without food or water. The workers claimed that they had not been paid nor worked for three months and that the employer, the S Projects Company, had cut off electricity supply to the camp. The workers had had their documents removed, as is commonplace in Bahrain. Labour Ministry officials and the Indian Embassy tried to obtain passports and payments from the company and arrange for the workers to return to India. Complaints were also filed. The S Projects Company was previously known as Royal Tower Construction, which operated a Gudaibiya labour camp that was destroyed by fire in 1996 - killing 16 Indian workers whose families are still waiting for compensation despite a court order.
In a separate case in November 2010, 16 migrant workers from India lodged a compliant at the Indian Embassy over their treatment at the hands of the Suney Cleaning Company. The men alleged that they had not been paid for months and had no money to live. The company finally agreed to pay the outstanding wages and return the passports.
Domestic workers abused:
In August reports emerged of the abuse of Salma Begum, an Indian migrant who fled her employer on 3 August after physical and mental abuse, non-payment of any wages and withholding of documents. Ms. Begum was promised a monthly salary of BHD 50 but did not receive any money, was subjected to daily beatings and denied adequate food and sleep. After visiting the Indian Embassy, Ms. Begum attempted to file a police complaint but was told that her employer had already reported her as a runaway worker.
In November, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) called for strict new regulations to help protect the rights of domestic workers, including the provision of contracts in advance to domestic workers and the issuing of mobile phones. The calls came after another case of abuse of a foreign domestic workers emerged. Filipino Imelda Munar, 40, suffered serious head injuries on 5 November after she tried to escape from the second floor of her sponsor’s apartment. Ms. Munar reportedly wrapped herself in a blanket before jumping from the balcony in an attempt to minimise the risk of injuries. According to the GFBTU there is an increasing number of suicides and abuse cases among foreign domestic workers.
*Freedom of association / Right to organize
Freedom of association :
- >The right to freedom of association is enshrined in the Constitution but strictly regulated.
- >The right to freedom of association is recognized by law but strictly regulated.
- >The law prohibits anti-union discrimination.
Restrictions on workers' right to form and join organizations of their own choosing:
>Single trade union system imposed by law and/or a system banning or limiting organising at a certain level (enterprise, industry and/or sector, regional and/or territorial, national)
All trade unions must belong to the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. Only one trade union is allowed at each workplace.
Categories of workers prohibited or limited in law from forming or joining a union, or from holding a union office:
>Other civil servants and public employees
Right to collective bargaining
Right to collective bargaining:
- >The right to collective bargaining is not protected in law.
Right to strike
Right to strike:
- >The right to strike is recognised by law but strictly regulated.
Legal barriers to lawful strike actions:
>Obligation to observe an excessive quorum or to obtain an excessive majority in a ballot to call a strike
Workers may only go on strike after getting the approval of three-quarters of the members of the union’s general assembly through a secret ballot.
Limitations or ban on strikes in certain sectors:
>Discretionary determination or excessively long list of "essential services" in which the right to strike is prohibited or severely restricted
The government’s list of essential services in which strikes are banned goes far beyond the ILO definition. It includes the hydrocarbon, health, education, pharmacy, baking, security, civil defence, airport, port and transport sectors.