ITUC: The year was marked by sustained protests and a violent crackdown by the authorities alongside a pervasive campaign against trade union members and ordinary workers participating in the protests.
In March, troops from neighbouring countries were deployed and martial law declared in efforts to contain the protests. Autumn elections to replace parliamentarians who resigned over the handling of the protests were boycotted and denounced by opposition groups.
Migrant workers were victims of systematic violence. In November, King Hamad promised to implement reforms after the release of a highly-critical report by the Independent Commission of Inquiry which detailed beatings, torture, arbitrary arrests, dismissals and a range of other serious rights violations aimed at the country’s trade unions in particular. However, violent and deadly dispersals of protests continued till the year’s end.
Violent repression of protests
Protests erupted in Bahrain on 14 February, the anniversary of a 2002 referendum which approved the National Action Charter, which included the ruling family’s commitment to democratic reforms. Thousands of demonstrators marched in the capital Manama and other cities. Police used teargas and live ammunition against demonstrators leading to the death of a male protestor. The following day, police again killed one person during the protestor’s funeral procession. Demonstrations, violent reprisals and deaths continued throughout February and March. While protestors sought to stress the non-sectarian and secular nature of the protests, many saw the protests as being symptomatic of the tensions between the majority Shia community and the minority Sunni leadership.
In February, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) announced a strike which was widely supported by trade unions. This was then called off following government promises to respect the right to peaceful protests. This promise was not respected.
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On 15 March the authorities issued a State of National Safety (SNS) – a state of emergency - and troops from neighbouring countries including 1000 from Saudi Arabia were deployed. The monument in the middle of the Pearl roundabout was demolished as an attempt to symbolically cleanse the city of the main focal point for protestors. Hundreds were injured. In the weeks that followed, the authorities arrested hundreds of protestors and dragged people – mainly Shiites - from their homes and into detention. Many were tortured and most had no access to legal support or outside contact. Troops occupied the main Salmaniya hospital where protestors were taken for treatment; ambulances were prevented from transporting casualties, with the wounded being treated in mosques and houses, often secretly.
In April, the authorities released some 300 people from detention while at the same time arresting others. On 1 June, martial law was lifted but fresh attacks on protestors in towns and villages around the capital took place the next day. Sentencing of detainees, often in military courts, continued until October with estimates of those imprisoned coming to some 2,500. Torture and forced confessions were widespread and sentences were heavy. Human rights groups estimate that at least 34 people were killed during the protests and at least four people died in custody after torture. Hundreds were injured.
The year ended with shocking brutality against peaceful demonstrators on 1 December and 16 December, Bahrain’s National Day. Scores were injured after being tied up and beaten. The injured were taken to private homes for treatment due to the continued repression of medical workers and their patients. The protests had been timed to coincide with a four day visit of the UN and Bahrain’s National Day.
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.
Migrant workers - abuses remain and discrimination rife:
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, it is estimated 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%. 77% of the workforce is made up of migrant workers, most of whom come from South Asia and work in low-skilled, low-paid jobs. The majority are highly vulnerable temporary workers, concentrated in the construction industry and domestic service sector, where working and living conditions are harsh.
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.
2011 saw a marked increased in the number of complaints from foreign domestic workers with some 216 official cases. Most concerned the non or late payment of wages. Households were also increasingly using illegal means to hire domestic workers due to the sharp increase in charges from labour agencies after the temporary ban on foreign workers imposed by sending countries during the protests. The breakdown in the rule of law during the protests resulted in increasing violence and the emergence of xenophobia against South Asian migrants exacerbated by sectarian issues.
Violence towards migrant workers:
In the midst of the political crisis, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), reported attacks on workers including migrant workers. Since 17 March, eight migrant workers have died and approximately 88 sustained various injuries. Ten Pakistanis are in a critical condition. Seven Bangladeshis have been hospitalised, three have died and four are under treatment. The murder of a Bahraini man by a Bangladeshi worker sparked angry reactions from politicians. The Bahrain government put a ban on recruitment of any further ‘untrained’ workers from Bangladesh.
Many migrants are unable to leave or unwilling to leave due to outstanding debts. Some were relocated to safer parts of Bahrain but many have remained in the middle of the conflict areas. One Sunni Bangladeshi national was reportedly attacked by Shiite demonstrators who cut off his tongue. Temporary bans were put in place by many sending countries during the protests.
Systematic violence towards migrant workers in Bahrain and south Asians in particular intensified during the protests. Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani expatriate communities were targets of widespread violence and intimidation which was further fuelled by reports of the government recruiting mercenaries from South Asian countries, in particular Pakistan.
Some Bangladeshi expatriates in Bahrain say they have been forced to take part in pro-government rallies. Violent attacks have been exacerbated by the fact that Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrants are predominately Sunni and seen as pro-regime by many.
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Groups have also claimed that the influx of Sunni nationals from outside in the last 15 years is the government’s attempt to change the sectarian demographics of Bahrain. Reports also emerged of migrants being recruited to take the place of dismissed and striking workers in violation of the right to strike and putting migrants further at risk as they cannot easily refuse.
Over 2000 expatriates fleeing their homes sought refuge at the Pakistani embassy after attacks by protestors on their neighbourhoods. In one instance, 40 South Asians were locked in a restaurant which protestors then attempted to set on fire before being stopped by intervention from community leaders. Discriminatory legal structures such as the kafala system and the multi-tiered visa process which gives different levels of rights to individuals based on nationality further entrench xenophobic attitudes.
Dismissals in public and private sectors for involvement in the protests:
Between 2,600 and 3,500 workers in both the public and private sectors were dismissed for their alleged involvement in the protests of 2011. Many workers had to identify their co-workers from police photographs of marchers. The government has so far failed to reinstate the vast majority. Some of those who have been reinstated had to agree to unacceptable and illegal conditions to get their jobs back, including agreeing not to join a union.
Government workers, especially those in health, education and municipal services, continue to be suspended or fired for their actual or suspected participation in trade union and political activity earlier in the year. Numerous trade union leaders are also now facing criminal prosecution.
Campaign against trade unions and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU):
The government pursed a sustained campaign against trade unions. Many trade union members and activists were targeted for imprisonment and accused of leading a conspiracy to overthrow the regime. Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh, the General Secretary of the GFBTU was arrested along with many from the GFBTU leadership. By the end of 2011, six members of the GFBTU executive board remained dismissed, as well as some 44 members of the executive board of GFBTU-affiliated unions.
In November, the government announced the dissolution of the GFBTU and unilaterally amended the trade union law to prohibit the establishment of a general federation of labour, such as the GFTBU; empowering the Minister of Labour to determine which union federation engages in national level bargaining and represents Bahraini workers at international fora; and prohibiting trade union leaders found guilty of charges from running again for five years.
It is feared that an amendment to allow multiple unions and to prohibit unions based on religious or sectarian lines will be used to deregister existing trade unions by falsely claiming they were formed on sectarian lines.
Teachers union leaders arrested:
Despite national legislation which prevents the unionisation of teachers, the Bahrain Teachers Association has generally acted as a union. In April, however, it was dissolved. On 25 September, the president and female former vice-president, Mahdi ’Issa Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman were sentenced to ten and three years’ imprisonment respectively by the First Instance Court of National Security, a military tribunal. Jalila al-Salman was taken from her home on 19 October by more than 30 security officials, including riot police and later refused bail. Jalila was arrested after speaking out about the continued repression and abuse of teachers in Bahrain.
It is believed that both Jalila and Madhi were targeted solely on account of their leadership of the BTA and for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Both alleged that they have been subjected to beatings and abuse while in prison. Another nine BTA officials are facing criminal prosecution, including the General Secretary, Mrs Sana Abdul Razzaq.
Nineteen students at Bahrain University were arrested alongside members of the Teachers’ Association and the payment of salaries of certain lecturers and union members was stopped. 111 employees of the Education Ministry were reportedly punished for participating in protests. The employees will reportedly be prosecuted for “flagrant violations” of the country’s civil service law, as a teachers strike during the protests was described as politically motivated and aimed at “crippling schools”. Over 8,000 teachers have been affected since the beginning of the crackdown. Education institutions were closed and salaries not paid or delayed. According to the BTA, 2,500 teachers have been brought in from Egypt to replace dismissed Bahraini teachers. Another 6,500 unqualified local recruits have been hired.
Beatings, arrests and death sentences for medical staff:
On 23 October, sentences were confirmed for a group of 20 doctors, nurses, and paramedics on charges including forcibly taking over the Salmaniya Medical Complex and refusing treatment to patients based on sectarian affiliation.
The court also convicted them of transparently political offences, such as “instigating hatred against the ruling system,” “incitement to overthrow the regime,” and “spreading false news.” They were handed sentences ranging from five to 15 years each. They reported abuse and torture in detention including sexual abuse and weeks of solitary confinement.
Reports also emerged of the disappearance of some medical workers.
At least 68 journalists working for two leading Bahraini newspapers, Al Wasat and Al Bilad, were singled out for sacking, arrests and charges of treason during the protests. Others were forced into exile in a systematic harassment of independent media. Senior journalist Mansour Al Jamry, editor -in-chief of Al Wasat and his colleagues Walid Nuwayhid, the paper’s editing manager and Akil Mirza, member of the Bahraini Journalists Association (BJA) lost their jobs in this campaign which affected at least 68 media staff. In October, a court convicted the newspaper and fined Mansoor Al-Jamri and Walid Nuwayhid, Aqeel Mirza, and Ali Al-Sharifi, a journalist, 1000 Bahraini Dinars (Euro 2,015) for “publishing news that defamed the image of Bahrain abroad”.
Nazeeha Saeed a reporter for France24 and Radio Monte Carlo was arrested on 22 May over her coverage of the repression and was badly beaten by her interrogators. In October, Jamal Zuwayyed, a columnist with Akhbar Al Khaleej, the oldest newspaper in circulation in Bahrain, was attacked for his reporting of the protests. Photographer Mohammed Almoukhraq was also beaten by security forces while covering the protests. On 9 December, during a violent clash with police who overran a peaceful demonstration, two New York Times staff were tear gassed and detained. The government claimed the detentions were for their own protection.
BAPCO trade union leader dismissed: 293 workers at the Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) were dismissed during the protests after a special committee was set up to investigate cases of absenteeism, which was reportedly 60% of the workforce on 16 to 17 March. The BAPCO Trade Union President Abdul Ghaffar Abdul Hussain was also dismissed for instigating employees to take part in a general strike. A subsequent parliamentary investigation committee reported that the oil minister and BAPCO executives should also be suspended and investigated because BAPCO employees were “deeply involved” in the demonstrations and benefited from “undue” administrative protection that amounted to “incitement to strike.” By August, some 101 workers had reportedly been reinstated. The union leader remains dismissed.
Gulf Air unionists dismissed::
The government is pursuing criminal charges against Gulf Air union leaders with the clear intent of undermining the union. In April, 217 Bahrain-based Gulf Air workers were dismissed. All are members of the General Flight Attendants Union. Amongst those dismissed were union leaders. While some have returned to work many have not been reinstated in their original jobs. Union leaders have been excluded. A senior member of an aviation company said workers at his company had been targeted by the government and that employees were questioned about their attendance and whether they had taken leave- the security forces “were trying to use those questions to get the employee to answer specific questions on whether they’d been part of protests”. Several workers were questioned and one was apprehended.
In November, Habib Alnabbool, Chair of the Gulf Air union, went on trial after claims he was tortured, interrogated, humiliated, blindfolded and forced to sign documents he was not allowed to read.
Grand Prix workers dismissed: The Bahrain Grand Prix was cancelled because of the instability. Foreign race officials later discovered that almost a quarter of the workers at the Sakhir circuit had been detained in April and later dismissed, reportedly for cheering the cancellation of the Grand Prix. By the end of 2011, 29 workers remained dismissed.
DHL unionists threatened: In October, Shukri Hassan, president of the Bahrain DHL workers’ union and eight of his colleagues went on trial accused of violating national security.
Migrant wage cases:
In September, a group of striking Indian workers at a contracting company complained to the Indian Embassy of not receiving increments for the past four to six years. In April, workers at the Habib Ali Awachi construction company protested when they did not have enough to eat, as a result of salary arrears of two to four months. Those that had come to the end of their contract could not return to their home country. In December, some1, 000 workers and 100 construction company staff went on strike over alleged unpaid wages for the past seven months. The electricians, mechanics, plumbers, labourers, masons, carpenters, engineers, foremen, technicians and managers say they will not return to work unless their demands are met. The Al Hamad Construction Company workers claim they have been working on basic salaries between BD60 to BD300. The workers, who live in a labour accommodation near Alba roundabout, started a march which was stopped by police. Seven people were arrested.
A group of 54 undocumented migrants were arrested, most of then had previously run away from exploitative employers and were charged of absconding. They had previously run away from their employer but were unable to pay for the alleged losses incurred by their employer which are calculated on a daily basis. The men all have travel bans imposed against them by the courts due to cases filed by their employer.
The workers had been unaware of the travel ban until they tried to avail themselves of the Easy Exit scheme last year. The court had ruled in favour of the employers and ordered each worker to pay the company compensation ranging from BD300 to BD500. However the men have no way to pay. In a separate case, one worker who arrived on false promises five years ago has now been told he must pay fines amounting to around BD2, 300 (Euro 4,635). This fine increases every month. The migrant had paid to travel to Bahrain but on arrival found no job and was instead forced to search for temporary jobs. He is now ill and cannot work.