Brief introduction to the history of labor movements in Bahrain
The history of the labor movement in Bahrain dates back to the 1930s when the workers of the Bahrain Petroleum Company moved to demand the formation of a labor union defending their rights and preserving their gains and demanding improvement of their conditions. In the fifties, the labor movements and trade unions began to develop until they established a federation of trade unions, however these movements were met with repression by the authorities in Bahrain at the time, and ended with the arrest of workers or forcible displacement of workers and the termination of all manifestations of the Labor Union at the time.
This scene repeated in the eighties and nineties, the workers participated in the demands of political reform along with the popular demands of the 1990s. These protests did not stop until the authorities in Bahrain were forced to declare a national political reform. Thousands of detainees were released on the basis of their demands. The formation of trade unions and was allowed as well as the formation of political associations and parliament. Yet, after ten years of this trial, massive protests swept the Bahraini street in 2011 after concluding that all aspects of reforms were purely false and that the authorities had tightened their effective control over trade unions and parliament.
The voices of labor movements are silenced
The Bahraini authorities have not accepted the repeated demands of trade unions to participate in the country’s political, economic and social decision-making, which is essentially a fundamental right and an inherent democratic right. The authorities in Bahrain have continued to take their own decision-making approach and abuse this productive and labor sector. This were seen as a practice of corruption that has a negative impact on the rights of this large segment of the country.
The authorities have continued to fight against many of the demands of the unions and the International Confederation of Trade Unions (ICFTU) to stop the restrictions and its abuses against labor movements in Bahrain and against workers and trade unions, which reached its peak since the beginning of the mass protests in 2011.
In 2011, the Bahraini authorities dismissed thousands of workers from both the public and private sectors as collective punishment for participating in labor strikes. Hundreds of trade unionists and thousands of workers were arrested and criminal charges were brought against them either for participating in the labor strike or taking part in the movement took place in the country. Many lost their jobs and many have been tortured. An example is, the case with the chairman of the teachers’ association Mahdi Abu Deeb and his deputy Jalila Al Salman who were tortured during interrogations and imprisonment.
The Bahraini authorities have not only abused their trade unionists, but have defamed them through the press and led a vicious campaign to defame them and accuse them of treason and “defame Bahrain.” Trade unions have demanded that all those who have been dismissed be returned, however these were not placed back into their jobs or in best case were placed in lower-ranking positions with lower pay than their previous posts.
The unions also called for an end to the policy of sectarian discrimination in employment and the policy of dismissing employees because they belong to the Shiite community or for participating in anti-government protests. This is contrary to the International Convention adopted by the General Conference of the International Labor Organization on 25 June 1958 at its forty- Employment and Occupation Convention No. 111.
Undoing the articles of the Trade Unions Law
The Bahraini Trade Unions Act of 2002 came too late in comparison to the Labor Law of 1976. The current law lacks an explanatory memorandum and lacks provisions and articles that protect the rights of national workers. The legislator created restrictive articles for dialogue between trade unions and the authorities, where the law also prohibited workers of the public sector from forming unions defending their interests. Article 21 of the law also restricted the inherent right and effective means of defending the workers’ rights -the right of strike- with restricting article that limit their ability to activate this right and enable them to carry out a labor strike.
In the Authority’s efforts to eliminate labor movements, the law was amended. The Minister of Labor was granted the right to choose the labor union which represents the workers of Bahrain in international forums and negotiations with the employers. The authorities also pushed towards controlling and dividing trade unions to ensure hegemony over workers’ voices by pushing loyalists to break-in unions and the establishment of unions loyal to the Authority. That is to tighten the screws on the General Union of Bahrain Trade Unions, which the authority sees as opponent because it announced its support for popular demands in the transition to democracy in 2011.
Since October 2012, the Bahraini authorities have violated Article 21 of the Royal Decree of the Bahraini Trade Union Law of 2002, which stipulates that the strike is a legitimate mean of defending the economic and social interests of the labor. Where the Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa said through the Bahrain News Agency and broadcasted by international news agencies such as Reuters, that: “marches and protest rallies will be treated as unlicensed and legal proceedings will be taken against those who call for or participants in them”.
Even before October 2012, the security authorities in Bahrain used to face these protests with repression. There are usually clashes between a number of demonstrators and police. The demonstrations end with the arrest of citizens. In May 2013, during the suppression of labor marches, Photographer of the French news agency Mohamed Al Sheikh, The Associated Press photographer Hassan Jamali, Radio Monte Carlo correspondent Naziha Saeed were all arrested and released in later times. Authorities in Bahrain have not responded to human rights organizations’ claims or the claims of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions to abide by the constitution, which allows for protests and to comply with the Bahraini Union Law. It is worth noting that at the first of May trade unions all over the world organize marches and protests calling for the improvement of wages and modify the conditions and also demands concerning legal amendments and other types of workers’ claims.
Trafficking in poor migrant labor
Bahrain has tens of thousands of migrant workers living in extremely poor conditions with low wages and in uninhabitable housing. On the other hand, there are written but unenforceable laws, for instance, in 2007, the Bahraini authorities issued a law banning the work of construction workers or other workers under the sun at extreme high temperature between 11 am and 3 pm during the summer, and the inspection campaigns have succeeded in limiting the work under the sun during the high temperatures. However, the so-called “bulk labor” in Bahrain are still exploited, alongside the poor foreign labor in Bahrain such as workers at roads and construction often face economic and livelihood problems with employers that reach the level of human trafficking. They are paid very low salaries, forcing them to live in rooms that are rented by the workers themselves, which are uninhabitable and live in large numbers that are not commensurate with the size of the rooms. The houses are dilapidated where safety and protection requirements are not met.
The laws in Bahrain did not regulate workers’ housing requirements if the worker chose to live alone. The law obliged the sponsor only to have adequate housing standards related to the safety of workers. In most cases, the low-wage foreign workers can not resort to the complaint in the competent authorities because of the lengthy procedures in conflict resolution and long-term judiciary for final judgment. It is also because they cannot survive for long without pay, forcing them to accept an unfair settlement outside the judicial system or places where labor disputes are resolved and many of them accept to return home without taking the rest of their wages.
Modern enslavement: the enslavement of domestic servants
The Bahraini Labor Law of 2012 included positive articles regarding domestic servants, who were usually female servants. Women were entitled to leave on an annual leave of 30 days, 2.5 days for each month, but in most cases the guarantors did not comply with this law. The law did not address working hours of the day, overtime or weekend leave. The law does not require the transfer of salary on a bank account to ensure control in case the maid claims not to receive her salary. In many cases, the sponsor is a dominant figure in the country and the maid cannot file a complaint against him or her or event resort to her country’s embassy. In many cases, non-Muslim female servant is obliged to wear the Islamic veil or impose a religion other than the religion she embraces and in cases are treated as domestic servants or cruelly subjected to physical, psychological or sexual abuse, and are treated as slaves.
Salam for Democracy and Human Rights urges the authorities in Bahrain to:
- Ensure that workers and trade unions in Bahrain do not face any kind of harassment or abuse because of their movements to prolong their legitimate rights.
- Stop the dismissal of activists in the General Federation of Trade Unions in Bahrain or the use of any arbitrary measures against them.
- Return all workers who have been dismissed due to their political positions or sectarian affiliation to their work or agree with them to pay compensation, especially those dismissed from work due to the popular movement in February 2011.
- Ensure that no form of punitive measures is used against workers to participate in any protest.
- Amend the articles of the Trade Union Law and listen to the demands of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions.
- Stop suppressing rallies and marches or preventing them from going out, including protests by trade unions on May 1 of each year.