Covid-19 and the socio-legal status of migrant workers in Bahrain

New report by Asia Perri for Salam for Democracy and Human Rights casts lights on ingrained discrimination in Bahrain

By Drewery Dyke

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On 4 March 2022, the United Nations (UN) Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights concluded a review of the Government of Bahrain (GoB)’s implementation of the treaty of the same name. Its Concluding Observations identified shortcomings in the government’s conduct towards migrant workers. It called on the GoB in paragraph 15 to:

“Strengthen its efforts to ensure non-discriminatory access to economic, social and cultural rights by migrant workers, including by protecting them from discrimination in employment and removing the barriers they face with regard to their access to adequate housing, education, and healthcare and services.”

The Committee also urged the GoB (paragraph 23) to:

 “Take legislative measures to ensure that workers in all sectors of the economy, including domestic workers and workers in the informal economy, are protected by labour laws and regulations with a view to ensuring their right to just and favourable conditions of work […] and provide workers in all sectors protection from exploitation and abuse, including by further improving complaint mechanisms in order to make them easily accessible, and protecting them against reprisals […]”

It concluded its recommendations by calling on the GoB to make good on the promises in the treaty, including in respect to “the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic”.  On 20 May 2020 the UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants issued (a)  Joint Guidance Note on the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Human Rights of Migrants. It warned that the COVID-19 pandemic (was) is  having serious and disproportionate effects on migrants and their families globally.

The two UN human rights bodies set out clear calls to all states, including to (2) “Integrate migrant workers into national COVID-19 prevention and response plans and policies […] and respect their right to health, including by ensuring that the provision of tests, essential medicines, prevention measures and treatment are provided in a non-discriminatory manner”; (3) “Guarantee access to social services for migrants and their families […]”; (4) “Guarantee the labour rights of migrant workers […] and take measures to protect their health, such as by providing personal protection equipment”.

In her report Asia Perri, who drafted her report during a 2020-2021 internship with SALAM DHR, explores how “the iniquitous socio-legal structure and construct of Kefala, pre-dating the advent of Civd-19 in Bahrain, was exacerbated by the pandemic and has imposed enormous human costs on migrant workers in terms of health and welfare.” She concludes, in part, that “the global character of the pandemic has meant that suffering in Bahrain has come at little cost to the authorities.

Nicholas McGeehan a co-founder and director of the research and advocacy organisation, FairSquare, said:

“This is a timely and well-researched report on a critical issue. Migrant workers’ inability to properly access healthcare is critical given the very serious and harmful abuses that many endure and the paper highlights how the Covid19 pandemic exacerbated these problems in Bahrain, placing health and lives at risk. The report constitutes an important component of our understanding of how the various Gulf states responded to the Covid19 pandemic.”

Asia Perri does not end her report for SALAM DHR with specific recommendations but rather observations. Her assessment of the evidence indicates that:

  • Contrary to public assertions, notably to other governments, the public and intergovernmental bodies, the GoB failed to act on the principle of equality [of treatment] in a comprehensive manner;
  • Any aid given by the government was insubstantial or never reached migrant workers themselves;
  • The GoB not only failed to enact legislative measures recognising or taking effective action in relation to  migrant workers’ right to health but also appeared to oppose such measures; and
  • Through its actions, The GoB has consistently dehumanised and ‘othered’ migrant workers – to the point that they were and are not even recognised to have human rights.

What does the GoB’s conduct in relation to Covid-19 and migrant workers say about its governance more generally?

The May 2020  Joint Guidance Note on the Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic on the Human Rights of Migrants issued by UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families and UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants called on the GoB to:

(16) “Facilitate human rights monitoring and data collection on the human rights situation of

migrants during the COVID-19 pandemic, by international organizations, national human rights

institutions, and civil society organizations on migration routes, in border areas, places of detention, camps or other places where migrants live or work, within the capacities of the State and with appropriate health measures.”

And to (17) engage with the Committee (on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers)  and the Special Rapporteur.

What could be simpler?

Alas, therein lies the problem. As Asia Perri concludes, “The only way to explain GoB assertions in respect to its conduct is that it fails to see the essential human dignity of the migrant workers […]” No amount of mediasation of the GoB’s human rights engagement with global partners can diminish or erase the misery and suffering experienced by the migrant workers discussed by Asia Perri.

 It is conduct whereby the Al Khalifa rule by law, rather than under the rule of  law; where failure to engage and implement – in good faith – treaties relating to civil and political rights as well as economic, social and cultural rights is a very real manifestation of the government’s decision to ignore independent civil society and the views of people as expressed through free and fair elections and the accountability that generally accompanies democracy.  When a government arrogates to itself sweeping, unaccountable powers, more inclined to ignore than addresses fears, concerns and aspirations of people, the weave of  social fabric represented by  adherence to international human rights standards frays and can fall apart. As Asia Perri’s paper shows, the delay in or the failure to address the healthcare needs of migrant workers comprises the fraying and shredding of one thread of the weave. So many others are already in a tatty condition. Are we already back on the path to another 2011 or can the government turn it around?

SALAM DHR wishes to thank for its contribution to the report.

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