The welfare of migrant workers is a big issue in the Middle East countries. Since the indigenous population of these countries before the oil boom of the 1970s was quite small, the sudden expansion of their economies brought in a huge number of foreign workers. The blue-collar ones came largely from six Asian countries – India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
With the exception of the Filipinos, they were largely non-English-speaking workers, good at their trade but virtually letterless or with a very rudimentary education. They came from villages back home or from the fringes of townships and their diffidence, inability to articulate themselves and lack of proper education were often exploited by their employers.
This exploitation found various guises. Their passports would be taken away so could not go back home while they were being exploited, they were denied annual leave, they would not be paid salaries for months on end, they would be paid salaries less than their contracts spelled out, there will be instalments deducted out of their meagre wages on spurious accounts like the air ticket their employer may have paid to get them over or in the name of their health insurance, they will be paid no overtime, would be made to work on holidays and so on.
In varying degrees and in a variety of ways this is how they were being exploited and in many countries the exploitation continues despite lip service by the powers that be and clauses included in labour laws.
But from early on Bahrain has been an exception and has taken major steps to protect the rights of migrant workers. And the list of these steps is quite impressive:
- Bahrain was the first country in the Arab Gulf [and possibly still is] which abolished the system whereby a migrant worker could not switch job for a better salary without going out of the country for six months. In effect that closed any chances of his bettering his prospects since few employers were willing to wait for a blue-collar worker that long.
- Bahrain was also the first country to make it mandatory that no infrastructure-building company or contractor would make his labourers work in the sun during three of the hottest months in the year. This was done at the personal intercession of the Prime Minister.
- It also ensured from the beginning that the Labour Ministry cells to inspect labour camps and work sites for the state of their hygiene, safety, welfare etc. were not there on paper alone but that the teams of inspectors regularly went out to make spot checks.
- It changed rules making it much easier for a worker to get his passport back from an employer unwilling to release, it by filing a police complaint or visiting the Labour Ministry.
The six-month bar could only be circumvented if an employer gave a worker a no-objection certificate to work for another company and this was like asking for the moon. This situation turned a worker virtually into a bonded labourer and encouraged exploitative employers to give him no [or hardly any] raise.
Bahrain not only abolished the system but set up a Labour Market Regulatory Authority to enable a migrant worker to switch job smoothly whenever he liked and without having to obtain any no-objection certificate.
Indeed the six-month amnesty Bahrain declared last year, under which the runaway workers and those with expired visas could leave without paying any fine, also encouraged them – just in case they did not want to leave – to find an employer and regularize their status. The amnesty was not something punitive but rather humane.
These are just four of the many examples of the ways in which Bahrain’s Labour Ministry ensures the expatriate workers are neither exploited nor short-changed. The Ministry Under-Secretary was recently quoted in the Press as saying that Bahrain remains fully committed to meeting the standards laid down by the International Labour Organisation [ILO]. “We must remember that GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council] countries are under ILO supervision, which means we must provide the best to migrant workers.,” he said.
Bahrain is also one of those rare countries in the Gulf to actively encourage labour unions and there is even an umbrella organization called the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. But so far the migrant workers have not come forward to join any union, scared that their private-sector employers might not renew their visas or have them deported. Nevertheless a top federation official recently said the expatriate workers “need to be encouraged to join trade unions and push for their rights.”