Bahrain Backtracks on Workers’ Rights Reform Written by Rachelle Kliger Published Monday, June 15, 2009 Bahrain has decided not to revoke a system that has been criticized for violating the rights of foreign workers.

The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) said it would not be canceling the sponsorship system, which stipulates that foreign workers in the Gulf country must be sponsored by an employee in order to obtain a work visa and cannot switch jobs freely.

The decision to cancel the sponsorship system was announced last month and was praised by human right activists and labor organizations. But the BCCI is now saying the sponsorship system will remain intact. Under discussion instead are considerations that will allow workers to switch employers more freely, the BCCI said.

“There’s a lot of pressure from the business community and many of the business [people] are big officials in the government,” Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights told The Media Line.

Contrary to some reports, Rajab said the sponsorship system was never abolished but said “the government tried to market it that way.” Restrictions were alleviated to make it easier for the workers to change employers and this was indeed welcomed by human rights organizations, he said.

“We welcomed the decision of the government to give more freedom to migrant workers to move from sponsor to sponsor, and any going back on that will not serve Bahrain’s reputation as a member of the Human Rights Council and as a country trying to market its respect for human rights,” Rajab said.

Under the sponsorship system, known as kafala, the work visa and immigration statuses of migrants are tied to their employers. This system empowers employers as it prevents their workers from switching jobs or leaving the country. Human-rights organizations said this system also fueled abuses such as unpaid wages, exploitative working conditions and forced labor in Bahrain and other countries in the region.

Human Rights Watch welcomed last month’s announcement by Bahrain’s Labor Minister that as of August 1, the sponsorship of migrant workers would be transferred from employers to the government’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority. Majid Al-‘Alawi said this would enable migrant workers to change employers and would help the government supervise the number of workers entering the country.

The reform was also hailed as it provided an incentive to employers to improve their employees’ working conditions, as the workers would have more opportunities to choose where to work.

Bahrain, along with other countries in the Gulf, has become reliant on foreign workers, who flock to the region to gain employment, mostly in construction.

Many of the Gulf countries do not have an adequate legal infrastructure to protect the rights of their incoming workers. Rights organizations complain that foreigners are often mistreated and that the hold employers have over their workers presents many openings for abuse.

By Rachelle Kliger on Monday, June 15, 2009