Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East

Return to research Posted on Jun 29 2011

During the days of protests in Bahrain, pro-regime media outlets covered extensively the xenophobic attacks attributed to opposition elements against migrant workers in Bahrain. Pro-regime outlets used the attacks on south-Asian workers in an attempt to present the oppressed protesters as the violent oppressors instead of the regime (which killed 31 protesters to date, while jailing and torturing thousands more). The hypocrisy of using the attacks on migrants for political gain is all the more evident considering Bahrain’s poor track-record when it comes to migrant rights, which has only worsened since the February protests. While criticizing the opposition for the attacks on migrants, in recent weeks the Bahraini regime had issued several anti-migrant resolutions.

Between two to eight south-Asian migrant workers have been killed in the weeks of protests in Bahrain, according to media reports. The brutal repression of the Bahraini peaceful protests was carried out by the Bahraini riot police, which is made up of mostly Sunni Muslims from south-Asian countries. The Shia of Bahrain, on the other hand, are barred from employment in the security forces, as they are seen as not loyal enough to the Al Khalifa regime. One of the grievances of the mostly-Shia protesters in Bahrain is the naturalization of foreign Sunnis, a policy intended to skew the demographic balance against the Shia majority. The xenophobic attacks on innocent migrant workers, which were condemned by opposition figures and NGOs, were also a result of government policy to force migrants to protest on behalf of the regime.

The sudden concern about migrant rights manifested not only in criticism of the opposition for their supposed lack of care of migrants. In order to bolster the credibility of this sudden interest in the welfare of the majority of Bahrain’s inhabitants, the Foreign Minister Khaled Al Khalifa paid visits to expatriate clubs and embassies, Bahraini TV began broadcasting news bulletins in languages spoken by migrants in Bahrain, and expats were even invited to the National Dialog.

While the regime publicly expresses its concern about rights of migrant workers, it has quietly re-instated the Sponsorship (kafala) system in Bahrain. Law 15/2011 that was issued by King Hamad Al Khalifa this month prevents migrant workers from leaving their employer within the first year of employment (amendment of Article 25 of the Labour Market Regulatory Authority [LMRA] Law). Previously, amendments to the LMRA law in April of 2009 were hailed worldwide as progress, and “axing” of Bahrain’s Sponsorship law (the first country to do so in the Gulf). In effect, the Sponsorship system was never abolished – the change was largely symbolic – with the LMRA becoming the official sponsor of migrants. However, the April 2009 decision did include a significant positive element – it now allowed employees to leave their employer without the employer’s consent. This positive decision has now been reversed by the Law issued this month.

On top of the un-official reinstatement of the Sponsorship system, workers have been handed down unfair rulings in court. 128 Indian workers who were promised salaries of BD 100 ($270) per month stopped working after they were instead given only BD 45 ($120) and were unable to survive on such a salary. They’ve been stranded in Bahrain for five years because when the workers attempted to leave the country they were informed that absconding charges were brought against them. Their employer, the Abdulla Nass Contracting Company, demanded the underpaid workers compensate the Company, and a Bahraini court ruled in the favor of the employer. Each of the workers was ordered to pay between BD 400 ($1,100) and BD 600 ($1,600) for breaching their contracts. The workers are of course unable to pay such sums, and are forced to stay in Bahrain. It was announced today that their case has been postponed for four more months, as the workers struggle to survive in Bahrain, living on borrowed money from friends.

Last week, when a group of 300 Asian construction workers went on strike demanding an increase in their meager salaries, 40 of them were fired after their management declared that the strike in “illegal”. When the workers turned to the Labor Ministry, the Ministry backed the employer and told the workers that they’re forbidden to ask for salary increases. Five days after the strike began, the workers returned to work with no salary increases. Bahrain’s labor laws permit strikes but significantly restricts workers ability to practice this right.

The Bahraini regime clearly doesn’t practice what it preaches to the opposition. All the recent steps taken by the Bahraini regime indicate that it is much more interested in protecting the powerful employers and not the weak migrant workers.

Bahrain, Research, Sponsorship, Strike

12 thoughts on “Bahrain Further Restricts Migrant Rights while Publicly Expressing Concern for Migrants

  1. Amr Selim says:

    While some of this published information is true, I feel that the article is very much biased (unnecessarily) against the government of Bahrain while the picture isn’t really that dark.
    I am an expat who has been in Bahrain since 1995 and through my work I had successfully assisted hundreds of expat employees with several problems and I can personally feel the changes, I believe that the government (or at least some of it) is quite serious about improving the work and living conditions of everyone in the kingdom, including expats.
    Three of the most recent manifestations of this are:
    1 – The official inclusion of Expat residents in the ongoing National Dialogue
    2- The recent change of the ministry of social affairs to be the ministry of human rights and social affairs.
    3 – The formation of the independent fact finding / investigation committee that consists only of internationally acclaimed personalities in Human Rights, this committee does not have any Bahraini in it and as per his Majesty’s announcement it will be free from any government interference.

    As for the controversial “Mobility” (Local Transfer) law that was just amended (Article 25 of LMRA law), that you are referring to.
    Whether you and I agree or disagree with this amendment and outcome, I have no idea why you did not mention the facts and circumstances surrounding such amendment.
    This bill has been under heavy debate in the parliament’s lower chamber since 2009 and that the majority of business owners were constantly lobbying and creating pressure groups to protest against the LMRA law (the original one) that allowed “free transfer” of expat employees without any restrictions whatsoever.
    This bill had narrowly won the vote of the majority of parliamentarians and then moved to the upper house for further debate and for the next vote.
    The people who were opposing the restriction were actually the government ministers , but again the upper chamber voted in favor of such restrictions (that the expat employee is required to work for at least 12 months with the employer before applying to join another employer) and the law in question was then amended and approved by his Majesty Kind Hamad.
    So what do you want the government to do here if the legislators have passed a law or a bill by a majority vote? Ignore it? Wasn’t that the will of the people? This is democracy sir.

  2. IB says:

    This is Bull crap, I am a migrant worker in Bahrain and I know the protests were not peaceful. Write after knowing your facts. The 1 year period was introduced in order to save local businesses.

  3. Donald says:

    While I cannot vouch for the motives behind Bahraini govt actions,I think you have got the sponsorship news all wrong.

    As a migrant worker myself,I can tell you Bahrain has probably the most migrant worker friendly system within the Gulf and possibly in the Arab world.

    For one there exists a separate organisation to handle migrant worker related issues (LMRA) which ensures the elative inefficiencies and bureaucracy associated with government ministries is non-existent.

    The LMRA processes work permit applications online and this guarantees speed of processing as well as reduces the need to bribe or induce anyone inolved with processing a work permit.

    With reference to the sponsorship system in your article ,this was never ‘cancelled’ it was only modified significantly,amongst other changes,the new LMRA policy allows migrant workers to change jobs easily without getting the express permission of their existing employers. This guarantees mobility of labour as espoused by relevant global labour charters.

    However there has been a push back from business owners led by the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry on the need to protect employers as well,due to the significant costs they incure bringing the worker to Bahrain in the first place and therefore requested for some concessions which led to the ‘one year’ caveat.

    This smply means the worker cannot transfer employment within one year. Most migrant workers would welcome this. As the alternative would be to resign and go back to ones home country and then begin all over again to seek new work permits etc (I have gone through this a number of times and believe me when I say its a most exhaustive process).

    Finally , as I stated earlier,I’m not in a position to vouch for the Bahraini government,but my personal experience as can be confirmed by many others is that the current LMRA policy ensures workers rights are adequately protected .Please vist the LMRA websire for more information.

    Don the migrant worker

  4. Bahraini says:

    As a migrant worker myself,I can tell you Bahrain has probably the most migrant worker friendly system within the Gulf

    Most migrant workers here would beg to differ, actually. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Speak for yourself Don. You are arguably much more privileged than those many workers (with deplorable living conditions and certainly no access to a computer) that this article is really about.

  5. Ali says:

    In Bahrain , the government torture people to enforce them to sign on papers without even giving them chance to read. and enforce them to apologize on TV for things are not true.
    some of them (about Four) died in prison while investigation.
    One of the victims is called Ali Isa they enforce him to appear on Bahrain TV but he died after a while in prison .the video is available in YouTube and it show how Confessions Taken under Torture for some Bahrainis
    search in YouTube :
    “One of the victims of torture in Bahrain”

    “Bahrain: This is why the confession is not a strong evidence”

    and thousands of other Videos that show the Bad regime in Bahrain. Just Search in YouTube.

  6. Jiff says:

    In response to those who claim they are “migrant workers” in Bahrain, the article below saves me the trouble “Spare us Bahrain’s sudden ‘concern’ for its Asian expat workers” by “Fahad Desmukh” on the Gardian. Link:

  7. Amr says:

    I don’t understand why are some commenting here on other political aspects or versions of topics not at all related to this specific subject which is specifically about the rights of expats and their movement?

  8. Bahraini says:

    Amr, regarding your points, the Bahraini government is currently undergoing a PR crisis and of course it will do its best to enhance its image in every field. Knowing it has been repeatedly and harshly criticized for its discriminating policies against migrant workers and their inability to take sufficient action on their behalf, it has been using this issue to steer sympathy for itself at a time when it most requires it.

    You accuse this article of being biased against the government while citing various independent sources, but considering the fact that you are using government sources one can easily notice that you are being biased towards the government while ignoring the issues at hand and dismissing that these major violations are taking place with no one in the government tackling them seriously. Not just now, but for decades. The sudden interest in Asian expat workers is nothing more than a PR sham to cover the atrocities that most of them face on a daily basis.

    Sorry that no one seems to take the fact that they’re being “invited” into this process of dialogue seriously. The expat workers that we are speaking of (construction workers, housemaids, et al) we know for a fact that none of them are being properly represented despite them composing the majority of the workforce.

    Another PR sham is the fact that the government will sincerely consider the formation of an independent fact finding / investigation committee. Frankly if they were interested in these investigations, they wouldn’t be censoring hundreds of websites who also independently disclose facts that the government obviously does not want its locals to witness. This is just a diversionary tactic they are using, none of them are to be taken seriously, we have yet to see a single change towards the betterment of migrant worker rights in Bahrain as this article proves with various sources and incidents of abuse. Just search for “Bahrain” on this site and explore the LONG list of abuses yourself. Shocking is an understatement.

    I am a Bahraini, I grew up here and I’ve lived here all my life witnessing these issues with my own eyes without needing anyone else to tell me how or what to think. I’m a patriot just like anyone else here. It’s due to my patriotism that I speak up for this as I refuse that these abuses take place under my watch and in my name as a Bahraini citizen. Migrant rights help all of us, not just migrant workers themselves. If you want Bahrain to be represented in a better image, fight the abuse, not those who expose it.

  9. Amr says:

    Dear Bahraini,

    I have been here for around 17 years and I have eyes too, but that really is not the point, I don’t want to seem like I am putting my nose where it does not belong , you guys have serious work to do and find out together what’s best for your lovely country, there are many points of view and there will always be.

    But the main reason I have commented here is that I know both the Labour laws and the LMRA laws inside out and I was involved from 2007 in the implementation plans of Act 19 for 2006 (LMRA law including the famous article 25 “Mobility / Transfer”) , I have also been working closely with almost every embassy that has expats working in Bahrain in order to assist stranded expats or those with severe problems go back home, so as you see that is pretty much my field and I am one of the best people to know about anything related to expats legislation here.

    Hope to see you at the dialogue mate. Tx.


  10. Hey Amr,

    You seem to be quite knowledgeable about the topic is there any chance that I could get your contact information? I just wanted to run some questions by you. Or if you don’t feel comfortable posting it on here my email is


  11. [...] Bahrain was lauded for changing the oppressive kafala system back in 2009, it was virtually resinstated during last year’s unrest. Having said this, the current parliament have approved new a [...]

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Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East