Op-ed in the Gulf Daily News: Lock up rogue sponsors – not their victims!

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Oct 24 2009

The following great op-ed piece appeared in the Gulf Daily News on October 23, 2009:

Lock up rogue sponsors - not their victims!
By Les Horton

Yet again we see a report in the GDN of two allegedly abused workers trapped in Bahrain because their sponsors refuse to hand over their passports.

The Migrant Workers Protection Society criticises police for alleged lack of co-operation and in fact obstructing efforts to rescue such people by either arresting them or handing them back to their sponsors, like pieces of property.

On the other hand, the Interior Ministry says the MWPS needs to work within the rules and to go through the ministry's Complaints and Human Rights Directorate - a doubtless laborious exercise in what are urgent situations.

But no-one seems to be addressing the real issue - that the sponsors themselves are guilty of the crime of theft and as such should be arrested and charged.

A passport is the property of the country which issues it and no-one, repeat no-one, has the right to seize it, certainly not employers, whether they be corporations or housewives taking on a maid.

To do so is theft and embassies should stop pussyfooting around and file formal charges every time a sponsor refuses to hand back a passport, regardless of the allegations and counter-allegations between the two parties.

If the sponsor then claims to have lost the passport - as many do - then the charge should stand, since being in possession of it against the employees' will was illegal in the first place.

Bahrain has in recent years publicly acknowledged the practice of employers taking possession of passports and that it is illegal - but has done nothing about it.

Embassies are sadly more concerned with securing business for their respective countries than with protecting citizens overseas, so they do nothing about it either.

It is time ambassadors did their jobs and demanded that host countries, be it Bahrain or elsewhere, stop ignoring international law. Police still act on the assumption that sponsors have rights over employees which the government itself has said they do not - it has in fact said that there is no such thing in law as a "sponsor".

So police must stop handing back so-called runaways to the sponsors. If by leaving their employment, they have broken the immigration laws, then they should be handed over to immigration authorities and their embassies informed.

This ability of sponsors to effectively hold people prisoner in Bahrain is straight out of the dark ages and is a blemish on Bahrain's character.

It is time embassies, the police and the government each did their jobs in ensuring that laws are properly enforced.

If a sponsor refuses to hand back a passport, put him in the cells - not the victim.

lhorton@gdn.com.bh

Advancing the rights of migrant workers throughout the Middle East