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Bahrain's Proposed Reforms Misdirected

On June 20, 2013

Proposed reforms to discourage employers from confiscating workers’ passports could instead further restrict migrant workers rights. Though withholding workers’ passports is already illegal in Bahrain, employers justify this common practice by citing the need to prevent migrants from running way - to ‘protect their investments’ in the high recruitment costs of foreign workers (a relic of the sponsorship system, which remains intact in many ways despite its purported dismantlement in 2009).

Bahrain recently announced plans to implement regulations that would require employers to retain contracts with all workers which clearly stipulate job expectations, in order to “prevent’ exploitative circumstances which cause migrants run away. Yet, Bahrain already requires contracts for most workers. Though contracts comprise important guarantees of labor rights, lack of enforcement renders their intended safeguards much less meaningful. Obstacles to redress, including migrants’ inaccessibility to lawyers and translators as well as high legal fees, furthermore reduce the effectiveness of labor contracts in preventing exploitation. When courts do hear such cases, or when authorities are otherwise aware of employer transgressions, penalties are often too fleeting to be of consequence. Bahrain’s proposed requirements may stipulate specific clarifications for such contracts, but will remain futile if the legal system’s attitude towards foreign labor rights is not similarly reformed.

Another proposed measure would prevent migrant from leaving the country without permission from their employers, ostensibly to disable ‘the need’ for employers to retain passports in order to prevent workers from absconding. This provision would further restrict migrant worker mobility to the employer’s preference, inconsistent with international norms including the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work which stipulates migrant workers’ right to freedom of movement. The provision also appears regressive against Bahrain’s purported attempts to dismantle the sponsorship system, which unfairly renders migrants dependent on the employer. The act furthermore would disable migrants from leaving exploitative work conditions, a mark of forced labor conditions. The logic behind the provision also suggests that migrant workers are to blame for employer’s violations of pre-existing laws against passport confiscation. The prospective regulations would unfairly place more onus on migrant workers for the transgressions of employers. Even if the measures succeed in reducing passport confiscation, the negative consequences outweigh the possible benefit.

Rather than implementing new procedures with little or negative effect on migrant workers, Bahrain should enforce pre-existing laws and punitive measures should be imposed on employers who withhold passports. Furthermore, official discourse surrounding passport confiscation should cede in blaming migrants for the practices of employers - legislation cannot benefit migrants if lawmakers fail to recognize the veritable causes of migrant worker conditions.