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Immigrants in Bahrain: Comments on their Labor and Political Positions

On June 7, 2014

Ya‘qub Sanad - translated by: Saqer Almarri

In this article, a Bahraini journalist and union activist offers his views on his experience with the situation of migrant workers in Bahrain. The Bahraini authorities have previously announced that the Kafala system was ended, however the law was largely unchanged and simply renamed. The Kafala system was not the only problem that  immigrants suffer from in Bahrain. Authorities continuously use them in their official narratives as victims of the political movement since 2011, while simultaneously ignoring their human and labor situation. Despite incidents of deaths, suicides, and various strikes organized by factory workers protesting their situations or the death of their colleagues, this reality of migrant workers is marginalized by the media and politicians. These comments draw a map of fundamental comments on the situation of migrant workers in Bahrain.

Media Representations

The discourse on migrant workers is done along two standards. The first is the standards of Arabic journalism, the second is the standards of foreign-language journalism. Both of these have their orientations some of which are political, and others that may be described as ethnic.

Most of the Arabic newspapers keep news articles on migrant workers in line with the general political situation of the society. When the political situation is stable, such as before February 2011, the incidents were treated as if they were regular news, and rarely does an article describe the background of the case and the reasons behind it. When the incidents described is a criminal case involving a migrant worker, the tone of the article would have an anti-migrants' stance.

Because journalism in Bahrain is generally not independent in the strict professional sense, we see some state-related newspapers trying to lighten the responsibility of the government in relation to the violations the migrants experience. Whereas the “opposition” writers provide a critical voice to the state policies in relation to the migrants’ “rights”. However, in my opinion, all of them do not care much about this demographic. In fact, it is rare, if not never, that any of these sides have called sincerely for the revision or cancellation of the Kafala system that is used in the Gulf countries, including Bahrain.

After the events of February 2011, the equation was shaken a little, the state-related newspapers began describing demonstrators as attacking migrant workers, and that the government cares about the rights of migrant workers. Meanwhile the other side may excuse its behavior towards migrant workers, considering them “mercenaries” working in the security forces that are used against demonstrators, or expressing some views along the lines of repudiating the acts done to migrants.

Perhaps the irony in this is that the majority of migrants who experience rights violations are immigrants from Asian countries; we have never heard of a European or American employees who had their rights violated.

The foreign-language newspapers follow the cases of migrant workers more closely and more professionally. This is because most of the journalists working for them are themselves Asian migrants. When the suicide rates rose among Asian migrant workers, these newspapers delved deeply into the social and economic causes as well as the work conditions that these workers faced. However this year so far, I have not heard of any suicide incident, perhaps because it has indeed stopped, or possibly the incidents continue to occur but the government may have been keeping these cases under wraps.

However after the events of 2011, the foreign-language newspapers took up the same line as the state-related Arabic newspapers in exaggerating the cases where immigrants are subject to attacks by people described as demonstrators.

Deportation vs. Union Activity

The General Federation of Workers Trade Unions (GFWTU) in Bahrain, since it has been established, had tried to attract migrant workers into the unions, and has at times tried to “break into” migrant workers’ groupings. However, it is difficult to attract those workers into union activity for many reasons. Most importantly, because workers fear deportation, and also for some weaknesses in the union itself.

The GFWTU has signed several MoUs with trade unions in Nepal and India in order to coordinate with them, and to open up a space for migrants to seek help from the GFWTU in case they had demands, or faced rights violations. However, as I mentioned earlier, the possibility of seeking counsel at the GFWTU is weak.

It should be noted the experience of the workers’ union at Alhaj Hasan Al-Aali, which managed, after a strike demanding better work conditions, to gain membership of almost 70% of the total migrant workforce in the company. The union demanded better work conditions, along with better living conditions including better toilets, kitchens, and worship halls for the migrant workers. After the successful strike, more of the migrant workers joined the unions, however this remains the only major case of success in Bahrain.

The Documentation of Rights

There is an organization called the “Migrant Workers Protection Society”, however its activity is limited. Most of the activists working for it are Asian foreigners and a few Bahrainis. It is somewhat closed-off and refuses to cooperate with other organizations. As far as I know, the GFWTU has requested several times to cooperate with the organization but they have refused. What is strange is the organization’s recent opening up to the Bahrain Free Labour Unions Federation, which was established recently with official state support after the events that rocked Bahrain.

On the other hand, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights published in 2003 a detailed report on the situation of migrant workers in Bahrain, particularly domestic workers. This report may be the only one on this issue that was produced by a local rights organization.

Immigrants as a tool to the authorities

For a long time, immigrants were used as an important element in the political struggle in Bahrain. The government often seeks to use them as a shield from international public opinion. The immigrants, particularly Asians from Pakistan, India, Baluchistan, and some Arabs from Jordan, Syria, and Yemen work in the anti-riot forces. They are the first line of defense used against demonstrations the occur here and there. It should be noted that a large number of those are not originally residents in Bahrain, but are brought to the country through bilateral agreements with their countries. It is also a policy of the government, according to a statement by the Ministry of Interior, to recruit foreigners in the anti-riot forces in large numbers. This explains why the majority of those killed in the confrontations throughout the last three years on the side of the security forces are foreigners or recently-naturalized citizens.

On the other hand, immigrants are used by Westerners in the media to show the level of “religious freedoms” that non-Muslims enjoy in Bahrain, and how they live in Bahrain in safety and prosperity. They also function as “official spokespersons” in English-speaking media. Recently a union for foreign communities was formed, headed by a British woman who has taken in the name of the union a stance against the political movement in Bahrain. She has demanded that immigrants be given a seat in the political negotiations in Bahrain as well as seats in the Consultative Council of the National Assembly.

In the end, Bahrain’s situation is similar to the rest of the Gulf countries. The Kafala system and the security situation controls foreign communities, whether they were guest workers or immigrants. Along with that, citizenship is never considered an inalienable right to those who have gained it, rather it is considered a gift and a privilege given by the ruler, and therefore it can be denied or taken away whenever the ruler desires.

All of these reasons force immigrants to remain silent, or supporting the authorities in their policies; therefore any political formation for immigrants can only exist within this formula.