Last month, Bahrain’s Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) began issuing flexible permits to migrant workers with irregular status, which allows them to obtain a work permit and work legally in Bahrain for two years. Workers eligible for this include those whose permits have been cancelled or have expired and not been renewed by the employer, as well as workers whose permits have been revoked by the LMRA. Only migrant workers in non-specialised jobs can apply for the permit. Up to 2000 such permits would be issued every month, LMRA announced.
In the first week, only 130 workers adjusted their legal status through a flexible work permit, instead of 500 per week that authorities anticipated. More recent figures are not yet available, and the low numbers availing the permit could either be due to lack of awareness or the high costs.
Workers obtain a blue card at a fee which enables them to work for multiple employers and exit and re-enter the country at will. There is no mention of a contract requirement for these ‘freelance’ jobs.
Although authorities say the system intends to protect foreign workers from exploitation because of their illegal status, it is too early to predict its positive and negative effects. The system is still being studied by the LMRA and is being implemented in phases.
According to LMRA CEO Ausamah Al Absi, "the implementation of this system will contribute to creating sufficient flexibility for the labour market, addressing the issue of irregular employment and protecting them from exploitation and trafficking,”.
Yacoub Yousef, CEO of the Bahrain Free Labour Unions Federation (Al-Hurr), considers the law “an opportunity to combat the exploitation of the free-visa workers because it will increase the competitiveness of Bahrainis.” He feels with the flexible permit fees to recoup, migrant workers will charge more for their services, almost on a par with what Bahrainis charge, making the latter more desirable for companies.
Bahrain is the first GCC country that has adopted such a system that offers foreigners the opportunity to reside and work without a sponsor. However, two limitations need to be reviewed.
First, workers who have left their employer (termed ‘runaways’), often due to exploitative or abusive working conditions, cannot apply for flexible permits.
Second, the fee is an exorbitant BHD1169 (about USD3200) every two years, which would require a worker to earn a minimum of USD300 per month for basic survival. Though Bahrain does not have a minimum wage, reports indicate that around 350,000 migrants earn less than BHD200 a month.
The introduction of the system is inarguably economically motivated, as Bahrain faces pressure to diversify its economy. The IMF warned Bahrain that it needs to make significant spending cuts to restore stability to its budget and improve investor confidence in the wake of declining oil prices. Alongside the introduction of taxes, the removal of subsidies on some food items, and increased fees for government services and utilities, the flexible permit system provides a new revenue stream. It also reduces the burden of (increasingly high) sponsorship fees borne by citizens and businesses.
However, the high costs of the permit have made it unaffordable for a large number of workers who might have otherwise availed of it.
In an interview with Bahraini newspaper Al Bilad, a Pakistani worker said he intended to change his status under the law, but the high cost was a barrier. "The amount is large and many workers cannot secure it even if they work 24 hours a day,"
Jaafar Khalil, a member of the Secretary General of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), fears that the law may be used to exploit foreigners, by employing them for hours or days and then dismissing them, which may cause "loss of the rights of the foreign worker" because they will have to work on unfair terms if they cannot find a stable job to pay their debts and the LMRA fees.
In an interview with Migrant-Rights.org, Karim Radhi, Assistant Secretary General for Private Sector Affairs in GFWTUB, said that the most significant disadvantage of the Kafala system is the control of worker mobility and confiscation of their documents, which reduces the worker's ability to leave a job if they are not being paid regularly or otherwise exploited. Therefore, the flexible permit — in his view — will help give the worker the right to move, and also improve the relationship between the worker and employer, as workers will have a legal status that allows them to submit complaints.
The new system follows previous reforms geared at rejuvenating the economy and responding to international pressures to improve migrant worker rights. In August 2009, a law that gives the worker the right to transfer to another employer without the current employer's consent was passed. The Parallel Bahrainisation System, a law that exempts companies from committing to employing Bahrainis for a fee came into effect in May 2016. In July 2016, a law allowing foreigners to own commercial activities, land and real estate at 100%, was approved.
Although these reforms guarantee better rights for foreign workers in Bahrain on paper, the government should inform and educate its citizens on the rights of migrant workers. Across the GCC, ensuring rights to migrant workers is often, erroneously, seen as taking away the rights of citizens. It is imperative that the government proactively takes measures to prevent hate speech and violence against migrants, even as laws to protect them are enforced.