Earlier this year, HSBC's Expat Explorer Survey ranked Bahrain the second-best place in the world to live and work in as an expat because of “attractive salary packages, earning potential and solid benefit packages.” In March, Forbes also ranked Bahrain the second-best place in the world for women to work abroad, based on an InterNations expat survey. Government officials and local media widely celebrated these international accolades.
But it’s clear that lower-income migrant workers were not the ‘expats’ surveyed for these reports. Their realities differ greatly from the rosy picture painted in the media; austerity measures, economic downturn and rising living costs mean that more and more lower-income migrants are living precariously in Bahrain. Recent reforms to the labour migration system are limited in practice and have largely failed to protect migrant workers at the bottom of the social pyramid.
This report reviews the issue of non-payment of wages that migrant workers in Bahrain increasingly face, and assesses the Bahraini government’s response.
Non-payment of wages on the rise
The economic downturn, caused mainly by low oil prices, hit Bahrain’s construction sector hard and exacerbated the already rampant practice of non-payment of wages. Costs and losses are passed on to the most vulnerable – the migrant workers at the end of the supply chain.
A recent ILO study on construction workers in the region found that “many contractors relying on short-term funding were reported to be feeling an impact on their working capital and their ability to repay debt, and several companies working on government projects reported having difficulty paying wages to their workers.”
Over the past several months, workers from different sectors have staged protests across Bahrain over unpaid-wages and poor working conditions, though only a few of them have received media attention.
The rising number of non-payment of wages cases prompted a discussion at the Shura Council in March 2019, where council member Mona Al-Moayyad highlighted the plight of many migrants who have not been paid and demanded that action be taken against companies that fail to pay wages.
On December 4, 2018, more than 300 workers of Bahrain Motors Company, a construction firm, protested at the company’s headquarters in Hafeera after not being paid for four months. The protestors were intercepted by the police and sent back to their labour camp. One worker told the Gulf Daily News (GDN) that “there are Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers who have not received their salaries for four months now… we have no money and it’s difficult to survive.”
Non-payment of wages is not an issue restricted to the construction sector. On January 6 2019, a group of workers from Mirador Hotel in Manama protested and filed a complaint after eight months of nonpayment. On September 25, 2018, hundreds of workers from Ramses Trading Company protested against several months of unpaid wages. Some workers Migrant-Rights.org spoke to were not paid for nearly six months. The protests were dispersed by riot police.
In March 2019, Jameel Humaidan, the Minister of Labour and Social Development, reported that 2,863 employees working in 18 different private companies had filed complaints for overdue wages, some with six months of owed wages. The minister argued that “18 violators isn’t a huge number,” but vowed to take legal actions against the companies that fail to pay their workers.
Minimising the volume of complaints does not take into account the larger impact of even one worker losing one month's of wages; Migrant-Right.org’s interviews with workers in similar situations across the GCC reveal that delayed wages not only mean workers struggle to survive in their country of employment, but that their families back home also suffer; if they are unable to send wages back, school fees are unpaid, food can’t be purchased, and debts - often related to recruitment - cannot be repaid.
"… we have no money and it’s difficult to survive."
Furthermore, the number of official complaints do not represent the scale of the issue. Many workers put off lodging a complaint in the hopes that their employer will soon pay their past-due wages. When workers do attempt to complain, the ministry usually attempts to negotiate with the employer before taking the issue to the labour courts.
Workers working irregularly are also likely to avoid filing complaints out of fear of arrest and deportation.
The consequences of Non-payment of wages and the government’s response
Non-payment of wages, financial difficulties, miserable living and working conditions lead to what Bahraini scholar Abdulhadi Khalaf calls the “vicious cycle of poverty,” which subjects migrant workers to immense stress and drives some to take their own lives. According to media reports, 37 migrant workers committed suicide in Bahrain in 2018. This is not an official figure and does not include failed suicide attempts.
Aruldas Thomas, the Chairman of the Indian Community Relief Fund in Bahrain (ICRF) told GDN that 18 of the 23 Indian migrants who committed suicide in 2018 were victims of non-payment of wages. As of October 2019, at least 29 migrants have committed suicide according to local media reports.
The rising number of suicides has prompted migrant community groups to set up suicide prevention initiatives. The Indian Community Relief Fund (ICRF) conducted training programmes for more than 100 volunteers to provide support hotlines and counselling assistance to migrant workers.
The Bahraini government has not yet released any official data on the total number of non-payment of wages cases received in 2018. However, according to GDN there were 1,760 non-payment of wages handled by the government in 2017, up from 276 in 2013. In response to the rising number of non-payment of wages cases, the government temporarily expanded the Flexi-Permit scheme to include workers who have not received their wages and who have filed a complaint at the labour court. “Anyone who has not been paid or has a pending case related to non-payment of wages can also avail of the facility,” Ausamah Al Absi, CEO of the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), told the GDN.
18 of the 23 Indian migrants who committed suicide in 2018 were victims of non-payment of wages.
But the high cost of the Flexi-Permit scheme means it is not affordable for most workers - especially those who have not been paid for several months. In February 2019, the government increased the scheme's initial payment fees from BD 449 (USD 1190) to BD 749 (USD 2,000).
The Wage Protection System: A solution to Non-Payment of wages?
Bahrain is the last GCC country to adopt a Wage Protection System (WPS). The government announced plans to implement WPS for companies with 500 workers or more in April 2019, but delayed until September 2019. The WPS is currently in an experimental phase with larger companies.
The WPS makes it mandatory for employers to pay wages through bank transfer and will alert the government of delayed or unpaid wages. The LMRA’s Al Absi said that the WPS will be implemented in different phases and gradually cover all workers.
Al Absi told told GDN,“the Wage Protection System will put an end to the exploitation of workers as giving out cash business (as wages) will be stopped.”
The WPS is a step in the right direction that could provide greater transparency and efficiency in detecting and resolving payment disputes. However, the system is unlikely to eradicate the delays and unpaid wages on its own. Migrant-rights.org previously covered key issues that Bahrain needs consider when rolling out the WPS, and how WPS failed to flag non-payment and protect workers against non-payment in the other GCC countries. Even with a WPS system in a place, migrant workers can still be left without their due if their employer leaves the country or declares bankruptcy before paying their wages. Employers in Bahrain can also cancel workers visas without notice if the worker is outside of the country, enabling them to avoid paying any owed wages.
It is imperative for the Bahraini government to establish a comprehensive framework that protects low-income migrant workers from these practices. Key recommendations include:
- Implementing the steps proposed by the ILO to combat late or non-payment of wages.
- Expanding the WPS to include all workers, and not just workers of large companies.
- Improve responses to complaints and assist unpaid migrant workers in filing wage dispute claims by providing translators and lawyers.
- Cease arrest and deportation of migrants who protest or become irregular due to non-payment of wages and allow migrant workers to more easily change employers.
- Trade unions in Bahrain can also work together to encourage migrant workers to unionize and establish a form of collective bargaining that would have an effect on employer practices.