A group of five Bahraini MPs have recently drafted a new legislative bill that would require migrants to work for three years with their original sponsor before they can transfer to another sponsor. Currently, migrants in Bahrain (except for domestic workers) can transfer sponsorship without the consent of their employer after completing one year of employment.
The five MPs claim the current law is biased in favour of migrant workers, according to the News of Bahrain. The MPs stated, without evidence, that an increasing number of migrant workers are moving to new companies upon completing one year of employment.
The MPs stated that "companies spend high to recruit employees and train them, in addition to covering other related expenses. It's our duty to find the right balance between the interests of the employees and their employers, as well as to provide the required stability to businesses and cut their losses when employees leave after one year.”
But contrary to the MP’s claims, very few migrants actually transfer sponsorship without the consent of their employer.
As of the end of the second quarter of 2019, the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) has only processed sponsorship transfers for 2.76% (16,479 of 594,944) of migrant workers in Bahrain. Only around 0.37% of these workers transferred sponsorship after completing one year of employment and without the consent of their previous employer.
The majority of workers who transferred sponsorship did so only after their work permits were terminated or expired (65.2%) or with the consent of the employer (34.4%).
These low rates of sponsorship transfer are consistent throughout the last several years – hovering around 1% in the second quarter of 2016 and 2017 and 3% in 2018.
Transfer rates are low, in part, because low-income workers often lack resources and information. Migrants may not have the time to search for other job opportunities, and may not be able to navigate the administrative procedures on their own.
At the macro-level, the current slow down of Bahrain’s economy means that there are also fewer job opportunities for migrant workers.
Bahrain’s labour mobility policies are currently amongst the most flexible in the GCC. The proposed bill would set workers rights back and would weaken the labour market. According to Steffen Hertog, a political economist focused on the Gulf, “...low mobility of low-skilled workers incentivises employers to create more easily controlled and exploited low-skilled positions rather than high-skilled ones, resulting in a smaller provision of higher quality jobs with acceptable wages that could be nationalised.”
Restrictive labour mobility regimes allow employers to more easily exploit migrant workers and keep wages low. In contrast, a dynamic labour market enables migrants to have a better bargaining position and negotiate for better wages and better treatment. Employers would be incentivized to treat workers well in order to retain good talent. Job mobility also increases overall productivity, by allowing workers to move to jobs where their skills are better utilised.
Policies which safeguard migrant workers and benefit the labour market should not be overturned, especially on the basis of unsubstantiated information. It is unclear if the proposal is garnering support, but it has triggered a discussion amongst government officials and migrant communities in Bahrain.
In 2009, the Bahraini government issued a decree allowing all migrant workers to change jobs without their current employer’s approval, provided they notify the employer via registered mail during the notice period as per the employment contract.
However, employers resisted the move and the government amended the decision in 2011 to require migrants to work with their original employer for at least one year before they can transfer sponsorship without approval.
In some cases, migrant workers may transfer sponsorship regardless of time worked if they are victims of abuse or contract violations. Workers must lodge a complaint at the labour court, who may then issue a letter of no-objection which the worker submits to the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) for approval. However, according to social workers these decisions are arbitrary and require pressure from local NGOs or ministries.
Migrant workers in Bahrain can also change sponsor in case of work permit expiry or termination by the employer. Migrant workers have 30 days from the expiry date to obtain a work permit from a new sponsor. After 30 days, they must leave the country before a new sponsor can obtain a work permit for them.