Bahrain’s Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) recently announced that it would launch a new unit to assist migrant workers in filing complaints.
Migrant workers will be able to access services at two offices in the LMRA’s Sehla and Riffa branches. Support will include translation services and assistance in compiling the documents required to submit a complaint. Migrant workers who do not have copies of the documents required to file complaints, such as their IDs or contracts copies, will be able to retrieve them through the LMRA’s database.
Once registered, complaints will be sent electronically to Bahrain’s Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments Ministry on the same day.
If properly implemented, the unit could fill a large gap in redressal mechanisms for lower-income migrant workers in Bahrain. Migrants often lack the resources to lodge complaints; the costs of translation, printing, and notary fees, as well as knowledge of the procedures, present a barrier to redress.
This assistance is provided only for filing initial complaint, and does not address the many barriers to obtaining justice that follow once complaint is registered. This article assesses existing issues in Bahrain’s redressal mechanisms and the scope of the LMRA’s planned assistance.
Though court hearings provide free interpretation, migrants must translate and file all of their documents in Arabic in order to file a complaint. The absence of translation services at the labour court’s reception desk, in particular, has long posed a complication to migrants. The labour court provides a complaint templates with instructions on the dispute process, but it is only available in Arabic, making it inaccessible to most migrant workers.
An employee of Bahrain’s labour court told Migrant-Rights.org that many migrants have difficulty navigating the courts by themselves.
“Most need help in translating and preparing their documents, and filing a case by themselves. Many migrants don’t understand the labour law and little help is provided by ministries and authorities with their cases. Sometimes we go out of our way to translate and file their documents together to register a complaint.
“The other day, a Pakistani worker came to us crying, he wasn’t paid for six months, and nobody was there to help him. He had nothing and told us that he was sleeping in a public park for three months. We tried to contact the ministry and the embassy, but they didn’t help at all.”
Labour Complaint and Court
Migrant workers must be physically present to register a complaint of non-payment against the employer. Otherwise, he or she needs to give power of attorney (PoA) to a lawyer or family member to register the charge on their behalf.
Migrant workers or their PoA must be present at every hearing or risk the case being dismissed. Labour court cases are complicated and slow, which means migrants or their PoA must be available for an indeterminate period of time.
Low-income workers often can’t find or afford lawyers to fight cases on their behalf as many lawyers refuse to take up cases that involve relatively small amounts. The government of Bahrain does not provide lawyers, nor do most embassies. Bahrain also lacks organisations and legal clinics that provide free legal aid to migrant workers.
Commuting to and from the labour court and between ministries can be particularly strenuous for migrant workers. Many of them continue to work and find it difficult to take time off to attend court hearings or visit the ministry. They work, unpaid, for the employer with whom they have a dispute, in order to prevent a runaway case from being filed against them. Runaway complaints can complicate court cases and prolong them further.
Unpaid migrant workers are advised by lawyers to continue working for the employer as the employer might file a runaway case against them if they do not report to work for 15 consecutive days. Although on paper, the LMRA does not recognise a ‘runaway’ or ‘absconding’ complaint by the employer once worker has filed a case, lack of institutional linkages means that the employer can still lodge runaway complaints against the worker in a police station or the labour court. Filing a runaway case against migrant workers, even if the cases are later dismissed, complicates and prolongs the court process and workers must go through onerous efforts and paperwork to remove the runaway complaint against them.
In some cases when there is a large number of unpaid workers who have filed a complaint against the employer, they can collectively request an official strike from the Ministry of Labour and Social Development to not report to work. But even then, it is often the case that the Ministry of Labour advises workers to continue to work while they try to negotiate a settlement with the employer.
A lawyer who has handled many non-payment of wages cases in Bahrain told Migrant-right.org,
“Workers don’t necessarily need a lawyer. They can file and pursue the case themselves [...] the problem is that when they don’t have a lawyer, the workers will be required to appear in court for every hearing. If they are working elsewhere then it will be difficult for them to get there or to follow up on their cases, which will make the procedure even longer.”
The slow process of labour court settlements can push migrant workers to forfeit their claims. Those who cannot assign a power of attorney will return to their home countries with nothing.
The LMRA’s assistance unit would not really resolve these issues. Most lower-income migrants will still not have access to an attorney and will not receive support during the duration of their case. The LMRA’s assistance may help prevent some bureaucratic delays by ensuring complete documentation and more importantly allow workers who are not in possession of their IDs or contracts to register a complaint. However, the structural vulnerabilities of the dispute system itself will largely endure.
Migrants who make it through the difficult process and the wait, and who obtain a ruling in their favour, may still not see justice. Particularly in the cases of non-payment of wages – which account for most labour disputes – migrants may receive nothing if their employer declares bankruptcy.
“We deal with several cases of non-payment, there is no issue in getting redress as far as the legal system goes, but the problem mainly depends on the company’s capacity to pay. If the company doesn’t have money there would be a delay in paying wages, or they may never pay. There are companies shutting down due to financial difficulties, often because they have not been paid by their clients. However, in the case of companies still in operation, back wages are paid, but there are delays. The law requires labour decisions to be made within six months,” according to the same lawyer.
The LMRA’s assistance unit will help reduce barriers to filing labour dispute complaints, especially at a time where the issue of non-payment of wages is on the rise in Bahrain. But access to redressal mechanisms and access to justice are two distinct things. The Bahraini government must do more to systematically combat non-payment of wages and assist distressed migrant workers throughout the labour court process and not just filing complaints. First, it should allow workers to change employers when there's a dispute and second, by facilitating legal aid. Bahrain should also link labour court cases and different government institutions with each other, so an employer who faces labour violation charges won’t be able to file runaway complaints to frustrate the court case.