Around two and a half years ago, Bahrain launched the Flexi-Permit (or "Flexi-Visa") scheme to allow irregular migrant workers to sponsor themselves and work for multiple employers. This article explores the impact of the scheme’s reforms and expansions since Migrant-Rights.org’s last assessment.
Higher Fees and Fewer Sign Ups
At a recent networking event organised by the Bahrain India Society, the CEO of Bahrain's Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), Ausamah Al Absi, reported that about 29,000 irregular migrants have signed up to the scheme since its launch in July 2017. According to Al-Absi, the number of irregular migrants has decreased by roughly 30% (from 82,000 in 2017 to around 50,000 today) since the Flexi-Permit’s launch.
However, the LMRA has not released official figures on the current number of Flexi-Permit holders. It is unclear whether the figures mentioned by Al-Absi include migrants who have left the scheme after signing up. Permits are cancelled if workers fail to pay fees for three consecutive months.
In February 2019, Bahrain increased the already prohibitive Flexi-Permit fees by BD300 (USD 795), raising the total cost of a two-year Flexi-Permit to BD1,469. (USD 3,896). According to the Minister of Labour and Social Development Jamil Humaidan, applications for the Flexi-Permit plummeted by 78% after the fee hike.
Many workers MR spoke to were satisfied with the Flexi-Permit arrangements but lamented the high cost of the scheme. An Indian Flexi-Permit holder who works full-time hours in a hotel and will have to renew his visa in a few months is unsure how he will pay for it. “I am happy with the scheme but the problem is how I can raise so much money. Every month you have to pay BD30 (USD80) and our salary has not increased, I am trying to find another job that would offer me a work visa because I am not sure I can afford the renewal fees for Flexi.”
Valery, who came from Cameroon on a "Free Visa," reported similar difficulties with the fees. After using his savings to obtain a Flexi-Permit, Valery continued working for the same company that had employed him irregularly, but he now struggles financially: “I wasn’t doing as many deliveries as I was doing before, and now I am paying BD30 every month, so I left [the company] to look for a better job.” He landed a job in a theme park in Bahrain.
“I am on probation now, I’ll be transferred to the company’s visa very soon ... this will be better, when I get my salary I won’t be deducting 30 BD monthly [for the Flexi-Permit fees]. Flexi is good if you have a good job, but for me it was difficult.”
“But you can usually manage, every day you put aside BD1 for the LMRA...”
Though most workers complain of high costs, the scheme does provide a much-needed alternative for some workers. Hassan, from Bangladesh, told MR that he opted for the Flexi-Permit because of the difficulty in obtaining a sponsored work visa. After working as a taxi-driver for six years, Hassan took a "Free Visa" from a company and worked as a car washer. “I agreed to pay [the company] BD1450 (USD 3,846) for a two-year visa, but after one year the company cancelled my visa and I became irregular, and then I decided to get Flexi-Permit.”
He says the fees are not a problem when there is steady work. But during the months when there’s no work, he finds it difficult to pay the fees. “But you can usually manage, every day you put aside BD1 for the LMRA – I don’t have tension now.”
Expansion of the scheme
In response to the rising number of non-payment of wages cases, the LMRA expanded the Flexi-Permit scheme to include workers who had a regular visa but have not received their wages and who have filed a complaint in the labour court. However, high fees mean the scheme is still out of reach of most workers – especially those who have not been paid for several months.
Additionally, domestic workers remain excluded from the Flexi-Permit. For a brief period last year, the Philippines embassy negotiated for domestic workers to be included in the scheme and covered their fees. According to an official from the Philippines embassy, there is no longer a budget to do so.
"Free Visa" workers whose listed professions are excluded from the scheme, such as accounting, IT, or engineering, cannot obtain the Flexi-Permit, even if their real occupations are eligible. (The professions registered on the work permits of "Free Visa" workers’ often differ from their actual occupation.)
While the Flexi-Permit is a potential alternative to Kafala, the highly exploitative elements of the scheme must be reviewed. Regulations are needed urgently to elaborate and clarify the rights and responsibilities of all stakeholders – the worker, employer, and government – in the following scenarios especially:
- Non-payment and exploitation: As contracts are not mandatory for Flexi-Permit holders who work on a freelance basis or short-term work, workers are likely to accept employment without one. Workers are therefore even more vulnerable to wage disputes or other issues with their temporary employer.
- Responsibility for worksite injuries: Coverage under the labour law depends on the contract signed between parties. Flexi-Permit holders who hold a contract with a company are protected by the labour law, but the situation for other workers is less clear. For example, it is unclear who is responsible for medical costs or compensation if a plumber gets injured while working in the house of a temporary employer.
It is also unclear how Flexi-Permit holders – who work part-time and for several employers – will be covered under the prospective National Health Insurance Scheme. The scheme requires employers to purchase health insurance for workers, which will allow them to access private and public health facilities.
- Responsibility for repatriation: For contracted migrant workers, the last employer is legally liable for repatriating a workers’ body in case of death. The Flexi-Permit fees only include a BD90 travel ticket insurance, which is less than the cost of repatriation. According to a social worker MR spoke to, community groups have had to step in to fund these costs.
The liability for Flexi-Permit holders who essentially work as full-time employees for companies also needs to be explored.
Is Flexi-Permit a challenge to "Free Visa"?
One of the main aims of the Flexi-Permit scheme was to tackle the "Free Visa"’ phenomenon in Bahrain, but its success is unclear. Workers on a "Free Visa" pay their sponsor to freelance or work for another employer. Despite the risks involved in the illegal arrangement, many migrant workers appear to prefer the "Free Visa" over the Flexi-Permit.
With the "Free Visa," workers can plan their job search before arrival, and do not have to restrict themselves to certain sectors of work. The "Free Visa" is also often cheaper than the Flexi-Permit.
One Cameroonian worker told MR that he paid BD 635 (USD 1,684) to secure a Free-Visa for one-year and that his sponsor helped him with the paperwork. He also does not have to worry about the monthly fee. The total financial burden on him is less of what he would have had to pay for the Flexi-Permit.
Continuous misinformation campaigns and misleading statements by authorities and the media on the Flexi-Permit, coupled with a lack of transparency on the part of the government, makes it difficult to assess the true reach of the Flexi-Permit. In any case, its impact cannot be measured by the number of permit holders alone. The experiences of workers must be used to improve future iterations of the scheme, and the reform of Bahrain’s overall labour migration policy.
* The rights of Flexi-Permit holders under the labour law needs to be made clear. Currently, it is not evident if they are treated as sole proprietors of a business or freelancers.
* The fees need to be re-evaluated and made more affordable for workers. Fees should not be more than the cost of a normal work permit. Workers should also have the option to pay the fees according to their preferred schedule (annually or monthly).
* Minimum wage and wage protection must be established, and must also include Flexi-Permit holders who work in the so-called “gig economy” jobs.
* The Flexi-Permit should be an option available to workers before arrival, instead of only being available once a worker has become irregular, at which point he is already in a very vulnerable position.
* Domestic Workers should be included in the scheme, with a lower fee slab.