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Bahrain's Amnesty: In name and little else

On July 22, 2020

On 3 April 2020, Bahrain’s Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) announced a nine-month amnesty for irregular migrant workers that runs until 31 December 2020. The measure was supposed to help irregular workers who were left stranded because of the Covid19 pandemic. But the initiative has been limited at best and in some cases created more vulnerabilities for some irregular migrants. 

Authorities pointed to the initiative as an example of the country’s efforts to protect workers’ rights during the pandemic. “This is a humanitarian gesture in these extraordinary times to ensure irregular workers can either leave the country or lead to gainful employment,” Ausamah Al Absi, the LMRA’s Chief Executive, said

In practice, however, the amnesty only pardons fines levied for expired work permits. Migrants with absconding charges and travel bans are still not allowed to leave the country, and those who have worked with their employer for less than a year are still not allowed to change jobs without their employer’s consent, even if they are victims of wage theft and abuse. 

The LMRA also recently announced that from 1 July 2020 to 30 September 2020,  it will suspend job transfers for migrants even if they have worked for more than a year unless the current employer cancels the work-permit and the new employer directly compensates the first employer for the fees corresponding with the remaining validity of the work permit.

Previously, if a worker wanted to change employment without consent, the LMRA would automatically cancel their existing visa when the new employer issued a work permit, and the LMRA would itself pay the prorated compensation to the old sponsor. 

In Bahrain, fines incurred for overstaying expired work permits are already low –  BD15  (US$40) for the first year of overstay and BD10  (US$27) for each year after. Those who paid that sum and had no cases filed against them could leave the country or regularise their status. 

Whereas previous amnesties in Bahrain allowed migrants with absconding cases to regularise their status or leave the country, the current amnesty does not. Social workers in Bahrain told that several domestic workers from different nationalities could not board repatriation flights because they had absconding charges lodged against them and could not get clearance by the Nationality, Passports and Residence Affairs.

A social worker who often assists Kenyan nationals told MR, “we have a list of Kenyan domestic workers who left their sponsor due to abuse or to find a better job and are now unable to leave the country on the repatriation flight or work elsewhere because of ‘run-away’ cases against them.” 

In some cases, migrants with absconding charges with critical health conditions were allowed to leave the country on repatriation flights. However, according to social workers, even their departure required pressure from embassies and civil society organisations. Additionally, and unlike Kuwait’s recent amnesty, irregular workers, are not provided with flight tickets except in exceptional circumstances, such as the deportation of prisoners, detainees in detention centres,  and human trafficking victims in government shelters.

Normally, irregular workers who report to the police with an absconding charge would be taken to a detention centre and eventually repatriated. But the amnesty means that police are not permitted to detain absconded or irregular workers.  According to social workers, police officers are struggling to find alternative shelter for domestic workers who approach them. Bahrain’s government shelter only accepts cases that are registered at the public prosecution, or occasional cases of extreme physical abuse and human trafficking (which in Bahrain is defined narrowly to include sex work and not forced labour, the most common conditions facing domestic workers). Consequently, the police often rely on over-stretched community groups to find shelter. 

To live up to claims that the amnesty is a ‘humanitarian gesture’,  the Bahraini government must amend the amnesty to allow migrants to change employment even if they have worked less than a year and allow all migrants with absconding cases to leave the country if they so wish and provide shelter to all migrants who are victims of abuse.