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Bahrain’s unemployment benefits for migrants sparks backlash, backpedalling from Ministry

On November 11, 2020

Bahrain’s Ministry of Labour and Social Development (MLSD) has backpedalled on migrant workers’ inclusion in the unemployment fund following an outcry on social media.  

The ministry recently shared several posts outlining insurance services and benefits provided in the Social Insurance Law (SIL). One of the posts clarified the conditions for entitlement to unemployment benefits, which also extends to foreign workers. Though the law is not new, many locals took to social media to express their discontent with xenophobic comments such as “citizens pay and foreigners eat.” 

Ahmed Al-Damestani, a Member of Parliament (MP), denounced the MLSD announcement, stating that “in Bahrain, there is a bomb, which is the unemployment file… while the Labour Ministry opens the door for foreigners to search for jobs and get compensated for unemployment.”  Al-Damestani vowed that he and other representatives will take a stance against the law in the next parliamentary session. 

What the MP and many others seem to have overlooked is that migrant workers pay into the employment fund, in greater numbers than locals. As of the 2nd quarter of 2020, the number of non-Bahrainis contributing to the country’s Social Insurance Organisation (SIO) reached 456,840, compared to 144,511 Bahraini contributors.

Both citizens and migrant workers contribute 1% of their basic salary, deducted at source by their employer, towards the unemployment fund. When contributors to this fund become jobless, they receive 60% of their basic wage from the fund monthly for up to nine months or until they find another job, whichever is earlier. The payout is proportional to the average basic wages and must be a minimum of BD 200 and not exceed BD 1,000. The insured employee must have worked for at least 12 months in order to avail the unemployment benefit. Those who have voluntarily resigned or committed misconduct are not eligible for compensation.

Following the backlash, the Ministry deleted its post and uploaded a new infographic that no longer mentions migrant workers.  The initial graphic noted the requirements for migrant workers to access the fund in point 9: “An unemployed foreign worker shall be a legal resident of the Kingdom with the aim of looking for a job according to the applicable laws and regulations.” 

The Ministry then claimed that migrants are not eligible for unemployment benefits, and the provisions of SIL are “intended only to assist Bahrainis” unlawfully dismissed from work. The Ministry noted that migrants can instead file lawsuits within one month of unjustified termination to receive compensation as per Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) regulations. 

This claim contradicts Article 10 of the Insurance Against Unemployment law, in which workers inclusion in the unemployment fund is clearly outlined.  Migrants can seek damages in case of unjust dismissals, but this is a separate and distinct entitlement from their access to unemployment benefits.  A lawyer spoke to also confirmed that the Ministry’s interpretation of the provision is incorrect. 

Commenting on the deletion of the Ministry’s post, Khalil Buhazaa, a researcher focusing on labour rights in Bahrain tweeted: “Deleting migrant workers’ entitlement to unemployment insurance from an announcement does not change the legal fact that they are entitled to it if they are unemployed”

Bahrain is the only GCC country to include migrant workers in its unemployment benefits scheme – at least on paper. According to the Legislative Decree No. (78) of the year 2006 with respect to Insurance Against Unemployment, a migrant worker is entitled to unemployment benefits if they have a regular status and are actively looking for a job. 

The Bahraini government has often used this provision to present itself as a pioneer of migrants’ rights in the region.  For example, in its response to an appeal from a coalition of NGOs to better protect migrant workers during the Covid-19 crisis, the government noted that among the main initiatives it has taken is to “allow all workers to benefit from the insurance system against unemployment without discrimination between their categories or nationalities in order to protect them from privation and need.”

The reality, however, is much different; migrant workers, who make up the majority of the labour force in Bahrain, pay into the unemployment fund but rarely benefit from it. Unemployed migrants have only 30 days to regularise their status by transferring to another job, or else they are rendered irregular and therefore ineligible for benefits. It often takes up to two months to set up a claim account at the ministry to start receiving unemployment pay, so it remains virtually impossible for migrant workers to access. 

These misleading narratives not only fan the flames of popular xenophobia but influence the government to enact more discriminatory policies.  For instance, falsehoods regarding the Flexi-Permit were spread by business owners and politicians prompted the government to intensify inspection campaigns against permit-holders, detaining and deporting hundreds for alleged regulatory violations. 

The current backlash adds insult to injury to many migrants who have lost their jobs, had their incomes slashed, faced evictions and have been pushed into desperation as they are excluded from the government’s Covid-19 benefits, and lack other social security nets.