In October 2020, 40-year-old Zuber Miah slipped to his death as he was climbing down the stairs while carrying two buckets of water at a construction site in Karzakan. There was no safety railing to protect the Bangladeshi construction worker from the fall and he was not wearing any safety gear.
Two weeks later, three Indian workers of an electrical maintenance company died of asphyxiation after inhaling poisonous fumes in a sewage tunnel in Bani Jamra. Labour inspectors who arrived after the tragic incident found “major violations” on the part of the company. Not only did the company reportedly not have a permit to carry out maintenance in the area, but the workers were also not provided with any safety gear, such as face masks or oxygen tanks. Three senior officials of the company are currently facing trial for “serious negligence” to ensure the safety of the workers, following an investigation probe ordered by Bahrain's Crown Prince and Prime Minister.
These preventable deaths are not uncommon. In the past decade, hundreds of migrant workers have perished in Bahrain due to a lack of adherence to safety regulations. The majority of the workplace deaths occurred in sectors such as construction, which only employ migrants.
Bahrain has introduced several laws aimed at protecting the rights and safety of migrant workers in the workplace. While these regulations guarantee protection for workers on paper, violations nonetheless remain rife, in part due to poor enforcement and inspection mechanisms.
An adequate labour inspection mechanism is key to ensuring the enforcement of laws and the implementation of minimum labour standards. This article examines Bahrain’s labour inspection mechanisms and argues that the labour inspectorate is grossly inadequate to protect the labour rights of workers and ensure safe working environments for them.
Labour inspection framework in Bahrain
In Bahrain, as in other Gulf countries, labour inspection policies are regulated by the Labour Law. In 1976, Bahrain established the Labour Inspection Department at the Ministry of Labour, which is in charge of enforcing the Labour Law.
Article 175 of the Labour Law stipulates the creation of a “Council of Occupational Safety and Health” which drafts and follows-up on the implementation of general policies related to occupational safety and health and the provision of the appropriate working environment.
The criteria for inspection and their sphere of authority varies across government agencies. For example, Bahrain’s Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) has inspection and arresting powers to check work permits of migrant workers and arrest those who are irregular, while the Labour Ministry is mainly responsible for inspecting the working conditions of workplaces and registered labour camps.
|Table 1: Overview of the inspection domains and corresponding government bodies (Not an exhaustive list)|
|Inspection of the workplace||Inspection of migrant workers status*||Inspection of workers accommodation|
|Article (34) of Law No.(19) for the year 2006 Regulating the Labour Market.|
Ministry of Labour & Social Development
Decisions regarding occupational safety and health also come under the Ministry of Labour & Social Development. However, in some cases, specialists in occupational health and safety from the Health Ministry may also join the Labour Ministry inspectors during inspections
The Ministry of Interior also carries out routine inspections to identify and arrest residency violators.
The International Labour Organisation ( ILO’s Labour Inspection Convention and Recommendation 81 (1947) ) provides the basic normative guidance for labour inspection policies of Bahrain. Except for Oman, all other Gulf states have ratified the convention.
The convention sets out a series of guidelines regarding, among other things, the functions of the system of inspections, recruitment of inspectors and their capacity, powers and obligations.
Article 3 of ILO’s Labour Inspection Convention 81 stipulates the basic functions of the labour inspection system to:
(a) to secure the enforcement of the legal provisions relating to conditions of work and the protection of workers while engaged in their work, such as provisions relating to hours, wages, safety, health and welfare, the employment of children and young persons, and other connected matters, in so far as such provisions are enforceable by labour inspectors;
(b) to supply technical information and advice to employers and workers concerning the most effective means of complying with the legal provisions;
(c) to bring to the notice of the competent authority defects or abuses not specifically covered by existing legal provisions.
Other ILO conventions also call for the need for adequate inspection mechanisms to ensure implementation in other domains of work. This includes the ILO convention 155 on Occupational Safety and Health (1981), which of the GCC countries, only Bahrain has ratified. According to ILO convention no.155, “the enforcement of laws and regulations concerning occupational safety and health and the working environment shall be secured by an adequate and appropriate system of inspection”, and such enforcement mechanism shall “provide for adequate penalties for violations of the laws and regulations.”
None of the Gulf countries has signed the ILO’s labour inspection conventions for seafarers and agriculture workers. This is not surprising, given that these sectors generally do not fall under the Labour Law. As a result, thousands of migrant workers in these sectors are considerably more vulnerable to conditions of forced labour and work in hazardous environments.
But even if labour and safety regulations are enacted for every sector, the proper application of these regulations depends on a well-resourced and efficient labour inspectorate.
When it comes to the labour inspection capacity, the criteria for determining the number of inspectors and their qualifications remain unclear. Article 173 of the Labour Law stipulates that the “the authority of occupational safety and health inspection” should be “formed of a sufficient number of inspectors enjoying qualifications and suitable experience.” There is no explanation on what constitutes ‘sufficient’ and what qualifications are considered ‘suitable.
The ILO’s Labour Inspection Convention 81 does not specify exactly the adequate ratio of inspectors to the number of firms liable to inspection, but Article (10) does mention that the number of inspectors shall be determined according to:
(a) the importance of the duties which inspectors have to perform, in particular
(i) the number, nature, size and situation of the workplaces liable to inspection;
(ii) the number and classes of workers employed in such workplaces;
(iii) the number and complexity of the legal provisions to be enforced;
(b) the material means placed at the disposal of the inspectors;
(c) the practical conditions under which visits of inspection must be carried out in order to be effective.
The Labour Ministry’s Annual Statistical Report for the year 2018 (the last publicly available report) reveals how Bahrain’s labour inspection mechanism fails the inspection capacity requirements by these standards.
The table below shows the number of workers in the Ministry’s Labor Inspection Department for the year 2018.
|Table 2: Number of workers in the labour inspection department|
|Number of inspectors||Commercial sector||6|
|Total Number of inspectors||12|
|Number of firms subject to inspection||82,597|
|Number of workers covered by inspections||Bahrainis||158,814|
|Total number of workers||759,671|
In 2018, the Ministry of Labour appointed only 12 inspectors to inspect 82,597 firms that are liable to inspection. In other words, each labour inspector must have carried out 6,883 visits to fully regulate the private sector each year. The labour inspectorate is thus clearly understaffed.
The data on the number of inspections in 2018 is similarly concerning; according to the Ministry report, the department of labour inspection only carried out 4,070 field visits on 3,582 firms.
While the Ministry of Labour has not published an annual report since 2018, statistics reported by the media indicate that the number of inspections dropped even further in 2019. According to the Gulf Daily News, a total of 2,962 inspection visits were conducted from January to October in the year 2019, which covered 2,778 firms.
The number of firms inspected for health and safety regulations was even more minuscule, the labour inspectorate’s Occupational Safety Department carried out inspections visits at only 663 firms out of 82,597 firms liable for inspection. These numbers demonstrate that the vast majority of private sector firms in Bahrain are not inspected to ensure the application of Labour Law and safety regulations by government authorities.
The table below demonstrates that the number of inspections has steadily declined over the past few years.
|Table 3: Number of inspections per year
|2014||2015||2016||2017||2018||2019 (January to October)|
|Number of routine inspection visits||11,441||8,764||7,824||3,126||4,070||2,962|
|Number of firms visited||10,438||11,287||8,973||5,701||3,582||2,778|
|Number of firms inspected for safety and health regulations||-||-||558||718||663||-|
|Number of Workplace Death and Severe Work Injuries that was investigated*||-||-||
134 Severe Workplace Injuries investigated
294 Severe Workplace Injuries investigated
144 Severe Workplace Injuries investigated
* Note that work injuries only include those investigated by the Ministry and not the total number of injuries that occurred in the given year. Companies are obliged to report workplace injuries to the Ministry as per Resolution No. (12) of 2013 regarding the necessary procedures for reporting workplace injuries and occupational diseases, but companies may avoid reporting to avoid punishment for lack of safety regulations.
The decline in inspection capacity is partly the result of Bahrain’s recent efforts to downsize the public sector and the state’s reliance on firms to self-regulate. A Ministry official who wished to remain anonymous confirmed to Migrant-Rights.Org that they face shortages in the number of inspectors which hinders their capacity to detect violators.
Comprehensive labour inspections are almost impossible with limited state capacity. The ILO's Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations' general observation 2020 report lamented the trend in the downsizing of labour inspectorate globally.
The issue was also highlighted in an ILO workshop on ‘Modern Labour Inspection Procedures’ held in Bahrain last year; Mohammed Musaed, the Assistant Secretary-General for Occupational Health, safety and environment of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) noted “We have way fewer inspectors compared to the growing number of worksites, they are using their own cars, they need a hike in pay and they need more encouragement in terms of perks.” adding that this scenario is ripe for bribery.
Besides staffing issues, it is not clear what kind of training labour inspectors receive and what kind of expertise they possess. The migrant workers that Migrant-Rights.org spoke to who had interacted with labour inspectors in their labour camps noted language barriers issues and lack of assistance in filing complaints against their employers. Labour inspectors also lack proper information technology resources. The inspectorate has both men and female Bahraini staff, with the former usually in charge of inspecting labour camps and the industrial sector.
The Ministry’s Labour inspection department is also in charge of receiving and “resolving labour complaints” for both national and expat employees. Workers who are victims of wage theft or other labour and safety violations can visit the inspection department to submit a complaint.
Upon receiving a complaint, the Inspection Department attempts to negotiate an amicable settlement with the employer – a long, and often futile, process. Workers can also submit complaints at the LMRA’s new Grievance and Protection Department or directly at the labour courts. But unlike the LMRA, the inspection department has no direct link to refer cases to the courts.
“...we don’t want to enforce the law in a hard way and hence we look for amicable settlements.”
Several workers Migrant-Rights.Org spoke to lamented the empty promises of authorities at the inspection Department, while others complained of indifference, discrimination, lack of assistance and language barriers when filing complaints.
A group of Cameroonian security workers who submitted a wage theft complaint to the Labour Ministry last year told MR that the department staff were not only unhelpful but treated them in a racist, demeaning way:
“When we went there, these people were completely racist to us. They were like, 'go out of the office! Don’t stand there!' And they were covering their noses and started spraying the room with air freshener”.
The workers' testimonies indicate the labour inspectors’ lack of training and professionalism on part of labour inspectors at the Ministry and that language skills are not factored into the recruitment of labour inspectors (in a country where the majority of workers do not speak the native language).
Furthermore, labour inspectors in Bahrain do not proactively monitor firms’ adherence to the Labour Law and other safety protocols. Instead, inspection visits are mainly conducted in response to major incidents or complaints.
When inspectors do detect violations, sanctions against employers are usually tame, depending on severity. Experience on the ground indicates that firms are rarely held criminally liable or subjected to fines, even though the law permits such penalties. Instead, the Ministry of Labour usually attempts to negotiate with the employer to rectify violations, without holding them legally accountable or imposing major fines on them.
The Labour Ministry has the power to order the partial or full closure of a firm’s Commercial Registration, but this power is rarely utilised, according to social workers. the Ministry’s modus operandi appears aimed at minimising disruptions to the private sector at all costs. For instance, when the Fundament SPC workers who were owed up to eight months of unpaid salaries protested at the Ministry of Labour in June this year, the Labour Ministry commented: “we don’t want to enforce the law in a hard way and hence we look for amicable settlements”.
Similarly, social workers who assisted the Cameroonian workers in the case above noted that the Ministry was lenient with the company, and hesitated to close down its commercial registration, even after the company failed to appear at the Ministry's summons.
Several labour accommodations that Migrant-Rights.Org visited were in miserable conditions months after Labour Inspectors detected violations. In April 2020, following the Covid-19 outbreak, the Labour Ministry issued a circular to employers obligating them to regularly sterilise their labour camps, provide a sufficient number of toilets at worksites and accommodation, and reduce the number of workers per room. According to the Labour Ministry, only 15% of registered labour camps have complied with the directives.
Summer work ban anomaly
While Bahrain’s labour inspectorate is generally reactive and fails to protect workers’ safety and labour rights, its most proactive inspections are targeted at the summer outdoor work ban that runs from July 1 to August 31. This is demonstrated by the Labour Ministry’s frequent media campaigns on the ban and the comparatively large number of inspections that take place during the two months. While the Ministry carried out 4,070 routine inspections for the whole year of 2018, it carried out 10,185 summer outdoor ban inspections during July and August.
The Ministry also opens hotlines for the public and workers to report violations, which it does not maintain for other labour issues. Moreover, fines and penalties for employers who flout the summer ban are enforced more than other violations, with employers immediately referred to public prosecution, rather than settled amicably as with most other violations.
The focus on summer work bans owes to a number of factors, but mainly because it does not cost businesses much to adhere to the ban compared to other safety and labour directives, which fits well with the Ministry’s approach to minimizing disruption to the private sector.
This point was emphasized by the Labour Minister, Jameel Humeidan when he highlighted last year that “this [summer outdoor ban] decision carries several humanitarian and rights elements as well as economical benefits gained by business owners through reprogramming their working hours without impacting productivity which also reduces accidents and injuries.”
Other factors for this emphasis include the minimal technical expertise and resources required by labour inspectors to regulate summer work bans and the PR the campaign brings.
Labour inspection for domestic workers
As in other Gulf states, Bahrain has no inspection mechanism to safeguard the rights of domestic workers, though they are among the most vulnerable and abused group of workers. The absence of inspection and enforcement mechanisms, alongside weak legal protections and the inherently vulnerable conditions of domestic work conducted in private homes, creates an environment ripe for exploitation and abuse.
While Bahrain has not ratified ILO’s Private Employment Agencies Convention, 1997 (No. 181) which calls for the inspection of private employment agencies, the LMRA’s inspectorate, conducts routine inspections of domestic workers recruitment agencies. However, the LMRA’s inspections usually concern domestic workers’ legal status and other issues related to the quality of services provided by the agency, such as deploying untrained domestic workers or refusing to refund sponsors, rather than ensuring domestic workers are ethically recruited and living in suitable conditions.
Labour inspectors do not proactively monitor the homes where domestic workers are employed, nor do they have the authority to investigate a home if a complaint has been lodged. Only in the event that a serious criminal offence is suspected may police, not labour inspectors, visit a home or conduct a rescue. In most cases, the police will contact the sponsor first.
None of the Gulf countries has signed the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), which stipulates that member states should develop and implement measures for labour inspection and enforcement to ensure compliance with national laws and regulations for the protection of domestic workers (article 17). Gulf governments justify the absence of an inspection mechanism for domestic workers on the grounds doing so would violate the privacy of employers. While inspections serve an important purpose, conflating regulation of domestic work with at-home inspections fosters hostility against all forms of regulation in this sector.
These arguments abdicate responsibility for violations occurring within the household without acknowledging the range of monitoring and enforcement options available which would minimise the need for random, physical inspections of employers’ homes. For example, robust compliance and complaints mechanisms can include alternatives to physical inspections, such as phone-based check-ins, which are less intrusive and less expensive to conduct regularly. Similarly, the inclusion of domestic workers in wage protection systems would also reduce the need for workplace visits, as authorities would have access to the necessary evidence base.
Conclusion and Recommendations:
The labour inspection mechanism of Bahrain is widely inadequate in capacity and function to ensure minimum labour and safety standards and decent work. The past decade of economic deregulation has led to the reduction of work-site inspections by government authorities.
It is urgent that the Bahraini government invests in a comprehensive labour inspectorate sufficiently staffed, which covers all sectors of employment so that it can create a safe environment for workers and ensure their safety, security and human dignity.
- Increase the capacity of the labour inspectorate to adequately cover the private sector.
- Ensure inspectors are professionally trained, adequately resourced and knowledgeable about the labour market and conditions of migrant workers under the dynamics of the Kafala system.
- Sign and ratify all ILO's inspection conventions, including Labour Inspection conventions for agriculture (Convention No. 129 of 1969), fishing (Convention No. 178 of 1996) and domestic work sector (Convention No. 189 of 2011).
- Include domestic workers in all of the provisions of the Labour Law, including its safety and inspection regulations.
- The labour inspectorate should collaborate with migrant community organisations, women’s rights groups and sending countries to better ensure decent working conditions in the private sector (The labour inspectorate can even recruit migrant workers from different nationalities to avoid discrimination when it comes to labour complaints).
- Give the Labour Ministry’s inspectors the power to directly refer violations to the courts.
- Collaborate with other government institutions, such as the Anti-Trafficking Unit, to detect and fight forced labour.
- Proactively monitor compliance with contracts, working hours and conditions.
- Allow third party complaints to inspectorate and thoroughly follow-up on workers requests for an inspection.