Bahrain has announced that it will officially end its “Flexi-Permit” programme five years after its introduction. The move comes after the Crown Prince and the Prime Minister of Bahrain ordered the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) on 5 October 2022 to cancel the Flexi-Permit programme, along with a series of other reforms.
The Flexi-Permit, which was introduced in 2017, allowed migrants with irregular status to "self-sponsor," which means they were no longer reliant on an employer for their residency. For several years, international organisations and Bahraini government officials have lauded the scheme as one of the most important measures taken towards protecting workers' rights in the region. The Flexi-Permit was also a key reason the US State department ranked Bahrain as Tier 1 — signifiying a country is fully compliant with the minimum standards for elimination of severe forms of trafficking — in its annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report.
But the scheme was severely flawed in a number of ways Migrant-Rights.org has previously highlighted: the high cost of the Permit, the lack of labour regulations, and strict conditions made the Permit unappealing or entirely inaccessible for many migrant workers. Because Flexi-Permit holders were not covered by the labour law, they also faced severe protection gaps and were not necessarily less vulnerable to labour exploitation than workers tied to their employers. They were exposed to particularly dire conditions during the Covid-19 lockdowns, as job opportunities dried up and they had to meet the expenses for housing and food.
Opposition from elected officials, some business interests, and the declining number of Flexi-Permit holders are likely to have pushed the government to end the Flexi-Permit scheme altogether.
Since its introduction, several MPs have called for the abolishment of the Flexi-Permit claiming falsely that it encourages crime, “absconding,” and impedes Bahrainisation efforts. The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry initially welcomed the scheme because it reduced migrant labour costs, but later opposed it due to perceived competition between freelance migrant workers and Bahraini businesses, and concerns that it would weaken employers' bargaining power and control over workers' mobility.
The Minister of Labour and Social Development, Jameel Humaidan, who not long ago praised the Flexi-Permit as an important initiative to protect migrant workers' rights, has now commended the decision to scrap the permit, adding that the decision was made after “consultation with employers for the public interest and to serve the objectives of the comprehensive development process.”
MR has urged reform to the Flexi-Permit in our previous reporting. The decision to cancel rather than address the schemes’ weaknesses demonstrates how top-down "reforms" in the region mean very little when they can be so easily reversed. It also shows the extent to which the Gulf states oppose the idea of remotely "free" migrant labour.
New regulations affecting migrant workers
In addition to ending the Flexi-Permit, the LMRA will now be responsible for:
- Establishing new labour registration centres to facilitate the registration of workers.
- Guaranteeing representation for any disputes between employee and employer (a task earlier confined mainly to the Ministry of Labour and Social Development).
- Implementing measures to link professional work licenses to standards and qualifications.
Little information is currently available about the labour registration centres aside from their labour regulatory and monitoring functions. According to the LMRA, the registration centres will keep an up-to-date list of data that includes workers' information, addresses, and bank account information. The centres will also guarantee that workers have the requisite health certificates and professional accreditations.
According to the CEO of the LMRA, Noof Abdulrahman Jamsheer, workers will only be allowed to work in unspecified ‘specialised professions’ with permission from relevant authorities, and migrants on visit visas will no longer be able to convert them to work permits. This change is significant: employers and workers use visit visas, which are available to many nationalities on arrival, to circumvent pre-departure work approvals and travel bans from origin countries. Visit visas have been linked to exploitation and human trafficking (read the case of Lukong Pascaline as an example).
In addition to the above, the Crown Prince and Prime Minister of Bahrain have ordered the LMRA to increase inspection campaigns and take stricter action against irregular workers and employers, as well as to foster an “appropriate environment” for workers that respects their rights and “increases the effectiveness of their role in economic development”. The government has stated that the new reforms will enable greater flexibility to pay and source labour, without providing more details.
Since the reforms were announced, Bahrain has intensified inspection and deportation campaigns targeting migrant workers with irregular status. According to sources, deportations are being carried out without screening for potential victims of trafficking, false absconding cases, or complaints such as wage theft.