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Bahrain detains migrant worker protesting over unpaid wages

On August 17, 2023

In a recent incident, Bahraini authorities arrested a 21-year-old Indian worker who damaged three vehicles owned by the construction company that employed him. In a widely circulated video, the worker is heard saying that the company, Downtown Construction, hasn’t paid his wages for 10 months. 

After using a metal rod to break the windows and lights of Downtown Construction’s vehicles in a protest against unpaid wages, the distressed worker can be heard saying, “I have not received my salary and that is why I am doing this. Even if you terminated me at least give me my salary and send me home.” While bystanders tried to calm him down, he said he didn’t care if the police or other officials were called, and that he was acting out because of what he had been put through.

After the incident, the worker was arrested and taken in for questioning by the Public Prosecution Office, where he was charged with "intentional damage." He is currently facing trial in the Fourth Minor Criminal Court, and his initial hearing is scheduled for 21 August 2023. 

Established in 1978, Downtown Construction Company W.L.L. is a major construction company in Bahrain that operates under Down Town Group W.L.L. The company is one of the Bahraini government’s main contractors for civil construction. 

Last year, the company was awarded contracts worth close to BD 6 million (US$ 15,920,610) by the Ministry of Works. The contract includes the development of roads and sewage works, as well as the construction of a primary treatment plant.

A Bahrain-based migrant rights activist, who preferred to remain anonymous, told MR that the company has a history of wage theft and labour exploitation cases.

While the Ministry of Interior publicly announced the worker’s arrest, it made no reference to any investigations into the company. Major local Arabic news merely echoed statements from the Ministry of Interior and failed to address the issue of unpaid wages.

The worker's desperate actions evidence the difficulty in accessing redress and justice in Bahrain. In cases of wage theft, migrant workers often experience prolonged periods of uncertainty without finding a resolution, which drives some to desperate measures. These actions, however, often result in their arrest and subsequent deportation by Bahraini authorities.

Bahraini officials adopt a strict stance on civil disobedience or property damage incidents by workers protesting against wage theft. They often claim that affected workers should remain patient and trust the official processes and labour courts to secure their dues. However, these processes, as observed in numerous instances, frequently lead to nothing but a waste of time for the workers. The case of G.P. Zachariades provides a notable example: workers who endured years of waiting for their unpaid wages returned home empty-handed. Conversely, those who lost patience and took to the streets in protest, blocking highways were swiftly arrested and deported without ever receiving their rightful dues.

This incident also highlights the shortcomings of recent reforms in Bahrain aimed at tackling wage theft, including the introduction of the Wage Protection System. As evidenced by this case, the system not only fails to alert authorities about non-payment but also, as previously reported, has a low rate of compliance.

In light of a number of cases of non-payment, the Migrant Worker’s Protection Society (MWPS) recently called for the establishment of an insurance-style fund to assist migrant workers whose employers have not paid their wages. The chairwoman of MWPS, Mona Almoayyed, noted that “there should be an insurance-style fund established to protect employees in case of non-payment of their salaries – funded by employers when they pay for an expatriate worker’s permit.”

Remarkably, many Bahraini citizens expressed their sympathy for the worker through comments on social media platforms. They pointed out that the primary responsible party in this incident was the employer, who failed to provide the worker with his rightful wages.

One user commented: “The reaction is normal, as the worker is deprived of his basic rights”

“Do you expect him to dance in the street? This [worker’s] action is the result of injustice”

Another wrote: “The government should not contract any company or institution that is late in paying salaries to its employees” 

While companies easily evade accountability, Bahrain has intensified detention and deportation campaigns targetting irregular migrants this year. According to the Labour Market Regulatory Authority, the number of irregular workers apprehended during inspection campaigns has increased by approximately fourfold. In the initial six months of this year, a total of 2,112 irregular migrants were deported. The government did not consistently screen irregular migrants who are deported in these campaigns for trafficking indicators. 

Migrant-Rights.Org urges the Bahraini government to hold Downtown Construction accountable for wage theft and for their role in creating this situation. Furthermore, such cases should be investigated for forced labour and prosecuted under anti-trafficking laws.