In recent months, Bahraini authorities have intensified efforts to propose policies that discriminate against migrant workers while failing to take their rights into account. As the Kingdom faces infrastructural and economic challenges, including excessive traffic and a budget deficit, migrants are increasingly scapegoated in official discourse and policies.
Bill to Link Driving Licences with Residency Permits
In recent years, and especially after the country reopened after the COVID-19 shutdown, Bahrain’s traffic congestion has become a focal point of public discussion. Continuing a long-standing tradition of scapegoating migrants for societal ills, commentators and officials laid the blame for the country’s transportation crisis on migrants.
Earlier this year, a group of MPs introduced a bill to link migrant’s driving licences with their residency permits and align their expiration dates. Both Bahraini citizens and migrants are currently granted driving licences for a five-year period.
The proposed legislation garnered unanimous approval from the parliamentary body and is currently awaiting a decision in the Shura Council. The lawmakers behind the bill assert that its primary objectives are to “tackle ongoing violations by expatriates illegally residing in Bahrain” and to “reduce traffic congestion in the country with fewer licences being issued.” Furthermore, parliament members urged traffic police to effectively function as border agents and prevent irregular migrants from operating vehicles within the country.
While the Parliament’s foreign affairs, defence, and national security committee had backed the bill, the Interior Ministry urged MPs to reject it, citing concerns that it’s “inapplicable and will lead to statistical disruptions in the electronic system and confusion among traffic police implementing the rules.”
Notably, Bahrain’s National Institution for Human Rights (NIHR), with Ali Al-Derazi serving as its current president, informed MPs that the proposal did not violate any human rights since “it doesn’t restrict or prevent the movement of expats.” The NIHR added that the bill “is purely organisational and doesn’t breach the equality status, expatriates’ freedom or international human rights conventions or treaties.”
As MR previously highlighted in Kuwait, where a parallel situation is unfolding, the local discourse on traffic congestion tends to disregard two crucial facts: firstly, that its principal cause is inadequate urban and infrastructure planning based on private modes of transportation in a confined land area. And secondly, that migrant workers form the sole demographic relying on public transport, own fewer private cars than the local population, and frequently carpool. The majority of migrants in Bahrain are low-income and generally do not own personal vehicles. Of those who do use cars, a significant number do so as part of their job responsibilities and use company-provided vehicles.
Bill to link ID Cards with Residency Permits
Over the last year, Bahrain has intensified crackdowns on irregular migrants. The Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) reported last week that the number of deported workers surged by 202.8% in 2023, reaching 5,477, while 4,232 irregular workers were apprehended during the same timeframe last year.
Continuing this crackdown, Bahrain’s MPs unanimously approved amendments to the Identity Card Law of 2006 last week. The amendments aim to link the migrants’ smart identity cards (CPR) to their residence permits. Identity cards in Bahrain are typically issued for 5 years.
The government will draft the amendment as formal legislation within a maximum of six months and subsequently submit it for review to both Parliament and the Shura Council.
It is worth noting that the new amendment formalises an existing practice. In recent years, the government has quietly linked the provision of some services to work permit validity. Migrant-Rights.org has previously highlighted instances where migrants in Bahrain with valid CPRs but expired work permits were denied healthcare or arrested at healthcare facilities due to their irregular status.
Both the Interior Ministry and the Information and eGovernment Authority, while endorsing the MPs’ amendments, stated that the practice is already implemented whenever work permits are cancelled by the LMRA, adding that the policy is aimed to “prevent illegal residents from seeking health, bank or other services.”
Notably, Bahrain’s National Institution for Human Rights stated that the amendment “would not contradict human rights,” though it raised concerns over the inability of irregular migrants to access emergency services, such as health care.
The integration of residency and work permits with the ID card, essential for accessing vital services in Bahrain, overlooks a critical reality. Many migrants find themselves in irregular situations due to the actions of their employers, who wield control over the status of their work and residency permits under the Kafala system.
In several documented cases, migrant women, faced with the cancellation of their work permits, have opted to give birth at home, risking their safety and that of their children. Additionally, desperate migrants resort to using other people’s ID cards to access healthcare services, exposing themselves to potential medical mishaps as the data in their medical files is not theirs.
Bill to tax Migrant Remittance
At the beginning of 2024, Bahraini MPs unanimously approved a legislation imposing a 2% tax on migrant remittances, applied to the total amount sent by individual migrants on each occasion. According to the House of Representatives, the law was enacted to curb the outflow of money from Bahrain and provide the government with “additional revenue to enhance the country’s economic situation.”
The Shura Council unanimously rejected the proposed bill, leading to its referral back to the parliament for a second review.
In contrast to the provisional approval seen regarding ID card controls, officials from the Shura Council and ministries have openly expressed their disapproval of the proposal, citing its potential unconstitutionality. The government, in an explanatory letter attached to the bill, voiced concerns that remittance tax would not be shouldered by workers but instead be forced upon sponsors, thereby escalating the burden on businessmen. The government emphasised that “such taxes will hugely affect expatriates in leadership positions in companies and banks in Bahrain, and it could even lead to them moving to other countries.”
Numerous residents in Bahrain expressed their disagreement with this tax through both news outlets and social media. In the letter section of Gulf Daily News, one resident remarked, “Not fair. Expats are as it is struggling to make ends meet with the rapidly increasing cost of living.”
Another resident stressed, “This [tax] should be applied to an amount that exceeds a certain limit. Not to small remittances. Some people have a very low salary, and they are sending the amount to their families back home. The impact will not be good on low-income groups.”
Migrant workers in Bahrain, the majority of whom are low-income, are already grappling with stagnant wages and high living costs. A tax on their remittances would be detrimental to many who are already reeling from government policies that affect them the most, such as VAT and subsidy cuts.
The proposed legislation follows growing calls to curb capital outflow among officials and commentators throughout the Gulf, including repeated proposals to tax remittances in Kuwait. The region is home to a large number of migrant workers, making it one of the world’s largest sources of migrant remittances.
Bill to Cancel Absconding Domestic Workers’ End-Of-Service Benefits
According to the House of Representatives Service Committee, which recommended the amendment, the proposed bill “aims to reduce absconding of domestic workers by deterring them through increased punishment and penalties. And to preserve the rights of the employer while encouraging the recruitment of domestic workers.”
Like other recent bills advocated by MPs, this bill not only targets the most vulnerable segment of society, but is out of touch with the actual circumstances of domestic workers in Bahrain. As MR has previously reported, very few domestic workers receive their End-Of-Service benefits, regardless of whether they have absconded or not. Employers easily evade payment of EOS benefits as the Labour Ministry does not have any enforcement measures to ensure domestic workers receive their benefits before leaving the country.
Bahrain’s Labour Minister, Jameel Humaidan, warned that the move would be unconstitutional and discriminatory, pointing out that implementing the proposal will open the door for employers to evade their obligation to pay end-of-service benefits to domestic workers.
Moreover, the discussion failed to acknowledge that domestic workers in Bahrain “abscond” primarily due to exploitative and abusive working and living conditions, stemming not least from the fact that domestic workers are not fully included in the labour law.
Following the bill’s approval, discontented residents in Bahrain voiced their concerns in the letter section of Gulf Daily News. One user articulated, “Domestic workers are abused, underpaid/unpaid. If they leave their workplaces, it is to escape absolutely horrendous work environments. Enforce laws that protect them, not subject them even further to modern-day slavery.”
The proposed bills and the discourse surrounding them serve as little more than a theatre for MPs to project an image of championing citizens’ rights, but the consequences for migrant workers are very real; they not only neglect to tackle the underlying causes of the issues at hand, but also discriminate against migrants and further expose them to harm.