Bahrain's Minister of Labour, Dr Majeed Al Alawi, talks sponsorship
Time Out Bahrain staff
August 1 marked the day that Bahrain abolished its existing sponsorship system for foreign workers – the first country in the Gulf to do so. How has this been received? All ministers of labour in the Gulf believe in what I am saying. I think there is huge lobbying from the private sector preventing them from going ahead, but in the next five years, most of them will do exactly what we are doing now. Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE will be the first to jump. How do you respond to criticism that you are overlooking employers and eroding the stability of the national economy? There is a similar system in Europe. Has that made growth difficult? They are ridiculous claims, and they are making them because people don’t want change. They have power and they don’t want to relinquish it – if I have power over your passport, I have power over you. So you think it is an important move to protect the rights of foreign workers? I’m not racist. But I was in the gold souk with my wife two days ago; the buyers and sellers weren’t Bahraini, they were Asians. We were the only Bahrainis. Expatriates are our guests and they are working, and we have to give them their human rights and their contractual rights. But at the same time there is a subject bigger than me: I want to protect my nation. Do you feel a lot of pressure from the different view points? On the one hand I am accused of being anti-expatriates, but I’m also accused of being pro-expatriates and against Bahrainis. But it is a free country and if someone wants to strike or demand the resignation of a minister, they can do it. I don’t feel under pressure and I don’t feel embattled, because I have great support from the leadership here, from the King and the Crown Prince, and the cabinet.
So you think the relationships between businesses and workers will improve? We don’t want to harm businesses, but at the same time we don’t want to continue the practices of the 17th century. The sponsorship system has no legal basis. There is no law called ‘sponsorship’; it does not exist. It just became practice in the mid ’70s during the first oil boom when companies said [to employees] ‘if you’re working with me then I will take your passport and you will work as a near slave’. We cannot allow that; we cannot allow that kind of master-slave relationship.
With the Gulf’s dependence on cheap labour, is there a risk of nations losing their identities? All ministers of labour in the Gulf states believe that this mass migration, without any control, may one day ruin the culture of the region. It won’t be an Arabic area any more, especially if [expatriates] begin to get their civil and political rights. [Bahrain is] seriously under threat, and even more so in countries like the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, where they have more than 80 per cent expatriates. It’s about 50 per cent here, but we’re on the way – it used to be 30 per cent.
Another idea of yours is a residency cap for expats – limiting semi or unskilled workers to a maximum five-year stay in any Gulf state. Will other leaders support you? That road we cannot go alone; we have to have the rest of the Gulf with us, or our companies will be very much disadvantaged.
How do you think that people view you? People have called me a radical. I am a moderniser, a reformer, not a radical. There is an aggressive side to me – a confrontational one – but there is also a conciliatory side. I am firm but fair. I will never shout. But if the situation requires me to stand up, I stand up.