People celebrate May Day in a variety of ways, from maypole dances on English village greens to poetry festivals in Hawaii. In Bahrain, it was on May 1 this year that the government decided to scrap its sponsorship system for foreign workers.
Human rights groups have warmly welcomed the decision, which does away with a practice they claim encourages the abuse of poor migrant workers. For decades, Bahrain and other Gulf states have operated an informal system known as ‘kafala’ whereby companies take on responsibility for their expatriate employees, from organising visas to guaranteeing their good behaviour.
But this has put some workers at the mercy of their employers. During the oil boom, labourers and menial workers flooded into the Gulf from southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent – in Bahrain today, for example, only a quarter of the country’s registered workforce of 550,000 are nationals. However, groups such as the Bahrain Migrant Workers Protection Society have reported numerous cases of abuse, from companies withholding passports or pay to workers being forced to live in squalid conditions. Worse still, those who fled their employers had little protection in the eyes of the law. Bahrain’s labour minister Majeed Al Alawi described the practice as tantamount to slavery.
The Gulf states have made some progress in securing workers’ rights. Most governments in the region have enacted legislation that prevents labourers from working in the hottest part of the day in summer, for example. But it is only in recent years that they have begun to question the pros and pitfalls of the sponsorship system as a whole.
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of kafala is the inability of workers to leave their jobs without the permission of their employers. Not only is this morally questionable, but it also flouts the conventions of the International Labour Organisation – to which Bahrain is a signatory. So from August 1, the kingdom has decided expatriates will be able to move freely between jobs. Migrant workers will instead register directly with the government, making it easier to identify the ‘ghost workers’ on company books and stamp out the black-market trade in visas.
Not everyone is happy. Employers in industries such as construction that rely heavily on cheap labour from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, say they worry not only about recruiting but also retaining staff. Others predict a flood of immigrants seeking work into the kingdom at a time when finding jobs will be more difficult due to the economic slow-down.
For the most part, however, economists agree a more flexible labour market will emerge, of advantage to both Bahrainis and expats. Not only will employers be more prepared to hire and train locals, but there will be a better match of jobs and abilities. Neighbouring Gulf states will be watching with interest. The question is whether any will follow suit.
Other labour reforms
• Tamkeen, the local labour fund, has set up a BD10 monthly tax on foreign workers to pay for the training of Bahrainis for the workplace
• Expat workers are now registered by the Labour Market Regulatory Authority, ensuring transparency in the labour market
• A draft law, expected to be introduced in 2010, will further outline the rights of employers and employees
• The government is considering a cap on foreign workers, to allay concerns about a wave of immigration
• A court will be set up to deal specifically with employment disputes