April 1, 2011—On the small island of Bahrain, 77 percent of the workforce is made up of migrant workers, most of whom come from South Asia and work in low-skilled, low-paid jobs. The majority are highly vulnerable temporary workers, concentrated in the construction industry and domestic service sector, where working and living conditions are harsh.
Photo by Remko Tanis
After the strong protest movement that began in Bahrain in mid-February and the extremely violent repression with which the Bahraini authorities responded, backed by troops from neighboring countries, notably Saudi Arabia, more than 20 people were killed, another 20 disappeared, at least 200 were arrested, and several hundred wounded, some of them hounded all the way to hospital. Five Pakistani workers have been killed in recent weeks, including two police officers, and about 40 Pakistani and Bangladeshi workers have been wounded. As well as implementing their highly repressive policy that puts migrant workers lives in danger every day, together with the rest of the Bahraini population, the authorities have just recruited a thousand Pakistani workers to swell the ranks of the security forces. This recruitment, carried out with the support of the powerful Pakistani military machine, came with an offer of a salary in the Bahraini security forces seven times higher than that of the average Pakistani worker.
“Only real dialogue and a sincere wish to move toward real democracy can strengthen national cohesion and guarantee the future and prosperity of the country,” stated International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow. “The authorities must move quickly to carry out objective inquiries into the violence against migrant workers. We call on the authorities to stop using migrant workers in the security forces for repressive ends.”
The ITUC has been informed of attempts to replace workers who went on strike, in protest at the repression that was putting them in danger and in support of legitimate demands for democracy, by other workers, including migrants. “It is a gross violation of the right to strike,” continued Burrow. “Furthermore, these practices do not respect legal recruitment procedures. It is an unacceptable political exploitation of innocent migrant workers who have made the sacrifice of leaving their country of origin simply because they want to work.” .
Over the last few weeks, migrant workers have also been the victim of wage arrears by the state, in several sub-contracted companies. One example is the Habib Ali Awachi company (industrial and commercial services), where 200 migrant workers protested last week when they did not even have enough to eat, as a result of salary arrears of two to four months, and those who have come to the end of their contract cannot even return to their home country. The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), actively involved in the peaceful opposition that is demanding the departure of foreign armed forces, the lifting of the state of emergency, and the opening of genuine dialogue for reform, and some of whose members have been victims of repression, remains firm in its intention to defend the poorest and least protected workers, whatever their origin. Democratic reform will benefit all workers in Bahrain, the GFBTU is convinced.
“At this time of acute difficulty, the ITUC fully supports the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, which has been actively working for the defense of migrant worker rights for several years, organizing on the ground and hosting international activities, particularly with their countries of origin. The global commitment of the GFBTU in the struggle for democracy and social justice is completely in line with its fight for migrants’ rights,” stressed Burrow.
The ITUC has repeatedly denounced the ill-treatment of migrant workers in the Middle East, above all in the Gulf States. The ITUC is also actively campaigning for the adoption at the International Labor Organization next June of a new convention and recommendation on domestic work, a vital instrument for the protection of domestic migrant workers, who all too often suffer brutal treatment and exploitation in this region.
The Cost of Living (January 21, 2011). This 20-minute documentary shows the plight of Nepali migrant workers trafficked to Gulf countries. Trade unions are pioneering to address this modern-day slavery in domestic, construction, and other work in Bahrain.