Migrant workers in Bahrain continue to suffer widespread abuse at the hands of employment sponsors, despite laws against such practices. Rights advocates are calling on the government to do more to prevent the abuses, and to help migrant workers access services when they do occur.
“Withholding wages and confiscating passports appears to be rampant, but the authorities do nothing to stop it. There is no system to make sure these vulnerable migrant workers can actually recover both their passports and wages, let alone to punish the abusive employers,” Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch said in a recent press release.
Tens of thousands of migrant workers are employed in Bahrain at any given time. The vast majority of them from South Asia, and many are women working as domestic help.
The system that grants migrant workers legal status in Bahrain has traditionally depended on the sponsorship of a single employer. In some sectors, like domestic help, workers have been required by law to live with their sponsors. Rights advocates have long said the system facilitates abuse by those who identify and supply workers, and those who employ them.
Bahrain’s authorities have taken some action against the problem, easing visa restrictions on migrant workers in July 2008 to allow them to switch employees without losing their legal status. Confiscating or holding a worker’s passport was made illegal, as was withholding wages.
Bahrain’s robust civil society has come out almost universally against these practices, with several homegrown non-governmental organizations, like the Migrant Workers Protection Society, advocating on the issues.
But the abuse continues, and laws are poorly enforced. Rights groups charge that migrant workers who flee abusive employers are likely to find little sympathy or help from local authorities, and may find themselves returned to their employer by police. Criminal prosecutions of abusive employers are unheard of. According to HRW, migrant workers determined to pursue their cases are instead steered toward arbitration processes that favor the employer.
“This ability of sponsors to effectively hold people prisoner in Bahrain is straight out of the dark ages and is a blemish on Bahrain’s character. It is time embassies, the police and the government each did their jobs in ensuring that laws are properly enforced. If a sponsor refuses to hand back a passport, put him in the cells — not the victim,” a recent Gulf Daily News commentary said.