2013 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights : Countries at Risk - Bahrain

At one time, Bahrain provided a hopeful, though imperfect, example in the Gulf region of where a free and independent trade union could be established and operate relatively free of state intervention. The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) formed in 2002 quickly became one of the most vibrant trade union movements in the region. Sadly, this period of relative freedom came to an abrupt end in 2011.

On February 14, 2011, peaceful mass pro-democracy protests commenced across Bahrain. From February 14-17, protests grew remarkably in size, attracting several thousands to join the encampment at the Pearl roundabout, which was the locus of the protests. One protester was killed on February 14, and another was killed at the funeral procession on February 15. The GFBTU urged the government of Bahrain (GoB) to open an investigation into the attacks and to guarantee freedom of assembly and expression. The GFBTU also called on the GoB to commence a national dialogue to address a long list of concerns, including the establishment of a social and economic council, job creation and fair wages – long standing demands of the trade union movement.

On the morning of February 17, security forces moved into the Pearl roundabout and, using tear gas and batons, dispersed the protestors. Tanks occupied the area. Several people were killed and hundreds were injuries. To ensure the protection and safety of citizens, the GFBTU called for a general strike starting on February 20, which it suspended that same day after the army withdrew from the streets and guarantees were made to respect the freedom of assembly.

In the following weeks, the demonstrations continued. Trade union leaders and union members took part, demanding economic, social and political reforms. Events took a dramatic turn when, on March 13, state security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters in an attempt to clear the sit-ins, with reports of unidentified armed civilians also attacking protesters. Hundreds of protesters were wounded and hospitalised. The following day, the Gulf Cooperation Council Peninsula Shield Forces, consisting mainly of Saudi and UAE troops, arrived in an armoured convoy at the request of the government of Bahrain. On March 15, the King declared a three-month state of emergency under Article 36(b) of the Constitution, which prohibited most forms of public assembly and related speeches, as well as prohibiting the operation of non-governmental organisations, political societies and unions.

Meanwhile, the GFBTU maintained the general strike largely out of concern for the protection and safety of workers, stressing that the security situation and aggressions against commuting workers did not allow for the resumption of work. After meeting with the Minister of Labour and the President of the Shura Council, who communicated assurances from the Deputy Prime Minister that aggressions against workers would cease and no reprisals would occur, that the checkpoints would ease and security would be provided for national and resident workers, the GFBTU called off the strike on March 23. It urged workers to coordinate with their trade unions and the management of their enterprises to record any safety violations against them and to present them to the GFBTU. It also stressed the need for workers to exert every effort to preserve social and national cohesion and called on management in the public and private sectors to be understanding of the exceptional circumstances and safeguard the rights of all workers. The GFBTU also reiterated the necessity of preparing conditions suitable for genuine dialogue leading to a solution to the crisis.

Around this time, prominent trade union leaders and hundreds of rank and file members were fired; some faced criminal prosecution for their role in organising and participating in strikes and/or demonstrations. In demanding the dismissal of workers who went on trade union endorsed strikes or who otherwise demonstrated for political and socio-economic reforms, largely in state owned or invested enterprises, the government actively worked to intimidate and dismantle an independent, democratic and non-sectarian trade union movement. The government also arrested and prosecuted public sector union members and leaders, including Bahraini Teachers Association (BTA) President, Mahdi Abu Deeb. Months after the demonstrations at the Pearl Roundabout, the dismissals continued. Government workers, especially those in health, education and municipal sectors (which by the nature of their work frequently interface with the public), were suspended or fired for their actual or suspected participation in, inter alia, political activity earlier this year.

The unions filed complaints at international level arguing that these actions violated the principles of non-discrimination (based on political opinion) and freedom of association. In April 2011, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint under the US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement urging the United States to withdraw from the FTA and in the interim to enter into consultations with the government under the FTA's labour chapter to insist that it end its on-going campaign punishing trade union activity and to cease all forms of discrimination against trade unions and union activists. The US government issued its report on the complaint on December 20, 2012, finding that the government had violated the agreement and requesting formal consultations.

At the June 2011 International Labour Conference, worker delegates filed a complaint to establish a Commission of Inquiry under Article 26 of the ILO Constitution against Bahrain for violations of Convention No. 111 on Discrimination. That process paved the way for the ILO Governing Body to adopt a proposal to establish a tripartite committee to review the dismissals referred to in the complaint on November 17, 2011.

In November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) issued a 501-page report into the February and March 2011 events in relation to international human rights norms. The report confirmed that the dismissals were undertaken in retaliation for participation in demonstrations and legal strikes, that the government created an environment which encouraged the sackings and in some cases directly urged companies to fire employees, that the authorities applied the law in a discriminatory manner, and that the vast majority of the firings were illegal under domestic and international law.


Union Leaders in Jail

On 21 October 2011, the Court of Appeal upheld the guilty verdict issued against the BTA leaders on 25 September 2011 for allegedly attempting to overthrow the ruling system by force and inciting hatred of the regime. The prison sentences were reduced to five years for Mahdi Abu Dheeb and six months for Jalila al-Salman. The lawyers of the BTA leaders filed an objection to the Supreme Court regarding the verdict.

On 7 November 2012, Jalila al-Salman, who had been released on bail, was summoned without explanation to the Investigation Department in Manama to serve the remaining time of her 6-month prison term. She was transferred to the Isa Town Women's Prison. Her lawyer and family were not allowed to accompany or contact her. Jalila al-Salman was finally released from prison on 25 November after serving her prison term. Mahdi Abu Dheeb is still serving a 5-year prison term. A final appeal is still pending.

Reliable reports indicate that both Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman were tortured in detention. Dheeb is also suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure, as well as heart and stomach problems.

Workers have not been Reinstated

While the tripartite committee was able to reinstate a significant number of all dismissed workers, according to the GFBTU, as many as 657 workers have still not been reinstated since the 2011 events, including trade union leaders. Furthermore, among those reinstated, some were rehired with inferior conditions and job statuses and on lower pay to those jobs they held prior to their dismissal. The ITUC is working to ensure that all workers are reinstated unconditionally to their previous jobs or, if this is not possible, to jobs with equal status and pay.

New Union Attacks the GFBTU, ITUC and ILO

It is believed that the government has recently backed the creation of an alternative and rival federation, Bahrain Labour Union Free Federation (BLUFF), to undermine the GFBTU as a legitimate, representative and democratic organisation. The BLUFF leadership, with a number of pro-government columnists and pro-government parliament members; has been spearheading a fierce defamation campaign against the GFBTU. These campaigns have accused the GFBTU leadership of treason, defaming Bahrain's image, and of being led by a foreign agenda. Recently, the BLUFF organised a rally outside a UN building in which the GFBTU, ITUC and ILO were denounced. In some cases, collective bargaining with GFBTU affiliates has been stopped without justification and been replaced by negotiations with management-backed trade unions.

Sectarian Discrimination on Rise

With growing regularity, jobs are now being denied to Shias. Some companies, such as Gulf Air, have actually fired Bahraini workers, targeting Shias specifically, under the pretext of restructuring. This was done unilaterally and without prior consultation with the GFBTU. At the same time, the companies are hiring non-Bahrainis and Sunnis with lesser qualifications and announcing new job vacancies. Furthermore, the Government has allegedly pressured many contractors to fire qualified Shia workers by denying them tenders. These violations are continuous and recurrent, and the labour legislation fails to protect workers fired on account of their religion.

Labour Law Reforms

In 2012, the government of Bahrain unilaterally and without notice amended the trade union law in an effort to silence the independent and democratic voice of Bahraini workers, the GFBTU. These recent amendments mark yet another serious attack on the fundamental rights of Bahraini workers, the passing of which was an obvious (and illegal) act of retaliation by the government for the exercise of trade union activity. The purpose of these amendments is clear – to further undermine the GFBTU and thereby eliminate an important voice for economic and social reform in Bahrain.

The amended articles of the trade union law include:

Article 8(1) requires that trade unions be "similar" to form a union federation. This prohibits the formation of multi-sectoral federations, a move in violation of principles of freedom of association. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association expressed "deep concern" that the provision was not in conformity with the principles of freedom of association.

Article 8(3) allows the Minister of Labour to determine which trade union may represent Bahraini workers in international fora and in national level bargaining. These rights belong (as they do in most countries) to the most representative trade union(s) – here the GFBTU. This appears to be an attempt by the government to limit or prohibit the GFBTU from further denouncing government-sponsored violations of trade union rights before the ILO. We fear this article could be used to promote government-backed unions that will parrot a defence of the government's anti-union and anti-democratic policies to the international community.

Article 10 allows for the establishment of multiple unions at company level. Legislation permitting multiple unions in an enterprise is fully consistent with international law. The timing of this reform, however, raises obvious questions about the government's motivations. Indeed, pro-government unions have been registered in workplaces since the law was adopted.

Article 17, includes language barring trade unionists who are held responsible for violations that led to the dissolution of a trade union organisation or its executive council from nominating themselves for membership of the executive council of any trade union organisation for five years from the date of decision or final judicial ruling on the dissolution of the union. While a law barring the election of a trade union leader convicted of a crime related to his or her integrity, such as corruption or fraud, may be appropriate, this amendment is an obvious attempt to remove the trade union leadership that participated in the political mobilisation in 2011. If it were used for that purpose, it would constitute a grave violation of the right to freedom of association. The ILO has similarly criticized this amendment.

What needs to happen in 2013?

  • Imprisoned trade unionists must be released.

  • Employers must unconditionally reinstate all workers dismissed for participating in pro-democracy protests.

  • Government must revise the labour law in consultation with the social partners.

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