Bahrain violates workers' rights, says US

Bahrain has violated the terms of its free trade agreement with the United States by failing to protect workers' rights, according to a US government investigation.

In a report published yesterday, the US Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA) found that trade unionists and leaders in Bahrain "have been targeted for dismissal, and in some cases prosecuted, in part for their role in organising and participating in the March 2011 general strike, and that dismissals also reflected discrimination based, in part, on political opinion and activities. 

The report also found evidence of religious (sectarian) discrimination against Shia workers. 

The findings mean Bahrain is in breach of the labour chapter of its free trade agreement. The investigation was prompted by a complaint from the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

The OTLA report makes a series of recommendations which its says would "facilitate compliance by the government of Bahrain with its commitments":

1. Explicitly prohibit discrimination in employment and occupation in its labour law, including based on political opinion and religion; 

2. Repeal the ban on multi-sectoral labour federations;

3. Amend the bans on public sector union formation, on trade unions engaging in political activities, on strikes in “strategic undertakings,” and on individuals who have been convicted of any violations that lead to dissolution of a trade union or executive council from holding union leadership posts, to ensure consistency with international standards;

4. Amend criminal sanctions for striking or encouraging others to strike in the public sector or in undertakings related to public services or public service requirements, consistent with international standards;

5. Allow workers’ organisations to select the most representative labour organisation to represent them in international fora and national-level collective bargaining; 

6. Implement the commitments of the Minister of Labour’s February 2012 plan and the Government of Bahrain’s Tripartite Agreement, to the maximum extent possible, to ensure reinstatement of workers dismissed in response to the March 2011 strike to the same or equivalent positions without preconditions or discrimination and with back pay due and other remuneration owed or another appropriate compensation package;

7. Review all criminal cases against trade unionists and union leaders and drop outstanding charges for those whose charges do not consist of advocacy of violence and stem from organising, participating in, or encouraging the March 2011 general strike, consistent with the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendation on such cases;

8. Refrain from engagement in or support of activities undermining freedom of association, in particular against the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions and its leadership; 

9. Investigate allegations of and sanction, as appropriate, employer acts of intimidation and harassment of trade union members and leaders and other similar employer actions to weaken workers’ organisations.

It seems unlikely that the government of Bahrain will see fit to comply with most of these, since depriving workers of their rights forms a major part of its strategy to contain unrest.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 December 2012.