1674 or 179? Bahrain’s Continuing Labour Disputes

In its bid to get the F1, Bahrain has been keen to project the image that it is implementing the recommendations set out in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry report. One such recommendation involves addressing the issue of employees (both public and private) who have been dismissed for exercising their right to free speech/assembly. Rather obligingly, the BBC recently ran a piece entitled ‘Bahrain labour ministry helps sacked F1 workers’. However, this positive headline detracts from the fact that hundreds of people may still be out of work as a result of being unfairly dismissed following last year’s unrest.  
With regards to those employees dismissed because of exercising their right to freedom of expression, the BICI stated the following:
a.To ensure that the remaining dismissed employees have not
been dismissed because of the exercise of their right to
freedom of expression, opinion, association or assembly.
b. To use all its powers to ensure that public corporations and
other employers who dismissed employees for failure to
appear for work at the time of the demonstrations treat them
in a way that is at least equal to that provided by the GoB to
civil servant
The BICI report also stated:
During the events of February/March 2011, 2,075 public sector employees and 2,464 private sector employees were dismissed for their support for or participation in strikes during the protests on the grounds that their strikes were unlawful because they were unrelated to labour issues. It appears that the strikes that occurred during February/March 2011 were within the permissible bounds of the law. According to the latest information provided to the Commission by the CSB, of the 2,075 public sector employees who were dismissed, 1,682 were reinstated. The Commission has also been informed that the Ministry of Labour is working to have dismissed private sector employees reinstated following HM King Hamad’s speech on 28 August 2011
The BICI report was never clear on how many private sector employees were reinstated, having no option but to put their faith in the King. However, it was announced in the press yesterday that of the 2, 462 private sector employees who were dismissed following the events of last year, only 179 remained out of work. This reassuringly low figure seems to have been generated in the following way.
937 have actually got their jobs back
608 have been given the ‘go-ahead’ for reinstatement
291 have reportedly taken employment at other companies
44 dismissed employees refused to be reinstated
202 did not file a complaint about being dismissed
194 of those dismissed unrelated to the events of last year
5 of those dismissed worked for companies that are now closed
2 employees given go-ahead but are pending security approval
If you add all these up and subtract the total from 2, 462 you get 179, a fairly small amount when you compare it to the figure 1,674, which is the number of private sector employees the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions still claims to be out of work. This does not include the figure of 854 public sector employees who are still dismissed or suspended. So that potentially means that there are 2528 people who are still dismissed or suspended. Despite the inevitable margin of error and differences in how the numbers are counted, the discrepancy between the Ministry of Labour’s figures and the GFBTU’s figures is very alarming. An important to point to add is that it is not clear whether 1674 refers just to those without work, or the number of those who did not return to the position they held before they were dismissed/suspended.
In addition to rather ambiguous counting techniques (especially with regards to those who had been given the ‘go-ahead’ to be reinstated) the figures do not accurately describe the conditions faced by many of those returning to work. Many have had to either accept lower pay, sign loyalty pledges or final-warning slips, return to different or less senior positions. Some people continue to have pay cuts even though they have been reinstated.
Although it’s hard to find entirely reliable statistics relating to these dismissals, it would be fair to say that the official figure of 179 is woefully misleading. There are also people who believe that many aspects of reinstatements, such as giving people jobs that don’t befit their former status, are done to humiliate them.  Some companies would argue that the dismissals or issuance of final warning letters were done in accordance with the contract or internal codes set by the company. Yet the commission is clear in saying that matters of due process in dismissals/suspensions were not universally applied (1447). They also stated that any remaining dismissed employees should not have been dismissed due to exercising their right to freedom of speech. Whether or not this translates as ‘such employees should be reinstated’  is unclear, though this scathing letter from the International Trade Union Confederation back in November would suggest that the GOB are still lagging in their commitments to addressing labour disputes.
All this comes on the back of the government’s attempts to weaken Bahrain’s trade unions, first with the continued failure to reinstate a number of union leaders/attempts to put more pliant figures in their place, and also with several amendments to labour laws, the most important of which being the prohibition of the establishment of a general labour federation. Another important change includes permitting only the Minister of Labour to decide who represents Bahraini workers at international and national level bargaining. As well as these moves to concentrate more powers in the hands of Bahrain’s ministerial elite, articles were introduced that would potentially be exploited to make sure union leaders participating in the unrest would be unable to hold office in other unions for five years. (For a full list of amendments go here) Furthermore, many fear that  ALBA’s (who employ about 3000 people) decision to withdraw from the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions will contribute to the weakening of workers’ bargaining power.
It is also worth considering what impact Bahrain’s economic woes are having on the private sector’s decision to rehire employees. One must hope it’s not some form of crisis capitalism, one that uses the economic downturn as an excuse to downsize. Indeed, a similar practice was observed at the Bahrain Teachers College, where the Dean issued a memo suggesting that they take advantage of existing unrest to dismiss failing students.  Whether or not some companies employed this tactic is hard to determine, yet what is clear is that failure to reinstate employees will only exacerbate problems by contributing to socio-economic issues, further reinforcing people’s beliefs that the government are not serious about reform.

If you want to know more about labour issues in Bahrain, speak to @Khalil_Bohazza