Politics impede Bahrain’s labor movement

Political loyalties and the existence of a large migrant labor force have prevented the emergence of a strong labor movement in Bahrain.

al-monitor A man sticks a poster on the door of the headquarters of General Federation of Workers Trade Unions in Bahrain (GFWTUB) during a visit by Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, director of the International Labor Standards Department of the UN International Labor Organization (ILO), in Manama, Oct. 7, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Stringer.

Topics covered

workers union, migrant workers, labor unions, labor market, economy, economic stagnation, bahraini uprising, bahrain

Jan 27, 2014

Just like other civil society organizations, the Bahraini trade union movement faces weighty challenges, especially following the uprisings that started as of February 2011. Contrary to the emergence of independent trade union movements that raised slogans of freedom, democracy and dignity in some Arab Spring countries before or during the popular uprisings, the Bahraini trade union movement witnessed a setback. Following the popular uprising events, trade unions included worker groups that supported suppression and consecrated single-person rule. A campaign was launched against the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), which represents the trade union movement independently from the regime at the very least, aiming at reducing its roles in Bahrain.

Formation

In 2002, the Bahraini trade union movement, represented by the General Committee for Bahraini Workers (GCBW), became GFBTU. It played a key role in putting Bahraini workers within the framework of trade union action. Despite the conflicts that marred its foundation among trade union executives belonging to traditional political forces, which later joined political associations with various Arab political orientations (leftists, nationalists, Islamists), GFBTU managed to consolidate trade union action and gained a prominent Arab and international reputation. The Bahraini labor movement waged several battles in order to acquire workers’ rights, such as the right to strike, which is restricted by conditions impossible to meet and controlled by the prime minister, and the right to form trade unions in the public sector, which to this day remains banned. However, it did not succeed in creating a workers' situation supporting the fight for these rights. This was probably due to the fact that Bahraini society is not aware of the importance of trade union action, which is restricted to a group of activists close to certain political orientations.

On the other hand, the trade union movement managed to strengthen its position at the national level. GFBTU became the sole legitimate representative of Bahrain’s workers. It became represented in some tripartite sectors (public, private and civil sectors), such as the Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), the Public Authority for Social Insurance (PASI), the Supreme Council for Vocational Training and other organizations. It was also represented at the regional and international levels, becoming a member in a number of international trade union federations. A GFBTU member was a board member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) for two consecutive terms.

Another politically based federation

As the uprising flared up in Bahrain on Feb. 14, 2011, GFBTU was the first to call for a genuine dialogue between the government and the political forces in order to overcome the crisis plaguing Bahrain as of that day. It also called for two general strikes after the first and second military attacks against protesters to clear them from Pearl Roundabout. Following these attacks, the government started settling accounts with civil society organizations. It dissolved some professional associations, such as the Bahraini Teachers Association (BTA), whose president has yet to be released from prison, and dismissed the board of directors of others, such as the Doctors’ Association. The government started reshaping civil society organizations by creating substitute civil organizations; it attacked the trade union movement and started launching defamation campaigns against its leaders in the press and on TV. This coincided with a wide-scale layoff campaign, with more than 4,000 workers being laid off according to GFBTU estimates. GFBTU’s role in the tripartite councils, such as PASI, was marginalized. Finally, Bahrain Labor Union Free Federation (BLUFF) was established, declaring a split in the trade union movement on the grounds of political interests. It is worth mentioning that one of the most prominent BLUFF leaders contributed to the workers' layoff campaigns in 2011.

Where are the workers’ interests?

Regardless of the strength or weakness of this or that federation, the sure thing is that the working class is the most damaged party. Their representing organizations were split into sectarian or political groups, and the worker-employer conflict turned into a worker-worker conflict. For instance, the government — unilaterally and without consulting its social partners — introduced a number of amendments to the trade unions law. It also promulgated the new labor law, seen by a lawyer who specializes in labor issues as the worst labor law to be issued in the history of Bahrain. This is in addition to rampant corruption in PASI, as per the reports issued by the National Audit Office. In spite of all this, both federations failed to take higher interests into consideration and did not take any joint or individual initiatives to defend the workers’ interests. Furthermore, as if the government were an unbiased party in this polarized situation, the labor minister called on BLUFF and GFBTU “to work faster and more effectively to overcome any differences, and combine their efforts and energies to address divisions and promote an atmosphere of consensus, harmony and collaboration in the various work and production sites.”

On a different note, pro rata to their contribution to the labor market, migrant workers thwart any trade union movement from exerting pressure for improving work and production conditions. Indeed, the government exploited these workers, who came to Bahrain to improve their living conditions, in the ongoing political and social struggle.

The bottom line is that the Bahraini trade union movement is witnessing a period of stagnation and retrogression that may last for a while. This is due first to the Bahraini rentier economy, controlled by a small group which is the sole party disposing of its revenues and buying loyalties through [this economy]. The second reason is sectarian polarization, in which the government played a key role, rendering sectarian affiliation a standard for citizenship and destroying unity over economic and social demands. The third reason is that trade union entities have a weak ideological and practical formation on the one hand, while on the other hand they suffer from severe competition with low-paid immigrant labor subjected to arbitrary work conditions. This makes [the migrant workforce] a readily available alternative to the national workforce, able at any time to cover employment needs in case of any trade union movement initiated by the working class.

The above article was translated from As-Safir Al-Arabi, a special supplement of As-Safir newspaper whose content is provided through a joint venture of As-Safir and Al-Monitor.

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