The political and labor scenes have always been intertwined in Bahrain. Political grievances have been the impetus for labor strikes and actions and vice versa, as organized labor has played a significant role in popular uprisings like in 1965, 1972, and later on. The labor movement’s engagement with the pro-democracy uprising in 2011 was a natural course of decades of labor struggle towards better economic, social and political realities for the workforce in Bahrain, to which the government responded with force and oppression.
Trade unions, mainly the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), which represents more than 70 trade unions in Bahrain, and the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA), called for a number of strikes during the 2011 Uprising in protest to the government’s excessive use of force against peaceful protesters, on the one hand, and calling on the improvement of the socio-economic conditions of workers, on the other hand. In response, the government has carried out a campaign of harassment and oppression against trade unionists. Participation in these strikes and supporting demonstrations has led to imprisoning union leaders, dismissing and prosecuting hundreds of workers from both the public and private sectors, the majority of them were trade unionists, and banning BTA in April 2011.
The government claimed that these strikes were unlawful because they were “unrelated to labor issues.” However, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) set forth in its report that they were “within the permissible bounds of the law,” and recommended that the government ensures that the dismissals of employees are not because “the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, opinion, association or assembly.” In the aftermath of the 2011 Uprising, 26 percent of the trade union leaders were dismissed from their jobs, where the GFBTU submitted their names to the BICI.¹
On 12 June 2011, the Joint Committee of Major Companies in Bahrain issued a communication to the GFBTU asking its executive council to “resign immediately or face civil and criminal prosecution.” This committee includes companies wholly or partly owned by the Bahraini government. The Secretary-General of the International Labor Organization (ILO) condemned the public call and considered that “the threat of criminal and civil prosecution by enterprises wholly or partly owned by the Government is an act of intimidation which takes Bahrain still further away from the course of respect for trade union rights.”
The violations were not limited to dismissals and intimidation, but also included bringing criminal charges against union leaders. In September 2011, Mahdi Abu Deeb, the president of BTA, was sentenced to ten years in prison by a military court on charges of “using his position within the BTA to call for a strike by teachers, halting the educational process, inciting hatred of the regime and attempting to overthrow the ruling system by force, possessing pamphlets and disseminating fabricated stories and information.” Jalila al-Salman, his deputy, received a three-year sentence. Their sentences were reduced to five years and six months, respectively, by a civilian court of appeal in October 2012. Both were tortured and ill-treated in custody. Rula al-Saffar, head of the Bahrain Nursing Society, was detained for five months in 2011, during which she was tortured and ill-treated and released on 21 August 2011. A military court convicted and sentenced al-Saffar to 15 years in prison on charges of “incitement to overthrow the Bahraini government, spreading false information, and participating in an illegal public gathering.” Her conviction was overturned by a civilian court in June 2012. The government has also commenced prosecutions against leaders at Gulf Air, DHL, GARMCO, BAPCO, among others, “with the clear intent of undermining the union.”
On more than one occasion, the government unlawfully interfered with the internal affairs of trade unions and professional associations. For example, in April 2011, authorities replaced Bahrain Medical Society’s board members with a pro-government board. In November the same year, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development canceled the results of Bahrain Lawyers’ Society election after the group elected perceived government critics to the board.
On 15 June 2011, a number of Workers’ delegates filed a complaint under Article 26 of the ILO Constitution against the government of Bahrain regarding its non-observance of the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111), which it ratified in 2000. The complaint argued that the dismissals in the wake of the 2011 Uprising (approximately 4,600) were based on the workers’ political opinions, beliefs, and trade union affiliation. In March 2012, the government of Bahrain, GFBTU, and the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) signed a Tripartite Agreement concerning the issues raised in the framework of the Complaint and a Supplementary Tripartite Agreement in March 2014.
The Tripartite Committee set up to settle the dismissals has helped reinstate or compensate the majority of the dismissed workers. Nonetheless, in September 2018, 55 cases were still pending, and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the GFBTU maintained that there were irregularities in the implementation of the Tripartite Agreement. Some workers were reinstated in lower positions than the ones they held before dismissal, and some were arbitrarily dismissed shortly after being reinstated. Others accepted early retirement under pressure or did not receive proper compensation for losing their income during the dismissal period and other violations of the Tripartite Agreement. The ITUC and GFBTU also reported that after the signing of the Tripartite Agreement of 2014, 17 new cases of dismissals occurred for the same reasons that led to the dismissals of 2011, i.e., political opinions, beliefs, and trade union affiliation.
The crackdown on unionists for participating and supporting the 2011 Uprising stemmed from what has been perceived by the government as engaging in “political activities,” which is banned under Article 20 of the Workers Trade Union Law of 2002. However, the ILO has established a clear link between trade union rights and civil liberties. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association has set out clearly that “the rights conferred upon workers and employers’ organizations must be based on respect for those civil liberties which have been enunciated in particular in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and that the absence of these civil liberties removes all meaning from the concept of trade union rights.”² It also pointed to the importance of a climate of freedom and security for trade unions to carry out their activities, and in case they do not enjoy these rights, “trade unions and employers’ organizations would be justified in demanding that these freedoms and the right to exercise them be recognized and that these demands be considered as coming within the scope of legitimate trade union activities.”³
Violations of union rights did not end with quelling the 2011 Uprising, as the government has continued its attempt to mold and influence the labor movement through amending Workers Trade Union Law, which has paved the way for new unions more conciliatory with the government to emerge. The GFBTU was the only labor federation in Bahrain until July 2012, when a new trade union federation was established, the Bahrain Labor Union Free Federation (BLUFF), and it has attracted thousands of workers since. The new BLUFF claimed that the GFBTU has become “too political” and “not labor-related anymore” and considered the strike called for by GFBTU in March 2011 unlawful. Many were skeptical about the creation of the BLUFF, and experts considered it an attempt to “split the union movement.” The emergence of the BLUFF in the aftermath of the 2011 Uprising, denouncing the GFBTU and making its main goal to distance workers from the popular struggle, raised questions about the purpose of its establishment and relationship with the government, especially that several unions representing workers at major companies with ties to the government joined the BLUFF.
In February 2018, the GFBTU reported that the BCCI rejected the establishment of a union supported by the GFBTU but accepted the creation of another which was promoted by the BLUFF. The BLUFF represented itself as an alternative to GFBTU, but its relationship with the government is rightly questionable. The ITUC’s representative, which is the world’s largest trade union federation representing 200 million workers in 163 countries, and which the GFBTU is its affiliate in Bahrain, slammed the BLUFF and considered it “a government-orchestrated trade union undermining the activities of a legitimate, free and democratic trade union.”
In Bahrain, the law places significant restrictions on the trade union rights. It stipulates prior approval by the government to establish a trade union. It strictly regulates the administration of trade unions under Articles 12 to 16 of the law and bans unions from investing money in financial or real estate activities or engaging in political activities. The right to strike is recognized by the law but strictly regulated as well. The law requires an excessive prior notice period before carrying out a strike, which should not be conducted while the dispute is seen by the committee of conciliation and arbitration, meaning that authorities or employers may refer a dispute to arbitration to prevent or end a strike. Besides, the law prohibits strikes in a wide range of “vital and important” facilities. The Prime Minister’s Decree No. (62) of 2006 outlines 12 types of facilities as “vital,” while the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association identified only four types of vital facilities.
Although public sector workers can join private-sector trade unions, the law prohibits trade unions in the public sector, and civil servants do not enjoy the right to collective bargaining. Domestic workers and persons regarded as such are not allowed to join or establish a trade union since they are excluded from the labor law, albeit forming 10.2 percent of the total Bahraini workforce. The amendment of 2011 to Workers Trade Union Law has even placed further restrictions on unionism.
The Decree-Law No. (35) of 2011 amended several provisions of the Workers Trade Union Law of 2002. The amendment permits the establishment of federations only of sectoral unions (similar professions or sectors), while the law originally stipulated the establishment of a federation from two or more unions with no restrictions. This amendment is not in line with agreed-upon international standards concerning the freedom of association at work set out in ILO Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (No. 87) of 1948, which stipulates that workers and employers have the right to establish and join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization, draw up their constitution and rules, elect their representatives in full freedom, organize their administration and activities, and establish and join federations and confederations. 4 Moreover, how can a sectoral federation represent all workers in Bahrain in international and regional fora?
The other controversial amendment was empowering the Minister of Labor to name the Trade Union Federation representing Bahraini workers in collective bargaining and international fora, whereas the original text (Article 8) stipulated that the Trade Union Federation that most representative of Bahraini workers in terms of the number of workers belonging to the trade unions who are members of the Federation is the one who represents Bahrain’s workers at the international level. Giving the Minister of Labor this power without restrictions can be instrumentalized to isolate Trade Union Federations challenging the government. The ITUC in its submission to the UN Universal Periodic Review on Bahrain in 2011 expressed concern of this amendment by stating “we fear this article could be used to promote government-backed unions that will parrot a defense of the government’s anti-union and anti-democratic policies to the international community.”
Article 10 of the law was amended to allow the establishment of multiple unions at the enterprise level “provided that the union is not established on a sectarian, religious or ethnic basis.” Although this amendment is consistent with the ILO Freedom of Association Convention (No. 87), it has been criticized, especially in the Bahraini context. Many expressed their concerns that “trade unions would be transformed into political and sectarian alignments, which would harm the labor movement and put the unions out of their right path,” and that union pluralism in an enterprise “may lead to the exploitation of that right by some employers to establish a union that serves their interests.” The ITUC also aired concern that “the government will look for and find trade unions with a large Shia majority – which is to be expected given that the vast majority of working-class Bahrainis are in fact Shia. The law could be invoked to deregister trade unions claiming that they were established along religious or sectarian lines even where there is no evidence of any such intent.”
A new paragraph was also added to Article 17 stating the following: “Those who are proven responsible for the violations that have called for the dissolution of a trade union or its board of directors are prohibited from nominating themselves for membership in the board of directors of any trade union except after five years from the date of the issuance of a decision or a final court ruling on dissolution.” By contextualizing this amendment with the campaign waged against the union leaderships during the 2011 Uprising, it can be said that this amendment implies an intention on the part of the government to further victimize union leaderships and prevent them from retaking their positions for the longest possible period.
Apart from the legal restrictions, in practice, the rights of trade unionists are arbitrarily and repeatedly violated by the government and employers. There have been many reports of travel bans issued against trade unionists to prevent them from attending international events and conferences. For example, Jalila al-Salman, mentioned earlier, was banned from leaving the country, and her passport was confiscated in Bahrain International Airport in June 2016, as she was heading to Oslo to attend the Svensson Award ceremony. In June 2017, members of the GFBTU were banned from leaving Bahrain, as they were heading to Geneva to attend the International Labor Conference. A prohibition had been placed on their departure.
In November 2015, Khalil Ibrahim Fardan, president of the General Union of Port Workers in Bahrain (GUPWB), was dismissed from his job due to his trade union work. The GFBTU believed that his dismissal was “aimed at preventing him from performing his role as a union leader.” In October 2017, a company dismissed all trade union representatives following a complaint lodged before the Minister of Labor concerning the payment of seven months’ wage arrears. The company arbitrarily dismissed trade unionists and refused to consider the Ministry of Labor as a sponsor of the agreement and to pay the outstanding wage arrears.
In November 2018, the GFBTU reported that the Gulf Aluminium Rolling Mill (Garmco) and DHL have threatened workers who joined the GFBTU with retaliatory measures. Besides, authorities frequently ban the May 1st rallies organized by unions, attributing the ban ambiguously to security reasons, as happened in 2015 and 2017. In a nutshell, during the 2011 Uprising and its aftermath, Bahrain witnessed grave trade union rights violations, and they have not stopped. Since 2011, there have been many reports of unionist dismissals on dubious grounds, travel bans issued against unionists, pressuring workers to join certain unions, and employers refusing to negotiate with unions, in addition to controversial legal amendments and attempts to infiltrate the labor movement, among other violations.
The right to freedom of association is an integral part of the fundamental human rights stipulated in international law. Trade union rights cannot be discussed in isolation from the general human rights context in Bahrain. Addressing union rights violations requires a comprehensive approach to the human rights situation as a whole. Improving the socio-economic conditions of workers, which is the essence of trade unionism, cannot be achieved in an atmosphere of oppression and fear of expressing opinions, criticizing, and calling for change. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association outlined this connection explicitly by stating that “a genuinely free and independent trade union movement can only develop where fundamental human rights are respected.” 5
1 The Report of Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) 2011, Para. 1396.
2 Compilation of decisions of the Committee on Freedom of Association (General Principles), Principle 68, accessible at https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:70002:0::NO:70002:P70002_HIER_ELEMENT_ID,P70002_HIER_LEVEL:3942675,1
3 Ibid., Principle 75.
4 Articles 2, 3, 5, and 6 of the ILO Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention (No. 87) of 1948, accessible at https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C087
5 Compilation of decisions of the Committee on Freedom of Association (General Principles), Principle 71.