Bahrain is a destination country for migrant workers subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Men and women from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, and Eritrea migrate voluntarily to Bahrain to work as domestic workers or as unskilled laborers in the construction and service industries. Some, however, face conditions of forced labor after arriving in Bahrain, through the use of such practices as unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, contract substitution, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. NGOs report that Bangladeshi unskilled workers are in particularly high demand in Bahrain and are considered exploitable since they do not typically protest difficult work conditions or low pay. Domestic workers are also considered to be highly vulnerable to forced labor and sexual exploitation because they are largely unprotected under the labor law. Government and NGO officials report that abuse and sexual assault of female domestic workers are significant problems in Bahrain; however, strict confinement to the household and intimidation by employers prevent these workers from reporting abuse.
In the last year, 40 suicides among migrant workers in Bahrain were reported, especially those from India, allegedly due at least in part to conditions of forced labor and debt bondage, including the withholding of wages and passport confiscation. A 2011 study by the Bahrain government’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) found that 65 percent of migrant workers had not seen their employment contract and that 89 percent were unaware of their terms of employment upon arrival in Bahrain. Many labor recruitment agencies in Bahrain and source countries require workers to pay high recruitment fees—a practice that makes workers highly vulnerable to forced labor once in Bahrain. The LMRA study found that 70 percent of foreign workers borrowed money or sold property in their home countries in order to secure a job in Bahrain. Some Bahraini employers illegally charge workers exorbitant fees to remain in Bahrain working for third-party employers (under the “free visa” arrangement). In previous years, the LMRA has estimated that approximately 10 percent of migrant workers were in Bahrain under illegal “free visa” arrangements—a practice that can contribute to debt bondage—while source country embassies put the figure at 20 percent. Women from Thailand, the Philippines, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Ukraine, China, Vietnam, and Eastern European states are subjected to forced prostitution in Bahrain.
The Government of Bahrain does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government did not, however, demonstrate evidence of overall increasing efforts to address human trafficking over the previous reporting period; therefore, Bahrain is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for a second consecutive year. The government made limited efforts to prosecute and punish perpetrators of forced labor and sex trafficking during the reporting period. There was no indication that the government took steps to institute a formal trafficking victim identification procedure and referral mechanism or to provide foreign victims with legal alternatives to their removal to countries where they faced hardship or retribution. Though a government-funded shelter began accepting female trafficking victims in 2012 and police identified some trafficking victims, trafficking victims continued to be susceptible to arrest, detention, and deportation for offenses directly related to being trafficked. Despite past commitments, the government’s migrant worker sponsorship—or “kafala”—system was not abolished and continued to give employers inordinate power over foreign workers and contributed to forced labor and debt bondage.
Recommendations for Bahrain: Enforce the 2008 anti-trafficking law, and significantly increase the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenses—particularly those involving forced labor—including convictions and punishment of trafficking offenders; actively enforce labor law protections for domestic workers; reform the sponsorship system to eliminate obstacles to migrant workers’ access to legal recourse for complaints of forced labor; institute and apply formal procedures to identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers who have fled from abusive employers and women in prostitution; institute a formal victim referral mechanism for law enforcement and other government officials to refer identified victims to protection services, and properly train officials on these referral mechanisms; ensure that identified victims of trafficking are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as illegal migration or prostitution; expand the government-run shelter to protect all victims of trafficking, including victims of forced labor and male victims of trafficking, and ensure that shelter staff receive anti-trafficking training and speak the languages of expatriate workers; and continue to publicly raise awareness of trafficking issues in the media and other outlets for foreign migrants, specifically domestic workers, in their native languages.
The government made few discernible efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenses during the reporting period, and it frequently treated potential cases of forced labor as labor disputes in civil court instead of treating them as serious crimes. Bahrain’s anti-trafficking law, Law No. 1 of 2008 with Respect to Trafficking in Persons, prohibits all forms of trafficking in persons and prescribes penalties ranging from three to 15 years’ imprisonment, which are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. The government reported it investigated seven trafficking cases, a significant decrease from the 18 investigations in the previous reporting period. Of these, six were sex trafficking cases and one was forced labor that also involved forced prostitution; in one case, the accused was acquitted. The criminal court prosecuted three trafficking offenders in this reporting period, but did not convict any trafficking offenders. Four of the cases remained open and under investigation at the end of the reporting period. During the year, the Thai government investigated and arrested in Thailand a Thai woman for operating a sex trafficking ring in Bahrain. In August 2012, the Government of Bahrain began a separate investigation of this trafficking ring, which was ongoing at the end of reporting period; however, the two Thai victims found in Bahrain were deported. NGOs and foreign embassy officials reported that the government failed to penalize and punish employers for forced labor offenses. Cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and other abuses—common indicators of trafficking—were typically treated as labor disputes and taken to civil court. These potential trafficking cases were rarely if ever investigated or taken to criminal court to prosecute sponsors and employers for trafficking offenses under Bahrain’s anti-trafficking law. The government did not report any investigations or prosecutions of government employees for alleged complicity in trafficking-related offenses during the reporting period. Bahraini government officials indicated there was a general lack of awareness of trafficking crimes among working-level police. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized an anti-trafficking seminar in July 2012 for government officials and local NGOs.
The Bahraini government made minimal progress in improving protection for victims of trafficking over the last year. The government continued to lack systematic procedures to identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as migrant domestic workers who have fled their employers or women arrested for prostitution, putting trafficking victims at risk for being punished for employment or immigration violations, and subjected to detention or deportation. Government officials failed to recognize that some contract violations or salary disputes (including withholding of salaries) are indicators of forced labor and required further investigation. A government-funded 120-bed NGO-run domestic violence shelter began to offer services to female victims of trafficking and their children, assisting 25 suspected trafficking victims in 2012. Shelter residents could freely leave the shelter unchaperoned. The government provided no shelter services for male trafficking victims. While law enforcement officials’ victim identification efforts remained ad hoc, police identified and referred 18 suspected victims of trafficking to shelter services in this reporting period. The majority of trafficking victims in Bahrain continued to seek shelter at their embassies or at the NGO-operated trafficking shelter, which reported assisting 124 female victims of abuse—some of whom were likely trafficking victims—in this reporting period. These women were referred primarily by the local police. Foreign embassies stated that when foreign victims of trafficking or abuse approached Bahraini labor officials for assistance, they were typically advised to seek assistance at their embassies, with no effort to proactively identify trafficking victims among those who make complaints or to refer potential forced labor cases to law enforcement for further investigation.
Bahraini government officials stated that they encouraged victims to participate in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers; however, workers typically did not file complaints against employers due to fear or ignorance of the law, distrust of the legal system and lengthy court procedures, inability to afford legal representation, lack of interpretation and translation, fear of losing residency permits during proceedings, and to avoid additional maltreatment at the hands of the employer. The government did not provide foreign victims with legal alternatives for their removal to countries where they faced retribution or hardship. The government also did not have policies to protect trafficking victims from punishment for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking. Migrant workers who were able to flee their abusive employers were frequently charged as “runaways,” sentenced to 10 days or more in detention, and deported.
The government made some efforts to prevent trafficking in persons during the reporting period. Despite past commitments and pledges, the government did not end the migrant worker sponsorship system, which contributed greatly to forced labor and debt bondage. The new Labor Law (Law No. 36), which was adopted in September 2012, provided some protections to domestic workers for the first time; it required that domestic workers be provided with a proper labor contract, which specified working hours, annual leave, and bonuses. It also required the employer to pay the worker at least once a month; however, it was unclear how this law will be enforced. Law 19 of 2006, amended in 2011, requires that a foreign worker complete a minimum of one year of work with an employer before transferring to a different employer. Under the law, in order to change sponsors, a foreign worker is required to give a minimum of 30 days’ notice to the sponsor and must also have a valid visa. The option to transfer sponsors was only available to workers who successfully completed mediation after filing a complaint with the Ministry of Labor, but it remained unavailable to workers whose cases were not resolved. This law lengthened the minimum amount of time a worker must remain with an employer, thereby expanding the length of time a worker could be vulnerable to forced labor. The Ministerial Order against the withholding of workers’ passports—a common practice that restricts the mobility of migrant workers and contributes to forced labor—was not effectively enforced. Additionally, although a worker must file a complaint with the police against an employer for withholding a passport, police did not have the authority to arrest the employer for non-compliance. Manpower agencies were poorly regulated or penalized for abuses committed against workers, and labor inspectors reportedly failed to properly inspect work camps. There were unofficial reports that labor inspectors were paid by employers or manpower agencies not to report labor abuses.
The government’s interagency Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons met at least once a month during the reporting period, hosted two national seminars to raise awareness about trafficking, and participated in several regional trainings and workshops. The committee also conducted a trafficking survey, though the results of the survey were unknown. The Committee’s overall effectiveness was hampered by slow interagency processes, a lack of strategic goals, and no mandate to proactively address trafficking issues. The LMRA continued to disseminate trafficking-related information to vulnerable workers through its website and media outlets, including a weekly radio show in English, as well as podcasts in Hindi and Malayalam, to educate workers on their rights. The Ministry of Interior continued to operate a toll-free hotline for trafficking victims, but officials declined to provide statistics on the use of the hotline. The LMRA also operates an abuse hotline during working hours, though it is unknown if any trafficking victims were identified through this number. The government reported no efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex or forced labor during the year.