BAHRAIN: Tier 2
Bahrain is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Men and women from South, Central, Southeast, and East Asia; East and West Africa; the Middle East; and other countries migrate voluntarily to Bahrain to work as domestic workers or as laborers in the construction and service industries. In recent years, NGOs observed a greater influx of workers from parts of Africa. Some migrant workers face forced labor after arriving in Bahrain, experiencing unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, contract substitution, non-payment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. Withholding of workers’ identity cards and passports and intimidation by employers prevents some workers from reporting abuse. “Free visa” holders, who work for an employer who is not their sponsor and are therefore working illegally, are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Government and NGO officials report physical abuse and sexual assault of female domestic workers, who are often strictly confined to the household, are significant problems in Bahrain. NGOs report male Bangladeshi unskilled workers are in high demand and are considered by employers to be exploitable as they typically do not protest difficult work conditions or low pay. Domestic workers are highly vulnerable to forced labor and sexual exploitation because they are largely unprotected under the labor law. In recent years, reports of suicides among migrant workers have been associated with forced labor, debt bondage, and isolation. Migrant workers did not always have access to their employment contracts and many were unaware of their terms of employment. A large percentage of foreign workers borrowed money or sold property in their home countries to secure their jobs, increasing their vulnerability to debt bondage. Women from Asia, the Middle East, and Eastern European states are subjected to forced prostitution in Bahrain.
The Government of Bahrain does not fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. During the year, the government identified an increased number of trafficking victims; continued to refer victims to services, including to a newly established shelter; made modest efforts to prosecute and convict trafficking offenders, including a government official; launched a hotline to report migrant worker abuse; and continued awareness-raising efforts. The government provided anti-trafficking training for more than 120 officials, including prosecutors, immigration officials, labor officials, and police officers. However, among hundreds of reported labor violations in Bahrain, efforts to investigate and prosecute serious trafficking crimes or identify potential forced labor victims remained minimal. Corruption and official complicity, especially in facilitating the “free visa” scheme, remained a concern in the reporting period. Despite past commitments and pledges, the government did not abolish the sponsorship system, which contributed to forced labor and debt bondage in the country. The government continued to arrest, detain, and deport potential trafficking victims.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BAHRAIN:
Significantly increase the investigation, prosecution, and conviction of traffickers, particularly those involving forced labor; abolish or significantly amend provisions of the sponsorship system, including taking steps to eliminate the “free visa” scheme; vigorously investigate cases involving passport retention and non-payment of wages; continue to institute and apply formal procedures to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers and women in prostitution; institute a formal victim referral mechanism for law enforcement and other government officials to refer identified victims to protection services; ensure identified trafficking victims are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, such as illegal migration or prostitution; expand labor law protections to include domestic workers and actively enforce those laws; ensure shelter staff receive anti-trafficking training and have appropriate resources to communicate with expatriate workers that speak other languages; eliminate obstacles to migrant workers’ access to legal recourse; continue to train officials on the anti-trafficking law and victim identification; 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 modest efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenders. Bahrain’s anti-trafficking law, Law No.1 of 2008, 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. Although withholding a worker’s passport is illegal and carries a financial penalty under a ministerial order, a worker is required to file a complaint with the police or the Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), which can only refer a complaint to the court if the employer refuses to return the passport. According to NGO sources, employers accused of passport retention often claimed a worker’s passport was lost. A 2014 royal decree prohibiting and penalizing the falsification of immigration documents enables authorities to prosecute Bahraini companies that illegally obtain work permits; however, it was unclear whether the decree was implemented during the reporting period.
The government reported it investigated 18 trafficking cases involving 28 suspects during the reporting period, eight of which were forced labor cases and 10 sex trafficking cases, compared to 21 investigations the previous reporting period. The government convicted 17 traffickers for sex trafficking; sentences were usually 10 years’ imprisonment and a fine of BD 2000 ($5,300), and deportation after serving their jail sentence for non-Bahrainis. There were five additional cases being prosecuted at the end of the reporting period, including three sex trafficking and two forced labor cases.
Cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and other abuses were often treated as labor violations and resolved through arbitration; a worker could file a complaint against the employer in labor court if arbitration was not successful. LMRA could refuse to issue new work visas to an employer until its open cases were resolved. Only particularly egregious cases were referred to the public prosecutor under the anti-trafficking law. In 2015, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD) received 746 complaints of non-payment of wages covering 945 migrant workers, and successfully arbitrated 255 of those cases. It referred four cases of non-payment of wages to the public prosecutor. Most of the cases resolved by MOLSD involved wage payment delays of one to two months. LMRA employed 63 inspectors in enforcement of the anti-trafficking law. According to LMRA, embassies could also inspect their nationals’ living situations, and all workers had the right to file complaints with MOLSD. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) funded anti-trafficking training sessions for 50 officials annually at the Royal Police Academy. Government officials reported a general lack of awareness of trafficking crimes among working-level police.
The government made modest efforts to protect victims. The government identified 90 trafficking victims in 2015, compared with 50 victims in 2014. The National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons (national committee) opened the new Migrant Worker Service Center and Shelter in November 2015, with a capacity of up to 120 victims in separate men’s and women’s sections. The service center maintains offices for LMRA’s migrant worker protection unit, physical and mental health professionals, and a representative from the police anti-trafficking unit and provides a training room for shelter residents to learn new skills and a conference space for the national committee. Trafficking victims in Bahrain also sought shelter at their embassies or at an NGO-operated trafficking shelter.
Labor Law No. 36 provides some protection to domestic workers, requiring employers provide domestic workers a labor contract specifying working hours, annual leave, and bonuses and to pay the worker at least once a month. Nonetheless, the government did not report any efforts to issue guidance on implementing the law. LMRA was responsible for coordinating with other relevant ministries, referring trafficking cases for prosecution, and conducting interviews of victims in collaboration with the respective embassies. When investigating claims of abuse from domestic workers that ran away from their employers, some police stations reportedly followed up immediately, while others waited days or weeks before attempting to contact the employer. Inspection agencies cited difficulties conducting unannounced inspections of domestic worker living situations and investigating claims of abuse of domestic workers without receipt of an official complaint, due to cultural norms surrounding privacy in homes. This failure to immediately investigate claims of abuse and potential trafficking crimes left victims at risk of further exploitation and without protection services.
The MOI’s anti-trafficking division provided law enforcement officials with written procedures, developed in partnership with an international organization, on taking statements and referring victims to services such as medical care and shelter. However, police identification of victims and implementation of those procedures continued to be inconsistent across different stations. Many police officials across the country did not systematically and proactively identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers who fled abusive employers or women arrested for prostitution. More than 80 government officials, including inspectors, health officials, police officers, social workers, shelter personnel, and prosecutors were trained in December 2015 on victim assistance and referral procedures for specialized services.
NGOs reported workers who entered the country illegally or under false pretenses often did not benefit from protections in the law. The government sometimes punished trafficking victims for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking. Some migrant workers who fled abusive situations were unaware that they should contact police to report the abuse, or chose not to due to their status as a “free visa” holder. Cases could be difficult or expensive to resolve; workers who could not resolve the cases were often deported. NGOs assessed punishment of trafficking victims had decreased in recent years.
Bahraini officials stated they encouraged victims to participate in the investigations and prosecutions of their traffickers, and the public prosecutor was responsible for protecting trafficking victims during preliminary investigations and court proceedings. The labor law stipulates foreign workers may change sponsors during investigations and court proceedings. It was unclear how many trafficking victims whose cases were not being adjudicated were able to change sponsors. Workers rarely filed complaints against employers due to distrust of the legal system, lengthy court procedures, inability to afford legal representation, lack of interpretation and translation services, concern over potential loss of residence permits during proceedings, and fear of additional maltreatment at the hands of the employer. The government assisted with the repatriation of trafficking victims during the reporting period. The national committee reported a new policy was implemented allowing foreign nationals identified as trafficking victims to obtain alternative employment without being subjected to the 30-day restrictions placed on migrant workers.
The government maintained efforts to prevent human trafficking by continuing its awareness campaigns targeting both migrant workers and Bahraini employers. The national committee met regularly during the reporting period and focused primarily on expanding victim assistance, including the newly established shelter, broadening training for government personnel, and raising awareness. From July to December 2015, LMRA held an amnesty for “free visa” holders in which they could legalize their employment with a new sponsor or return to their country and retain the right to return to Bahrain legally in the future. More than half of the “free visa” holders took advantage of the amnesty; approximately 32,000 legalized their status and approximately 10,000 left Bahrain. In November 2015, the national committee launched a hotline for reporting abuse of migrant workers in English, Hindi, and six other Indian languages. The hotline served as a resource to educate workers about their rights and the services available. The government held the second annual Bahrain Awareness Awards in November 2015, a public awareness campaign focused on fair treatment of domestic workers. The awareness-raising competition targeted Bahraini youth aged 16 to 26 years, calling for submission via social media of photos, drawings, short movies, or posters to encourage respect for the rights of domestic workers.
LMRA continued to make available pamphlets on workers’ rights, sponsored advertisements on public transit, and provided mobile phones with SIM cards to each foreign worker upon arrival at the Bahrain Airport. The Expatriate Protection Unit within LMRA maintained its role as an information hub and service center for trafficking victims and potential victims. LMRA continued overseeing domestic workers during the reporting period. Despite past commitments and pledges, the government did not abolish the sponsorship system, which contributed greatly to forced labor and debt bondage. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex or forced labor. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.