Bahrain

Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Tier 1

BAHRAIN: Tier 1

The Government of Bahrain fully meets the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking. The government made key achievements during the reporting period; therefore Bahrain was upgraded to Tier 1. These achievements included the government’s first conviction of a Bahraini national for forced labor and first conviction of a complicit government official. The government began implementing a new nation-wide referral mechanism, and it identified and provided care to more than 30 trafficking victims. It also took concrete steps to reform the sponsorship system by introducing a program to allow some undocumented workers to self-sponsor, and it launched standardized tripartite labor contracts for domestic workers. Officials developed and facilitated anti-trafficking awareness campaigns across the country, and continued to inform all incoming migrant workers of their rights under Bahraini law. Although the government meets the minimum standards, it did not criminally investigate as potential trafficking crimes cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and analogous abuses—indicators of forced labor, which it handled administratively as labor law violations. Its law enforcement efforts are disproportionately focused on sex trafficking, as it seldom investigated, prosecuted, or convicted cases of forced labor. Although the government strengthened protections for domestic workers, cultural norms regarding privacy within Bahraini households and limited access of labor inspectors to access domestic worksites hampered implementation of existing laws and institutional reforms in some cases.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BAHRAIN

Increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers, particularly cases involving forced labor or allegedly complicit officials; expand and fully implement reforms to the sponsorship system; vigorously investigate and prosecute potential trafficking cases involving passport retention and non-payment of wages as trafficking crimes; continue to implement formal procedures to identify trafficking victims among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers, migrant workers, and women in prostitution; continue to implement the national referral mechanism to refer identified victims to protection services; amend flexible work permit provisions to ensure flexible work permit holders have the same labor protections as other workers; expand and actively enforce labor law protections for domestic workers; strengthen training for officials on the anti-trafficking law and victim identification; continue to conduct national anti-trafficking awareness campaigns, strategically targeting migrant and domestic workers.

PROSECUTION

The government increased its law enforcement efforts. The anti-trafficking law, Law No.1 of 2008, criminalized sex and labor trafficking. It prescribed penalties ranging from three to 15 years imprisonment, plus a fine of between 2,000 and 10,000 Bahraini dinar ($5,310-$26,530) and the cost of repatriating the victim(s), which were sufficiently stringent and, with respect to sex trafficking, commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Article 325 of the penal code prescribed imprisonment of two to seven years for forced prostitution and three to 10 years if the victim was a child.

The Ministry of Interior (MOI) reported investigating 31potential trafficking cases during the reporting period, all of which involved sexual exploitation of adult females, compared to 29 investigations the previous reporting period. Of the 31 investigations, officials referred 18 for prosecution, compared to 25 referred the prior year. One sex trafficking prosecution with two defendants remained ongoing from the previous year. It convicted and sentenced seven sex traffickers from Bahrain, Russia, and Bangladesh to between five and 10 years imprisonment plus fines between 2,000 and 5,000 Bahraini dinar ($5,310-$13,260); in 2016, the government convicted and similarly sentenced three traffickers. For the first time, officials convicted a Bahraini national of forced labor involving a Filipina domestic worker, from a case initially investigated during the previous reporting period. In September 2017, the High Criminal Court sentenced, under the anti-trafficking law, a police officer to five years in prison and a fine of 2,000 Bahraini dinar ($5,310), for accepting bribes from traffickers and using his position of authority to preclude any investigations of the sex trafficking ring—the first known case of a government official being held criminally accountable for complicity in a trafficking crime. The government also arrested and initiated prosecution of a former police officer who used his position and connections with hotels and residential buildings to collude with a Colombian woman to lure women to Bahrain through social media under false pretenses of high salaries in legitimate jobs over a five-year timeframe; the prosecution remained ongoing at the close of it. Local press reported one additional instance of a former police officer who facilitated the exploitation of sex trafficking victims by assisting an Indian businessman with running a prostitution ring out of his hotel.

The government typically treated cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and analogous abuses that are indicators of forced labor administratively as labor law violations rather than routinely investigated for trafficking crimes. The public prosecutor received referrals from the Labor Market Regulatory Agency (LMRA) of four recruitment agencies allegedly involved in forced labor. Eight prosecutorial personnel received anti-trafficking training via the Judicial and Legal Studies Institute. Officers and MOI personnel continued to receive annual, mandatory anti-trafficking training at the Royal Academy for Police.

PROTECTION

The government increased efforts to protect victims, specifically the vulnerable domestic worker population. It identified 31 adult trafficking victims during the reporting period; it did not report identifying any victims the previous year. The government continued to employ standard procedures to identify potential trafficking victims, but in May 2017, the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons (NCCTIP)—in cooperation with two international organizations—officially launched its government-wide National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to streamline the proactive identification of trafficking victims, ensure proper documentation of cases, effectively refer cases to the MOI and public prosecutor’s office for an official determination as a trafficking case, and provide adequate protective provisions to victims until case resolution or voluntary repatriation. During the reporting period, the government distributed the 30-page, bilingual English-Arabic NRM booklets to all relevant ministries and nongovernmental stakeholders. The LMRA reportedly received direct referrals of 516 potential victims from a variety of sources, including the NCCTIP’s hotline, police stations, other government entities, and foreign embassies. The LMRA’s Expatriate Protection Unit (EPU) provided all 516 individuals—some of whom were trafficking victims—with shelter, food, clothing, medical care, religious support, psycho-social counseling, rehabilitation, familial reunification, translation assistance, legal counsel, and repatriation or job placement in Bahrain. The EPU continued to oversee the safe house and shelter for both male and female workers, regardless of their legal status in the country. It also maintained onsite offices for medical and mental health professionals and a representative from the police anti-trafficking unit, and provided a training room for training shelter residents and a conference space for the NCCTIP. Embassies of labor-sending countries reported they temporarily housed some victims who refused to go to the EPU or were unable to reach it. In 2017, the NCCTIP allocated 200,000 Bahraini dinar ($530,500) for the establishment of a victim assistance fund from which trafficking victims are entitled to a small grant to help them reestablish themselves either in Bahrain or in their home country, as well as monthly compensation in the event their presence in Bahrain was court-mandated to conclude a criminal trial.

Labor Law No.36 of 2012 established some protections for domestic workers, requiring employers to provide a labor contract specifying working hours, annual leave, and bonuses, and to pay workers at least monthly. Multiple agencies cited difficulties conducting unannounced inspections of domestic worker accommodations and investigating allegations of abuse in the absence of an official complaint, due to cultural norms surrounding privacy in homes, which may have left some victims at risk of exploitation and without protective provisions. In December 2017, the government officially launched and publically gazetted standardized tripartite labor contracts for domestic workers. The LMRA provided all 130 registered recruitment agencies in Bahrain with copies of the new contract, which required domestic workers to sign, prior to their arrival, a comprehensive work agreement that unequivocally outlined labor rights and employment obligations. The new unified contract took effect in January 2018 and aims to strengthen protections for domestic workers by requiring employers to declare the nature of the job, hours to be worked, and salary, among other critical information. For the first time, this allowed domestic workers brought in by recruitment agencies to accept or reject an employment contract in their respective countries of origin, and the LMRA maintained copies of the contracts to assist in any future labor disputes.

There were no reports victims were punished for crimes committed as a direct result of their being subjected to trafficking. Bahraini officials provided full assistance to trafficking victims regardless of their willingness to participate in investigations and court proceedings of their traffickers. The government reported it shared with all victims a full evaluation of their cases and their legal right to restitution in the event of a conviction. Victims were permitted to testify in person, via written correspondence, video recording, a closed-circuit live video, or in private. NGOs reported workers who entered the country illegally or under pretenses did not routinely benefit from Bahraini legal protections. Some migrant workers who fled abusive situations chose not to contact police to report the abuse due to being a “free visa” holder—laborers in violation of the local labor law because they are working for a non-sponsor employer after leaving the employment of the sponsor that facilitated their entry into the country. The labor law allows foreign workers to change sponsors during investigations and court proceedings; the government did not report how many workers transferred employment during the year. Workers infrequently filed complaints against employers due to distrust of the legal system, protracted court processes, 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 due to employer reprisal. The government did not report how many third country nationals it repatriated to their countries of origin during the reporting period.

PREVENTION

The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. It took concrete steps to reform the sponsorship system particularly for workers who are currently undocumented. In July 2017, the LMRA launched a “flexible work permit” program to legalize undocumented workers while simultaneously permitting previously exploited and illegal laborers to self-sponsor, thereby commencing a shift away from the sponsorship-based employment system. By allowing higher marketplace flexibility, stronger protections for workers’ rights, and improved workplace environs, this new permit program allows up to 2,000 expatriates to apply every month to reside and work in Bahrain without needing a sponsor, after which successful applicants can work any job with any employer on a full-or part-time basis, negotiate wages and working hours directly, and secure multiple jobs concurrently with varying employers. Currently domestic workers, workers who have absconded from their employers, and all classes of workers with valid work permits are not eligible to apply for the program. Some NGOs and source country embassies have expressed concern that unskilled workers may be dissuaded from participation in the program due to its relatively high cost of 449 Bahraini dinar ($1,190); however, the costs included a two-year work permit, health care coverage for both years, a refundable deposit for travel tickets, and an extension of residency permits. At the close of the reporting year, more than 2,200 individuals obtained a “flexi” work permit.

Passport retention was a crime punishable under Article 395 of the Bahraini penal code. It was a crime to limit or otherwise control any person’s freedom of movement in accordance with Article 19(b) of the constitution of Bahrain. Laborers may file a grievance for passport withholding with the police or LMRA; a worker may also register a complaint to the court directly if the employer refuses to return the passport. The government typically treated indicators of forced labor—cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and analogous abuses—administratively as labor law violations and resolved through arbitration rather than routinely investigated for trafficking crimes; however, if arbitration was unsuccessful a worker could file a grievance against the employer in a labor court. In 2017, the government reported closure of three recruitment agencies and revocation of their licenses for contravening Bahraini labor law, and cancelled 17 additional agency licenses for non-compliance with LMRA regulations. The LMRA’s Enforcement and Inspection Department employed 70 inspectors in enforcement of employment violations responsible for worksite inspections. The LMRA and the Ministry of Justice, in partnership with an international organization, trained more than 170 individuals—including journalists, source country labor attaches, social workers, judges, prosecutors, and labor inspectors—over the course of five separate, multi-day workshops focused on trafficking.

The NCCTIP’s budget during the year was 500,000 Bahraini dinar ($1.3 million) for operations and 376,000 Bahraini dinar ($997,350) for awareness and outreach programs, roughly equivalent to 528,300 and 265,000 Bahraini dinar ($1.4 million and $702,920), respectively, the year prior. The government launched an awareness campaign in both local and expatriate communities in Bahrain, involving youth of various nationalities, schools, religious institutions, and foreign embassies. In partnership with an international organization, the NCCTIP held a workshop targeting media personnel to enhance their understanding of trafficking, more accurately report on such issues, and improve the overall role of the media in combating the crime. Also during the reporting period, Bahraini officials participated in a two-day workshop, organized by the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Union, to discuss regulatory mechanisms germane to domestic workers in the region. A quasi-governmental organization produced a campaign to prevent companies from illegally withholding their employees’ passports. The LMRA continued to provide booklets outlining labor rights in 13 languages common among expatriate worker populations, and distributed them upon arrival at the Bahrain International Airport and LMRA when applying for initial or renewed residency cards. The NCCTIP hotline was active to both collect reports and serve as a resource to educate workers about their rights and available services in Hindi, Telugu, Sinhalese, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam, Arabic, and English. In 2017, the hotline received 5,388 calls, most of which pertained to labor rights, advice on workplace situations, and miscellaneous requests; it was unclear how many calls constituted instances or indicators of trafficking, but officials identified one trafficking victim and investigated an unknown number of cases as a direct result of the hotline. The government had memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with several labor exporting countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India, which focused on oversight of recruitment agencies and protection of migrant workers in Bahrain. The government did not make discernable efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.

TRAFFICKING PROFILE

As reported over the past five years, Bahrain is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Men and women, primarily from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Philippines, Nepal, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen, Thailand, Syria, and Kenya, among other countries, migrate voluntarily to Bahrain to work as semi-skilled or unskilled laborers in the construction and service industries. In recent years, and particularly during the current reporting period, the greatest influx of workers hailed from Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshi population represented the majority of undocumented workers. Some migrant workers are subjected to forced labor in Bahrain; indicators include passport retention, strict confinement, contract substitution, non-payment of wages, debt bondage, threats or intimidation, and physical or sexual abuse, which preclude employees from reporting instances of exploitation. Nationals of countries without diplomatic presence in Bahrain are particularly vulnerable to trafficking, as are domestic workers, who are only partially protected under Bahraini labor law and cultural norms and existing legal infrastructure avert private home inspection. During the reporting period, local press reported women from Russia, Thailand, and Colombia were recruited to Bahrain via social media platforms or Bahrain-based acquaintances with false pretenses of high-paying jobs and subsequently forced into prostitution. Government and NGO officials report physical abuse and sexual assault of female domestic workers are significant problems in Bahrain, and domestic workers hailing from African countries are increasingly susceptible to labor exploitation and arrive in Bahrain through direct recruitment by local employers. Many migrant workers are paired with employers through intermediaries in Bahrain and unlicensed recruiters in their respective countries of origin, in addition to back-and-forth movement between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain via the causeway as Saudi nationals are able to sponsor foreign workers in Bahrain. Some migrant workers are not in possession of their employment contracts and are generally unfamiliar with the employment terms contained therein. Some unscrupulous employers continue to lure migrant workers to Bahrain and release them illegally in the labor market under the “free visa” scheme—laborers who work for a non-sponsor employer after leaving the employment of the employer who sponsored their entry into the country in violation of the local labor law—thereby rendering them vulnerable to exploitation. Although currently under reform, Bahrain’s sponsorship-based employment system continues to put some workers at risk of trafficking by restricting employees’ ability to change employers or leave the country, and by giving employers the unilateral power to cancel residency permits.