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Bahrain

Executive Summary

Bahrain is a constitutional, hereditary monarchy. King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, the head of state, appoints the cabinet, consisting of 24 ministers; 12 of the ministers were members of the al-Khalifa ruling family. The king, who holds ultimate authority over most government decisions, also appoints the prime minister–the head of government–who does not have to be a member of parliament. Parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and the elected Council of Representatives, each with 40 seats. The country holds parliamentary elections every four years, and according to the government, 67 percent of eligible voters participated in the most recent elections, held in November 2018. Two formerly prominent opposition political societies, al-Wifaq and Wa’ad, did not participate in the elections due to their dissolution by the courts in 2016 and 2017, respectively. The government did not permit international election monitors. Domestic monitors generally concluded authorities administered the elections without significant procedural irregularities.

The Ministry of Interior is responsible for internal security and controls the public security force and specialized security units responsible for maintaining internal order. The Coast Guard is also under its jurisdiction. The Bahrain Defense Force is primarily responsible for defending against external threats, while the Bahrain National Guard is responsible for both external and internal threats. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture; arbitrary detention; political prisoners; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including restrictions on independent nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) keeping them from freely operating in the country; restrictions on freedom of movement, including revocation of citizenship; and restrictions on political participation, including banning former members of al-Wifaq and Wa’ad from running as candidates in elections.

The government prosecuted low-level security force members accused of human rights abuses, following investigations by government or quasi-governmental institutions. Human rights organizations claimed investigations were slow and lacked transparency.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press, “provided that the fundamental beliefs of Islamic doctrine are not infringed, the unity of the people is not prejudiced, and discord and sectarianism are not aroused.” The government limited freedom of speech and the press through prosecution of individuals under libel, slander, and national security laws that targeted citizen and professional journalists.

Freedom of Expression: The law forbids any speech that infringes on public order or morals. Speech is curtailed in both traditional media and social media. While individuals openly expressed critical opinions regarding domestic political and social issues in private settings, those who expressed such opinions publicly often faced repercussions. During the year the government took steps against what it considered acts of civil disobedience, which included critical speech. The penal code allows penalties of no less than one year and no more than seven years of imprisonment, plus a fine, for anyone who “offends the monarch of the Kingdom of Bahrain, the flag, or the national emblem.”

On May 22, King Hamad ratified amendments to the Protection of the Community against Terrorist Acts law spelling out penalties of up to five years in prison for encouraging or possessing materials that support terrorist activities. The law appeared to give law enforcement and prosecutors greater authority to submit audio, emails, and social media posting as evidence in court. Activists expressed concern the provisions could be used to curtail dissent and criticism, especially in social media forums.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government did not own any print media, but the Ministry of Information Affairs and other government entities exercised considerable control over privately owned domestic print media.

The government owned and operated all domestic radio and television stations. Audiences generally received radio and television broadcasts in Arabic, Farsi, and English from countries in the region, including by satellite, without interference. The Ministry of Information Affairs reviewed all books and publications prior to issuing printing licenses. The Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs also reviewed those books that discussed religion.

Since the 2017 closure of al Wasat newspaper, opposition perspectives were available only via online media sources based outside the country, some of which the government blocked.

Violence and Harassment: According to local journalists and human rights groups, authorities sometimes harassed, arrested, or threatened journalists, photographers, and “citizen journalists” active on social media due to their reporting. Authorities claimed, however, that some individuals who identified themselves as journalists and photographers were associated with violent opposition groups and produced propaganda and recruiting videos for these groups. International media representatives reported difficulty in obtaining visas to work as journalists. The government brought criminal complaints against journalists who worked without accreditation.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Government censorship occurred. Ministry of Information Affairs personnel actively monitored and blocked stories on matters deemed sensitive, especially those related to sectarianism, national security, or criticism of the royal family, the Saudi royal family, or the judiciary. Journalists widely practiced self-censorship. Some members of media reported government officials contacted editors directly and told them to stop publishing articles on certain subjects.

The press and publications law prohibits anti-Islamic content in media and mandates imprisonment for “exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism.” The law states, “Any publication that prejudices the ruling system of the country and its official religion can be banned from publication by a ministerial order.”

Libel/Slander Laws: The government enforced libel and national security-related laws restricting freedom of the press. The penal code prohibits libel, slander, and “divulging secrets,” and it stipulates a punishment of imprisonment of no more than two years or a fine of no more than 200 dinars ($530). Application of the slander law was selective. The Ministry of Interior reported the government fined or imprisoned 172 individuals for “slander,” “libel,” or “divulging secrets” between January and September, compared with 19 cases in 2018. Twenty-four persons were convicted of “insulting a government institution,” and 529 were convicted of “misusing a telecommunications device.”

On March 13, former senior opposition leader Ebrahim Sharif received a six-month suspended sentence and a 500-dinar ($1,300) fine from the Lower Criminal Court for defaming the then president of Sudan Omar al Bashir in a tweet by referring to him as a “despot.” The government maintained that Sharif’s case was about an illegal act, not a narrowing of freedom of expression. The Court of Cassation upheld his conviction on December 31.

National Security: National security-related law provides for fines up to 10,000 dinars ($26,500) and prison sentences of at least six months for criticizing the king or inciting actions that undermine state security, as well as fines of up to 2,000 dinars ($5,300) for 14 related offenses. Punishable activities include publicizing statements issued by a foreign state or organization before obtaining ministry approval, publishing any reports that may adversely affect the dinar’s value, reporting any offense against a head of a state that maintains diplomatic relations with the country, and publishing offensive remarks concerning an accredited representative of a foreign country due to acts connected with the person’s position.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government did not always respect these rights.

Foreign Travel: The law provides the government may reject for “reasonable cause” applications to obtain or renew passports, but the applicant has the right to appeal such decisions before the High Civil Court. Individuals, including citizens of other countries, reported authorities banned them from travel out of the country due to unpaid debt obligations or other fiduciary responsibilities with private individuals or with lending institutions, as well as for open court cases. The government maintained an online website during the year that allowed individuals to check their status before they traveled, although some persons reported the website was not a reliable source of information. Authorities relied on determinations of “national security” when adjudicating passport applications. During the year authorities prevented a number of activists from leaving the country without providing options for legal recourse.

Exile: There were no reports the government prohibited the return of individuals whom the government considered citizens. The government, however, prohibited the return of those whose citizenship it formally revoked, or those it no longer considered citizens.

Citizenship: The government may revoke citizenship in both criminal and political cases, including for natural-born citizens. Authorities maintained the revocation of citizenship of some opposition political and religious figures. The government did not consider whether individuals may become stateless by these actions. At times it threatened to halt payments of pensions or remove families from government-assisted housing if a head-of-household lost his citizenship. Some family members, especially women and minor children, reported difficulties renewing their passports and residence cards and obtaining birth certificates for children. The government did not report how many persons had their citizenship revoked during the year; international human rights NGOs placed the total number of such cases at more than 700 since 2012. On June 27, King Hamad declined to finalize the more than 550 revocations in process, effectively cancelling the process and returning full citizenship to individuals named in those cases.

Also on June 27, King Hamad issued Royal Decree-Law No. 16, which ended the practice of automatically recommending citizenship revocation when individuals were convicted of certain terrorism-related crimes. The decree appeared to clarify that the prime minister and the minister of interior, rather than King Hamad and the courts, would now determine citizenship revocations. Some activists expressed concern that the new law reduced the transparency of the citizenship revocation process.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. The government at times provided protection against the expulsion or return of refugees to countries where their lives or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion; however, protection was mostly limited to those who had been able to obtain and maintain employment in the country. Such individuals generally had access to health care and education services while employed but were at risk of deportation if they became unemployed or if their country of origin revoked their passports. The Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees reported that as of September, there were 312 refugees and asylum seekers registered with the agency.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Citizens have limited ability to choose their government and their political system. The constitution provides for a democratically elected Council of Representatives, the lower house of parliament. The constitution permits the king to dissolve the Council of Representatives, but it requires that he first consult the presidents of the upper and lower houses of parliament as well as the head of the Constitutional Court. The king also has the power to amend the constitution and to propose, ratify, and promulgate laws.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of official corruption, but the government did not implement the law adequately, and some officials reportedly engaged in corrupt practices. The law subjects government employees at all levels to prosecution if they use their positions to engage in embezzlement or bribery, either directly or indirectly. Penalties may be up to 10 years’ imprisonment. The General Directorate of Anticorruption and Economic and Electronic Security held workshops for various ministries throughout the year.

Corruption: The National Audit Office (NAO) is responsible for combating government corruption. The Government Executive Committee, chaired by the crown prince, reviews any violations cited in the NAO’s annual report. In December 2018 the government released the office’s annual report, and the government released some findings to the public; however, the full report was not published or made available online. The government reported that six officials were charged with or jailed on embezzlement or bribery-related charges during the year.

Significant areas of government activity, including the security services and the Bahrain Defense Force, lacked transparency, and the privatization of public land remained a concern among opposition groups.

Financial Disclosure: The law does not require government officials to make financial disclosures.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Government officials sometimes met with local human rights NGOs but generally were not responsive to the views of NGOs they believed were politicized and unfairly critical of the government.

Domestic human rights groups operated with government restrictions, with some human rights activists imprisoned, exiled, or coerced into silence, according to reporting by international human rights organizations. Domestic human rights groups included the Bahrain Human Rights Society and Bahrain Human Rights Watch Society, the primary independent and licensed human rights organizations in the country; the BCHR, although dissolved by the government in 2004, continued to operate and maintain an online presence; and the unlicensed Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. The unlicensed umbrella human rights organization Bahrain Human Rights Observatory also issued numerous reports and had strong ties to international human rights NGOs.

Domestic human rights groups faced significant difficulties operating freely and interacting with international human rights organizations. The government sometimes harassed and deprived local NGO leaders of due process. Local NGO leaders and activists also reported government harassment, including police surveillance, delayed processing of civil documents, and “inappropriate questioning” of their children during interviews for government scholarships. Activists reported forgoing travel, in particular to international human rights events, fearing a reimposition of international travel bans.

Individuals affiliated with international human rights and labor organizations, or who were critical of the government, reported authorities indefinitely delayed or refused visa applications, or at times refused entry to the country for individuals who possessed a valid visa or qualified for the country’s visa-free entry program.

Government Human Rights Bodies: A 2016 amendment to a royal decree re-established the country’s National Human Rights Organization, now called the NIHR. The decree strengthened the NIHR by giving it the right to conduct unannounced visits to police facilities and increasing its financial independence. Throughout the year the NIHR conducted numerous human rights workshops, seminars, and training sessions, as well as prison visits, and referred numerous complaints to the PPO. It issued its latest annual report in March 2018 and contributed to PDRC, ombudsman, and SIU investigations. It also operated a hotline for citizens and residents to file human rights-related complaints and offered an in-person walk-in option for filing complaints.

The government reported that between January and August, there were 12 referrals of law enforcement for misconduct and one conviction of a police officer on criminal charges, noting 46 other cases were pending further investigation.

The SIU investigates and refers cases of security force misconduct, including complaints against the police, to the appropriate court, which includes civilian criminal courts, the ministry’s Military Court, and administrative courts (see section 1.c.). As of September the SIU received 53 complaints of police misconduct, one of which was against the Special Security Force Command. The SIU referred one case to the criminal court for prosecution. The ministry generally did not release the names of officers convicted, demoted, reassigned, or fired for misconduct, although it reported the highest-ranking police officer prosecuted for any crime was a captain.

There was also a BNSA Office for the Inspector General and a Ministry of Interior Ombudsman’s Office, created as a result of the BICI. While both offices were responsible for addressing cases of mistreatment and abuse by the security forces, there was little public information available regarding the BNSA inspector general’s activities. The ombudsman’s sixth annual report, released in September, reported 289 complaints and 778 assistance requests between May 2017 and April from alleged victims of mistreatment by police and civilian staff, their families, or organizations representing their interests. Of these complaints, 70 were referred to the relevant disciplinary body, including police administrative hearing “courts” and the PPO, 50 were still under investigation, and 144 were closed without resolution. The ombudsman reported receipt of 43 complaints against the CID, of which seven cases were referred for criminal or disciplinary proceedings, and 86 complaints against Jaw Prison, of which 40 cases were referred for criminal or disciplinary action. The ombudsman referred 15 of the cases against the CID and 73 against Jaw Prison for criminal or disciplinary procedures; four and 19 additional cases were still under investigation, respectively.

The PDRC, chaired by the ombudsman, monitors prisons, detention centers, and other places where persons may be detained, such as hospital and psychiatric facilities. The PDRC is empowered to conduct inspections of facilities, interview inmates or detainees, and refer cases to the Ombudsman’s Office or SIU.

The ministry organized various human rights training programs for its employees, including a year-long human rights curriculum and diploma at the Royal Police Academy. The academy regularly negotiates memoranda of understanding with the NIHR to exchange expertise. The academy continued to include a unit on human rights in international law as part of the curriculum for its master’s degree in Security Administration and Criminal Forensics. The NIHR had a memorandum with the BNSA to organize workshops and training sessions for BNSA officers relating to human rights and basic rights and to collaborate on future research.

During the year two women in the police force held the rank of brigadier general and general director.

In part to address concerns about inadequate Shia representation in the demographics of police and security forces, in 2005 the government established the community police program, which recruited individuals to work in their own neighborhoods. Local activists and human rights organizations reported, however, that the demographics of the overall security forces still failed to represent adequately Shia communities. Official statistics documented 1,374 community police officers, of whom 307 were women. The ministry did not keep official statistics on the number of Shia members of the community police force, however, and did not recruit new community police during the year. Community members reported that Shia citizens were among those integrated into the community police and the police cadet programs. Information was not available on recruitment rates of Shia citizens into other security forces.

The government also maintained the Ombudsman’s Office within the Ministry of Interior, the SIU within the PPO, and the PDRC. These organizations worked with each other throughout the year. The Ombudsman’s Office maintained a hotline for citizens to report police abuse via telephone, email, or in person.

Many human rights groups asserted that investigations into police abuse were slow and ineffective and questioned the independence and credibility of investigations by government-sponsored organizations. Amnesty International and other human rights organizations reported that government-affiliated human rights institutions did not fully investigate or follow up on claims of abuse. Furthermore, Amnesty reported that detainees faced reprisals for their or their families’ attempts to engage with the Ombudsman’s Office.

Local and international observers and human rights organizations also continued to express concern the government had not fully implemented BICI recommendations, including dropping charges against individuals engaged in nonviolent political expression, criminally charging security officers accused of abuse or torture, integrating Shia citizens into security forces, and creating an environment conducive to national reconciliation.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The constitution and labor code recognize the right to form independent trade unions and the right to strike, with significant restrictions. The law does not provide for the right to collective bargaining.

The law prohibits trade unions in the public sector. Public-sector workers may join private-sector trade unions and professional associations, although these entities may not bargain on their behalf. The law also prohibits members of the military services and domestic workers from joining unions. Foreign workers, composing nearly 80 percent of the civilian workforce, may join unions if they work in a sector that allows unions, although the law reserves union leadership roles for citizens. The law prohibits unions from engaging in political activities.

The law specifies only an official trade union may organize or declare a strike, and it imposes excessive requirements for legal strikes. The law prohibits strikes in 10 “vital” sectors–the scope of which exceeds international standards–including the oil, gas, education, telecommunications, transportation, and health sectors, as well as pharmacies and bakeries. The law makes no distinction between “vital” and “nonvital” employees within these sectors. Workers must approve a strike with a simple majority by secret ballot and provide 15 days’ notification to the employer before conducting a strike.

The law allows multiple trade union federations but prohibits multisector labor federations and bars individuals convicted of violating criminal laws that lead to trade union or executive council dissolution from holding union leadership posts. The law gives the labor minister, rather than the unions, the right to select the federation to represent workers in national-level bargaining and international forums. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination; however, in practice independent unions faced government repression and harassment. The law does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

Relations between the main federations and the Ministry of Labor and Social Development were publicly contentious at times. The government sometimes interfered in GFBTU activities, such as preventing public May Day observances, although the ministry supported GFBTU partnership with international NGOs for training workshops.

Some workers and union affiliates complained union pluralism resulted in company management interfering in union dues collection and workers’ chosen union affiliation. They stated that management chose to negotiate with the union it found most favorable–to the detriment of collective bargaining agreements and the legitimate voice of workers.

In 2014, after signing a second tripartite agreement, the International Labor Organization (ILO) dismissed the complaint filed in 2011 regarding the dismissal of workers. During the year the government reported it considered efforts at reinstatement, as reflected in the tripartite agreement, to be completed. The government reported that 154 of the 165 cases had been resolved through either reinstatement or by financial compensation. Human rights organizations and activists questioned the government’s claims and reported continuing, systemic labor discrimination.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor except in national emergencies, but the government did not always enforce the law effectively. There were reports of forced labor in the construction and service sectors. The labor law covers foreign workers, except domestic workers, but enforcement was lax, and cases of debt bondage were common. There were also reports of forced labor practices that occurred among domestic workers and others working in the informal sector; labor laws did not protect most of these workers. Domestic workers have the right to see their terms of employment.

In many cases employers withheld passports, a practice prohibited by law, restricted movement, substituted contracts, or did not pay wages; some employers also threatened workers and subjected them to physical and sexual abuse. The Ministry of Labor and Social Development reported 2,445 labor complaints from domestic workers and construction workers, mostly of unpaid wages or denied vacation time.

Estimates of the proportion of irregular migrant workers in the country under “free visa” arrangements–a practice where workers pay individuals or companies to sponsor visas for persons who are then “free” to work informally wherever they want–ranged from 10 to 25 percent of the foreign workers in the country. The practice contributed to the problem of debt bondage, especially among low-wage workers. In numerous cases employers withheld salaries from foreign workers for months or years and refused to grant them permission to leave the country. Fear of deportation or employer retaliation prevented many foreign workers from complaining to authorities.

In 2017 the Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) launched a flexible work-permit pilot program, which permits an individual to self-sponsor a work permit. It is available only to workers who are out of status and costs approximately 450 dinars ($1,200), in addition to a monthly fee of 30 dinars ($80). Some NGOs expressed concerns regarding the cost of the visa and the fact that it shifts responsibilities, such as health insurance, from the employer to the worker. According to government reports from September, despite significant political opposition, more than 25,000 persons had received the flexi permit since its launch. Governments of origin countries stated it was an important first step in regularizing undocumented workers but also criticized the program for being too expensive. The Philippine government provided some funding to cover application costs for its citizens who were eligible for the program. The LMRA reported that as of September there were approximately 70,000 undocumented workers in the country.

In 2016 the LMRA instituted procedures that allowed workers to change the employer associated with their visa–either without permission from their old employer or without their passport. The LMRA threatened employers who withheld passports with criminal and administrative violations and prohibited at-fault employers from hiring new workers. During the year the government shut down recruitment agencies and revoked licenses of others for infringing on workers’ rights. Recruitment agencies complicit in illegal practices may be subject to license revocation, legal action, shutdown of business operations, or a forfeit of license deposits.

The LMRA employed inspectors who were sworn officers of the court, with the authority to conduct official investigations. LMRA inspector reports may result in fines, court cases, loss of work permits, and termination of businesses. These inspectors focus on the legal and administrative provisions under which individuals fall, including work permits, employer records, and licenses. The Ministry of Labor employed general inspectors and occupational safety inspectors. Their roles are to inspect workplaces, occupational health and safety conditions, and the employer/employee work relationship.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 15, and the minimum age for hazardous work is 18. Children younger than 18 may not work in industries the Ministry of Health deemed hazardous or unhealthy, including construction, mining, and oil refining. They may work no more than six hours a day–no more than four days consecutively–and may be present on the employment premises no more than seven hours a day. Child labor regulations do not apply to family-operated businesses in which the only other employees are family members.

The law requires that before the ministry makes a final decision on allowing a minor to work, the prospective employer must present documentation from the minor’s guardian giving the minor permission to work; proof the minor underwent a physical fitness examination to determine suitability; and assurance from the employer the minor would not work in an environment the ministry deemed hazardous. Generally, the government effectively enforced the law.

The law does not allow expatriate workers younger than 18 to work in the country.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

There is no national private-sector minimum wage. A standardized government pay scale covers public-sector workers, with a set minimum monthly wage. While the minimum wage for Bahrainis is generally considered a living wage, there is no minimum wage for foreign workers in the public sector; however, the government issued “guidelines” advising employers in the public and private sectors to pay a minimum monthly wage. There was no official poverty level.

Subject to the provisions of the private-sector law, employers may not employ a worker for more than 48 hours per week without including contract provisions for overtime pay. Employers may not employ Muslim workers during the month of Ramadan for more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week.

The Ministry of Labor sets occupational safety and health standards. The labor law and relevant protections apply to citizens and noncitizens alike, with the exception of domestic workers. The revised labor law improved the legal situation for many workers as it pertains to access to contracts and additional holidays, although it excludes domestic workers from most protections.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing the labor law and mandating acceptable conditions of work. The labor law stipulates that companies that violate occupational safety standards be subject to fines.

The Ministry of Labor enforced occupational safety and health standards; it also used a team of engineers from multiple specialties primarily to investigate risks and standards at construction sites, which were the vast majority of worksites.

Inspectors have the authority to levy fines and close worksites if employers do not improve conditions by specified deadlines. A judge determines fines per violation, per worker affected, or both. A judge may also sentence violators to prison. For repeat violators, the court may double the penalties.

Despite the improvements, NGOs feared resources for enforcement of the laws remained inadequate for the number of worksites and workers, many worksites would not be inspected, and the regulations would not necessarily deter violations.

A ministerial decree prohibits outdoor work between noon and 4 p.m. during July and August because of heat conditions. Authorities enforced the ban among large firms, but according to local sources, violations were common among smaller businesses. Employers who violated the ban are subject to up to three months’ imprisonment, fines, or both. The ministry documented 156 companies in noncompliance with the summer heat ban during the year.

The government and courts generally worked to rectify abuses brought to their attention. Workers could file complaints with the ministry. The vast majority of cases involving abused domestic workers did not reach the ministry or the public prosecutor. Police referred 40 cases to the National Referral Mechanism in the first half of the year. Individuals with referred cases received a range of services, including shelter provided by the National Committee for Combating Trafficking in Persons (NCCTIP).

The Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS) reported it visited unregistered camps and accommodations, including accommodations of irregular “free visa” workers, who often lived in overcrowded apartments with poor safety standards.

The government continued to conduct workers’ rights awareness campaigns. It published pamphlets on foreign resident workers’ rights in several languages, provided manuals on these rights to local diplomatic missions, and operated a telephone hotline for victims.

Violations of wage, overtime, and occupational safety and health standards were common in sectors employing foreign workers, such as construction, automotive repair, and domestic service. Unskilled foreign workers, mostly from South and Southeast Asia, constituted approximately 60 percent of the total workforce. These workers were vulnerable to dangerous or exploitive working conditions. According to NGOs, workplace safety inspection and compliance were substandard.

The labor law does not fully protect domestic workers, and this group was particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Domestic employees must have a contract, but the law does not provide for same rights accorded to other workers, including rest days. In 2017 the LMRA announced that all newly arrived domestic workers would be required to use new tripartite work contracts. The recruitment agency, the employer, and the employee must agree upon the contents of the new contracts. According to local press reports, the new contracts include daily working hours, weekly day off, and mandatory wage receipts, among other conditions. Activists reported that usage of the forms among employers and recruitment agencies remained low throughout the year.

There were credible reports employers forced many of the country’s 91,000 domestic workers, most of them women, to work 12- to 16-hour days and surrender their identity documents to employers. Employers permitted very little time off, left female workers malnourished, and subjected them to verbal and physical abuse, including sexual molestation and rape. Reports of employers and recruitment agents beating or sexually abusing foreign women working in domestic positions were common, but most cases involving domestic workers did not reach the Ministry of Labor. The press, embassies, and police received numerous reports of abuse. The MWPS provided female domestic workers with temporary housing and assistance with their cases, although its shelter closed permanently in March. Additionally, the NCCTIP provided workers with shelter. Most women in these cases sought assistance with unpaid wages and complaints of physical abuse.

According to NGO sources, the construction sector employed more Indians, Bangladeshis, and Pakistanis than other nationalities. Worker deaths generally were due to a combination of inadequate enforcement of standards, violations of standards, inadequate safety procedures, worker ignorance of those procedures, and inadequate safety standards for equipment. While some workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardizing their employment, the level of freedom workers enjoyed directly related to the types of work they performed.

A Ministry of Labor order requires employers to register any labor accommodations provided to employees. The order also mandates minimum housing standards for employer-provided accommodations. Many workers lived in unregistered accommodations that ranged in quality from makeshift accommodations in parking garages, to apartments rented by employers from private owners, to family houses modified to accommodate many persons. Conditions in the many unregistered or irregular worker camps were often poor. Inspectors do not have the right to enter houses or apartment buildings not registered as work camps to inspect conditions.

Oman

Executive Summary

The Sultanate of Oman is a hereditary monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos al-Said since 1970. The sultan has sole authority to enact laws through royal decree, although ministries and the bicameral Majlis Oman (parliament) can draft laws on nonsecurity-related matters, and citizens may provide input through their elected representatives. The Majlis Oman is composed of the Majlis al-Dawla (upper house or State Council), whose 85 members are appointed by the sultan, and the elected 86-member Majlis al-Shura (lower house or Consultative Assembly). In October nearly 350,000 citizens participated in the Majlis al-Shura elections for the Consultative Assembly; there were no notable claims of improper government interference.

The Royal Office controls internal and external security and coordinates all intelligence and security policies. Under the Royal Office, the Internal Security Service investigates all matters related to domestic security. The Royal Oman Police (ROP), including the ROP Coast Guard, is also subordinate to the Royal Office and performs regular police duties. The Royal Office and Royal Diwan–the sultan’s personal offices–maintained effective control over the security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: allegations of torture of prisoners and detainees in government custody; restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including censorship, site blocking, and criminal libel; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; required exit permits for foreign workers; restrictions on political participation; and criminalization of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) conduct.

Authorities generally held security personnel and other government officials accountable for their actions. The government acted against corruption during the year, with cases proceeding through the court system.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for limited freedom of speech and press, but authorities did not always respect these rights. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship.

Freedom of Expression: The law prohibits criticism of the sultan in any form or medium, as well as any “provocative propaganda to undermine the prestige of the state,” electronic communication that “might prejudice the public order or religious values,” and “defamation of character.” Therefore, it is illegal to insult any public official or private citizen. Authorities have prosecuted individuals for writing about the sultan in a way the government perceived to be negative. In January 2018 the government issued a new penal code that generally increased maximum penalties for crimes related to “undermining the state.” International human rights organizations expressed concern that the 2018 penal code contains vaguely defined articles that the security services could use to target activists and further restrict freedom of expression, including online.

In September the ROP arrested an expatriate for posting a video on social media in which he threw his Omani residency card on the ground and allegedly used “abusive language” about the police. In November human rights organizations reported that authorities arrested Musallam Al-Ma’ashani at the Sarfait border crossing upon his return to Oman from Yemen. These groups and social media users claimed authorities arrested Al-Ma’ashani for printing a book documenting tribal activities in Dhofar, which he intended to submit to the Ministry of Information for display at the 2020 Muscat International Book Fair. According to social media posts, authorities released Al-Ma’ashani on November 25 on bail after approximately two weeks in detention.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: Media did not operate freely. Authorities tolerated limited criticism in privately owned newspapers and magazines; however, editorials generally were consistent with the government’s views. Although mainstream social debate occurred in traditional and social media (especially on Twitter), the government and privately owned radio and television stations did not generally broadcast political material criticizing the government.

In January human rights observers reported that police briefly detained two journalists from the Hala FM radio station while they covered a protest in Muscat over unemployment. The journalists were reportedly released the same day. Some social media users who photographed and recorded the same protest claimed the ROP forced them to delete their photos and videos.

According to human rights organizations, authorities arrested at least two individuals in February for criticizing on social media the government’s contacts with Israel.

In 2017 the Supreme Court upheld previous court rulings and permanently shut down al-Zaman, an independent newspaper. A journalist and an editor of the paper served prison sentences and were released in 2017. A second journalist was convicted and sentenced, but later acquitted. Human rights organizations claimed the closure of al-Zaman had a chilling effect upon freedom of expression in the country.

Authorities required journalists to obtain a license to work; freelance journalists were ineligible for a license.

Violence and Harassment: Some journalists reported harassment by high-level government officials for printing stories perceived as critical of their particular ministries.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Headlines in both public and private media print outlets were subject to an official nontransparent review and approval process before publication. Journalists and writers exercised self-censorship. The law permits the Ministry of Information to review all media products including books produced within or imported into the country. The ministry occasionally prohibited or censored material from domestic and imported publications viewed as politically, culturally, or sexually offensive. The OHRC reported that four publications violated the printing law and were therefore not permitted in the country. There is only one major publishing house in the country, and publication of books remained limited. The government required religious groups to notify the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs before importing any religious materials.

Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a criminal offense, which allows for up to one year’s imprisonment and a fine of up to 1,000 rials ($2,600).

National Security: The government prohibited publication of any material that “undermines the prestige of the state.”

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. Human rights organizations expressed concern that overly broad provisions in the penal code could further restrict the work of human rights activists and limit freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The law provides for freedom of internal movement and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. Citizens could generally travel freely outside the country, although that right is not codified. Citizens related to citizens living abroad who criticized the government reportedly were told not to leave the country. Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees personnel occasionally visited the country but did not maintain an office or personnel locally.

In-country Movement: There are no official government restrictions on internal travel for any citizen. The government must approve on a case-by-case basis official travel by foreign diplomats to the Dhofar and Musandam regions. There were reports many foreign domestic employees had their passports confiscated by employers, who sponsor the foreign workers, even though the law prohibited this practice. In February an Egyptian foreign worker posted a video online in which she alleged that her sponsor was holding her passport, rendering her unable to travel to Egypt to visit her dying mother.

Employers have a great amount of control over these workers, particularly domestic workers who are not covered by existing labor laws. The country’s visa-sponsorship system (kafala) ties migrant workers to their employers and prevents them from changing jobs without their sponsor’s consent. Migrant workers generally cannot work for a new employer in the country within a two-year period without the permission of their current employer, even if they complete their contract. Employers can have a worker’s visa canceled arbitrarily. Workers who leave their jobs without the consent of their employer can be punished with fines, deportation, or reentry bans.

Foreign Travel: Foreign workers must obtain exit permits from their employer to leave the country legally. Exit permits may be denied when there is a dispute over payment or work remaining, leaving the foreign citizen in country with recourse only through local courts. In theory, courts provided recourse to workers denied exit permits, but the process was opaque with domestic workers consistently alleging that existing dispute resolution mechanisms were inadequate to protect them. In the past, travel bans–through confiscation of passports–were imposed on citizens involved in political activism. No new cases were reported during the year.

f. Protection of Refugees

Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The country has a large number of female migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, and the Philippines, many of whom are employed as domestic workers. Nongovernmental organizations based outside the country and embassies of labor-sending countries alleged that domestic workers faced discrimination, to include physical, sexual, and psychological abuse. The country criminalizes slavery and trafficking, but enforcement was weak. Although forced labor is punished under the labor law, domestic workers are excluded from that law’s protections. In 2018 courts convicted 15 individuals for human trafficking crimes.

The government generally did not allow refugees to remain in the country. The most recently available UNHCR data from February 2018 indicated that there were 51,000 individuals in the country who had fled conflict, including an estimated 5,000 Yemenis. The status of these individuals was precarious, as Oman does not have a national framework regulating issues related to asylum.

Refoulement: The government did not provide comprehensive protection to refugees from involuntary returns to countries where their lives or freedom could be threatened, subjecting refugees to the possibility of refoulement. Tight control over the entry of foreigners effectively limited access to protection for refugees and asylum seekers.

Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refuge for internally displaced persons, and the government has established a system for providing protection. The ROP’s system for granting asylum and resettlement is not transparent, and the law does not specify a timeframe in which the ROP must adjudicate an asylum application. It is current policy not to recognize refugees from conflict zones, such as Yemen, although the government provided temporary medical care to certain Yemeni citizens. In practice, there are no substantive legal protections for asylum seekers in the country.

Durable Solutions: When third-country nationals presented themselves on the Oman-Yemen border, the government worked with local embassies to facilitate a return to these individuals’ home countries. In cases where individuals could not return to their home country, like Syrians, the government would facilitate travel to a third country of their choice.

Temporary Protection: The government provided emergency medical care to certain Yemeni citizens who demonstrated they could not receive adequate care in Yemen. These Yemenis and one accompanying family member per patient were offered status in Oman during the treatment period.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage. The sultan retains ultimate authority on all foreign and domestic issues. With the exception of the military and other security forces, all citizens who have reached 21 years of age have the right to vote for candidates for the Majlis al-Shura and the provincial councils.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively.

Corruption: There were reports of government corruption, including in the police, ministries, and state-owned companies. Political and social favoritism were widespread in public and private institutions.

In June the public prosecution announced that it had brought to trial a case of alleged embezzlement within the Ministry of Education.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials are subject to financial disclosure laws. When selected for disclosure, officials are required to list their finances, business interests, and property, as well as that of their spouses and children. These records are made public, and there are fines associated with noncompliance. The State Audit Authority monitors this process.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

No independent, officially sanctioned, domestic human rights organizations existed in the country. There were civil society groups that advocated for persons protected under human rights conventions, particularly women and persons with disabilities. These groups were required to register with the Ministry of Social Development.

The law permits domestic and international actors to request permission to engage in human rights work, but none did because they believed the government was not likely to grant permission.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The OHRC, a government-funded commission made up of members from the public, private, and academic sectors, reported on human rights to the sultan via the State Council. The OHRC also published an annual report summarizing the types of complaints it received and how it handled those complaints. The OHRC also conducted prison visits and continued a community and school outreach program to discuss human rights with students.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides that workers can form and join unions, as well as conduct legal strikes and bargain collectively, but with significant restrictions. The law provides for one general federation, to which all unions must affiliate, and which represents unions in regional and international fora. The law requires a minimum of 25 workers to form a union, regardless of company size. The law requires an absolute majority of an enterprise’s employees to approve a strike, and notice must be given to employers three weeks in advance of the intended strike date. The law allows for collective bargaining; regulations require employers to engage in collective bargaining on the terms and conditions of employment, including wages and hours of work. Where there is no trade union, collective bargaining may take place between the employer and five representatives selected by workers. The employer may not reject any of the representatives selected. While negotiation is underway, the employer may not act on decisions related to problems under discussion. The law prohibits employers from firing or imposing other penalties on employees for union activity, although it does not require reinstatement for workers fired for union activity.

Despite the legal protections for labor unions, no independent organized labor unions existed. Worker rights continued to be administered and directed by the General Federation of Oman Workers (GFOW).

Government-approved unions are open to all legal workers regardless of nationality, though the law prohibits members of the armed forces, other public security institutions, government employees, domestic workers, as well as individuals convicted of criminal activity or acts against the security of the country or national unity from forming or joining such unions. In addition, labor laws apply only to workers who perform work under a formal employment agreement and excludes domestic workers.

The law prohibits unions from accepting grants or financial assistance from any source without the Ministry of Manpower’s prior approval. All unions are subject to the regulations of the government federation and may be shut down or have their boards dismissed by the federation.

The government generally enforced applicable laws effectively and respected the rights to collectively bargain and conduct strikes, although strikes in the oil and gas industries are forbidden. The GFOW reported in a survey conducted by the International Trade Union Confederation that employers bypassed collective bargaining and retaliated against workers who participated in strikes. The government provided an alternative dispute resolution mechanism through the Ministry of Manpower, which acted as mediator between the employer and employee for minor disputes such as disagreement over wages. If not resolved to the employee’s satisfaction, the employee could, and often did, resort to the courts for relief. The country lacked dedicated labor courts, and observers noted the mandatory grievance procedures were confusing to many workers, especially foreign workers. The Ministry of Manpower had sufficient resources to act in dispute resolution. Union leaders reported intimidation by companies for their activities and complained they were passed over for promotion.

Freedom of association in union matters and the right to collective bargaining exist, but often the threat of a strike can prompt either company action to resolution or spur government intervention. Strikes rarely occurred and were generally resolved quickly, sometimes through government mediation.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forced or compulsory labor, but the law explicitly excludes domestic workers. All police officials underwent training in how to identify victims of trafficking in persons to help them identify cases of forced or compulsory labor.

Conditions indicative of forced labor were present. By law all foreign workers, who constituted approximately one-half of the workforce and the majority of workers in some sectors, must be sponsored by a citizen employer or accredited diplomatic mission. Some men and women from South and Southeast Asia, employed as domestic workers or as low-skilled workers in the construction, agriculture, and service sectors, faced working conditions indicative of forced labor, including withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, usurious recruitment fees, nonpayment of wages, long working hours without food or rest, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. These situations were generally considered civil or contract matters by authorities, who encouraged dispute resolution rather than criminal action. Authorities continued to rely on victims to identify themselves and report abuses proactively, rather than proactively investigating trafficking in vulnerable communities.

Sponsorship requirements left workers vulnerable to exploitative and abusive conditions and made it difficult for them to change employers (see section 2.d.). Some sponsors allow their employees to work for other employers, sometimes in return for a fee. This practice is illegal, but enforcement was weak, and such arrangements left workers vulnerable. The government clarified that sponsors of domestic workers are not allowed to send their workers to another home to work, but the regulation was weakly enforced. Some employers of domestic workers, contrary to law, withheld passports and other documents, complicating workers’ release from unfavorable contracts and preventing workers’ departure after their work contracts expired. In some cases, employers demanded exorbitant release fees totaling as much as four months’ salary before providing a “no-objection certificate” (NOC) to permit the worker to change employers. Without this NOC, foreign workers are required to either depart the country for a minimum of two years or remain in their current position. There were reports that sponsors were reluctant to provide NOCs, which would result in loss of the foreign labor certificate for that position.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The minimum age for employment is 16, or 18 for certain hazardous occupations. Employees younger than 18 may work only between the hours of 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. and are prohibited from working for more than six hours per day, on weekends, or on holidays. The law allows exceptions to the age requirement in agricultural works, fishing, industrial works, handicrafts, sales, and administrative jobs, under the conditions that it is a one-family business and does not hinder the juvenile’s education or affect health or growth.

The Ministry of Manpower and Royal Oman Police are responsible for enforcing laws with respect to child labor. The law provides for fines for minor violations and imprisonment for repeat violations. Employers are given time to correct practices that may be deemed child labor.

In 2018 the country made a moderate advance in eliminating the worst forms of child labor, which did not appear to be a widespread problem. The government does not publish information on the enforcement of child labor laws and lacks a reciprocal mechanism between the labor inspectorate and social services.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/ .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

Labor laws and regulations do not address discrimination based on race, sex, gender, nationality, political views, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV-positive status or having other communicable diseases, or social status. Discrimination occurred based on gender, sexual orientation, nationality, disability and gender identity. Foreign workers were required to take HIV/AIDS tests and could only obtain or renew work visas if the results were negative.

Although some educated women held positions of authority in government, business, and media, many women faced job discrimination based on cultural norms. The law entitles women to paid maternity leave and equal pay for equal work. The government, the largest employer of women, observed such regulations, as did many private sector employers.

The law provides persons with disabilities the same rights as other citizens in employment, and the provision of other state services. Persons with disabilities, however, continued to face discrimination. The law mandates access to buildings for persons with disabilities, but many older buildings, including government buildings and schools, did not conform to the law. The law also requires private enterprises employing more than 50 persons to reserve at least 2 percent of positions for persons with disabilities. Authorities did not systematically enforce this regulation.

For further discussion of discrimination, see section 6.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The country has a minimum monthly wage for citizens, but it does not apply to noncitizens in any occupation. Minimum wage regulations do not apply to a variety of occupations and businesses, including small businesses employing fewer than five persons, dependent family members working for a family firm, or some categories of manual laborers. Most citizens who lived in poverty were engaged in traditional subsistence agriculture, herding, or fishing, and generally did not benefit from the minimum wage. The private sector workweek is 45 hours and includes a two-day rest period following five consecutive days of work. Government workers have a 35-hour workweek. The law mandates overtime pay for hours in excess of 45 per week.

The government sets occupational health and safety standards. The law states an employee may leave dangerous work conditions without jeopardy to continued employment if the employer was aware of the danger and did not implement corrective measures. Employees covered under the labor law may receive compensation for job-related injury or illness through employer-provided medical insurance.

Neither wage and hour nor occupational safety and health regulations apply to domestic workers.

The Ministry of Manpower is responsible for enforcing labor laws, and in 2018 it employed inspectors in Muscat and around the country. It generally enforced the law effectively with respect to citizens; however, it did not always effectively enforce regulations regarding hours of employment and working conditions for foreign workers.

Labor inspectors performed random checks of worksites to verify compliance with all labor laws. Inspectors from the Department of Health and Safety of the Labor Care Directorate are responsible for enforcement of health and safety codes. Limited inspections of private sector worksites are required by law to deter or redress unsafe working conditions in the most dangerous sectors.

The Ministry of Manpower effectively enforced the minimum wage for citizens. No minimum wage existed for noncitizens. In wage cases the Ministry of Manpower processed complaints and acted as mediator. In a majority of cases, the plaintiff prevailed, gaining compensation, the opportunity to seek alternative employment, or return to their country of origin in the case of foreign laborers, although they rarely used the courts to seek redress. The ministry was generally effective in cases regarding minor labor disputes.

The government increased efforts during 2018 to prevent trafficking in persons violations, which disproportionately affected foreign workers.

Foreign workers were vulnerable to poor, dangerous, or exploitative working conditions. There were reports that migrant laborers in some firms and households worked more than 12 hours a day without a day off for below-market wages. Employers often cancelled the employment contracts of seriously sick or injured foreign workers, forcing them to return to their countries of origin or remain in the country illegally. Some labor inspections focused on enforcing visa violations and deporting those in an irregular work visa status rather than verifying safe and adequate work conditions.

There are no maximum work-hour limits for domestic workers nor any mandatory rest periods, although the contract between the employer and worker can specify such requirements. There were some reports that domestic workers were subject to overwork with inadequate rest periods. Separate domestic employment regulations obligate the employer to provide domestic workers with free local medical treatment throughout the contract period. Penalties for noncompliance with health regulations were insufficient to deter violations. Some domestic workers were subjected to abusive conditions.

There was no data available on workplace fatalities or safety.

Qatar

Executive Summary

Qatar is a constitutional monarchy in which Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani exercises full executive power. The constitution provides for hereditary rule by men in the amir’s branch of the Al Thani family. The most recent elections were in 2019 for the Central Municipal Council, an advisory and consultative body. Observers considered these elections free and fair. All cabinet members are appointed by the amir, including the prime minister.

The national police and ministry of interior forces maintain internal security that addresses, among other matters, terrorism, cyberattacks, and espionage. The national police oversee general law enforcement. The army is responsible for external security. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over security forces.

Significant human rights issues included: criminalization of libel; restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including prohibitions on political parties and labor unions; restrictions on the freedom of movement for migrant workers’ travel abroad; refusal to grant asylum despite risk of arrest and torture; limits on the ability of citizens to choose their government in free and fair elections; criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual activity; and reports of forced labor.

The government took limited steps to prosecute those suspected of committing human rights abuses. The government took steps to address forced labor.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press in accordance with the law, but the government limited these rights. Self-censorship remained the primary obstacle to free speech and press.

Freedom of Expression: Citizens did not regularly discuss sensitive political and religious issues in public forums, but citizens discussed these issues in private and on social media. The law prohibits residents from criticizing the amir. Members of the majority foreign population exercised self-censorship on sensitive topics. The law penalizes by up to three years in prison damaging, removing, or performing an action that expresses hate and contempt to the country’s flag, the Gulf Cooperation Council flag, or the flag of any international organization or authority. The use of the national flag without formal permission from authorities, displaying a damaged or discolored flag, or changing the flag by adding photographs, text, or designs to it are also criminalized.

Press and Media, Including Online Media: The law includes restrictive procedures on the establishment of newspapers, their closure, and the confiscation of assets of a publication. The Doha Center for Media Freedom, a government-funded entity known to be vocal on press freedom issues, was closed during the year without official explanation.

Members of the ruling family or proprietors who enjoyed close ties to government officials owned all print media. Both private and government-owned television and radio reflected government views, although call-in shows allowed for some citizen criticism of government ministries and policies. While media generally did not criticize authorities or the country’s policies, specific ministries and even individual ministers were regular targets of criticism in print media. The government owned and partially funded the Doha-based al-Jazeera satellite television network, which carried regional, international, and theme-based programming. It also partially funded other media outlets operating in the country. Some observers and former al-Jazeera employees alleged that the government influenced the content produced by that news outlet.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The Qatar Media Corporation, the Ministry of Culture and Sports, and customs officials censored material. The government reviewed, censored, or banned foreign newspapers, magazines, films, and books for objectionable sexual, religious, and political content. Journalists and publishers continued to self-censor due to political and economic pressures when reporting on government policies or material deemed denigrating to Islam, the ruling family, and relations with neighboring states.

Libel/Slander Laws: The law criminalizes libel and slander, including “insult to dignity.” A journalist may be fined up to 100,000 Qatari riyals (QAR) ($27,500) and imprisoned for a year for defamation and reporting of “false news.” Laws restrict the publication of information that slanders the amir or heir apparent; defames the Abrahamic faiths or includes blasphemy; harms the national currency or the economic situation; violates the dignity of persons, the proceedings of investigations, and prosecutions in relation to family status; and punishes violators with up to seven years’ imprisonment.

National Security: Laws restrict the publication of information that could defame the state or endanger its safety; incite the overthrow of the regime or harm supreme state interests; report official secret agreements; or prejudice heads of state or disturb relations.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government limited freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement

The constitution provides for freedom of movement within the country, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not fully respect these rights. The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to assist internally displaced persons, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern.

In-country Movement: Restrictions on in-country movement for citizens concerned sensitive military, oil, and industrial installations. Although there was less emphasis on setting and enforcing “family-only” times at entertainment areas in Doha, several local malls and markets continued to restrict access to certain areas to foreign workers on weekends and those dressed “immodestly.”

Foreign Travel: The government prevented the travel of its citizens only when they were involved in ongoing court cases. Despite partial exit permit reform, domestic workers were required to obtain permission from employers to exit the country. In 2018 authorities abolished exit permit requirements for 95 percent of the workforce in the private sector, with some exceptions including domestic workers and government employees. Employers may still request exit permits for the remaining 5 percent of their workforce not covered by the 2018 law but must provide an explanation to the government justifying why an employee should retain an exit permit restriction. In 2018 the Exit Permit Grievances Committee received 1,869 requests by workers who were denied exit permits by their employers; of the total number of requests, the committee approved 1,850, rejected seven, and archived the remainder, a common practice when a worker leaves the country for any reason during the lengthy adjudication process.

The law prohibits employers from withholding workers’ passports and penalizes employers who do so, but noncitizen community leaders and officials from labor-exporting countries stated that passport confiscation remained a widespread problem with insufficient enforcement of penalties. The Ministry of Interior fined only two individuals in passport-confiscation cases during the year.

Citizenship: The law allows for the revocation of citizenship. In September 2018 representatives from the al-Ghufran tribe submitted a complaint to the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, accusing the government of arbitrarily revoking the citizenship of 6,000 members of the tribe. Representatives from the government and the NHRC acknowledged that the citizenship of some of the tribe’s members was revoked but stated that revocations were only for dual citizens.

f. Protection of Refugees

Access to Asylum: In September 2018 the government passed legislation to grant political asylum status to asylum seekers, although to date no one has received asylum through this legislation. The law stipulates the creation of a specialized committee within the Ministry of Interior to handle requests from asylum seekers. Once granted political asylum, the individual and his or her family are entitled to a range of free services provided by the government, including travel documents, jobs, monthly allowances, medical and educational services, and housing. Previously, the government accepted such individuals as “guests” on a temporary basis. The government legally classified the small number of persons granted residence on humanitarian grounds as visitors. During the year a Yemeni national’s claim for asylum was not granted despite credible fears of arrest and persecution if he were to return to Yemen. The government instead requested that the individual and his family seek refuge in a third country, despite the September 2018 law.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition office in Doha reported approximately 60,000 Syrians were living in Doha, of whom approximately 20,000 came to Doha after the start of the civil war and have been granted repeated extensions to their residency status to allow them to remain in country. The government provided housing and education to these de facto refugees.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The constitution does not provide citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The government did not allow the formation of political parties or opposition groups. The amir exercises full executive powers, including the appointment of cabinet members. During the year the amir issued a decree extending the term of the appointed Shura Council, the country’s titular legislative body, by two years to end in June 2021. In November the amir assigned the prime minister to form and lead a committee to regulate the process of the Shura Council elections.

The constitutional provisions for electing two-thirds of the Shura Council’s members and initiation of legislation by the Shura Council remain unimplemented.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government generally implemented these laws effectively. There were reports, however, of government corruption during the year.

Corruption: The law gives the State Audit Bureau financial authority and independence and allows it to publish parts of its findings provided confidential information is removed. Official statistics from 2017, the last officially released numbers, showed 10 cases of embezzlement of which five had been closed.

Financial Disclosure: There are no legal requirements for public officials to disclose their income and assets, and they did not do so.

Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

Researchers from international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and international unions such as Building and Wood Workers’ International and the International Trade Union Confederation continued to visit and report on the country without interference from authorities. The government was often responsive to requests for meetings and jointly participated in public events hosted by human rights groups, including on sensitive topics such as labor rights.

Several quasi-governmental organizations are under a single entity, Qatar Foundation, which is under the leadership of Sheikha Hind Al Thani, the sister of the amir. These organizations cooperated with the government, rarely criticized it, and did not engage in political activity. Some international NGOs have offices in the country focused on labor rights with the permission of the government.

The NHRC provided some mild criticism of abuses and conducted its own investigations into human rights violations. A law regulating the work of the NHRC granted the committee “full independence” in practicing its activities and providing immunity to the committee’s members. The NHRC typically handled petitions by liaising with government institutions to ensure a timely resolution to disputes.

In November the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention carried out its first official visit to the country to assess the situation regarding deprivation of liberty. Following the visit, the group stated, “Existing laws that allow prolonged administrative detention without judicial control and due process guarantees ought to be abolished, as these place individuals outside the protection of the law.” The Working Group called on authorities to “immediately repeal the Protection of Community Law, the State Security Law, and the Law on Combating Terrorism.”

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Interior and the Human Rights Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are mandated to observe, report, and handle human rights issues. The NHRC is mandated by the cabinet to issue an annual report pertaining to the human rights conditions in the country.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law does not adequately protect the right of workers to form and join independent unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively, which made the exercise of these rights difficult. The law provides local citizen workers in private sector enterprises that have 100 citizen workers age 18 and older a limited right to organize, strike, and bargain collectively. The law does not prohibit antiunion discrimination or provide for reinstatement of workers fired for union activity.

The law excludes government employees, noncitizens, domestic workers, drivers, nurses, cooks, gardeners, casual workers, workers employed at sea, and most workers employed in agriculture and grazing from the right to join worker committees or the national union, effectively banning these workers from organizing, bargaining collectively, or striking.

In May the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs issued a decision regulating the formation of the “joint labor committees” within the private sector. In organizations with more than 30 workers, the law permits the establishment of “joint committees” with an equal number of worker and management representatives to deal with a limited number of workplace problems. Foreign workers may be members of joint labor-management committees. The law offers a means to file collective disputes. If disputes are not settled internally between the employees and employer, the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs may mediate a solution. An agreement signed between the ministry and the International Labor Organization (ILO) includes provisions to create these committees with ILO supervision and assistance. Under the umbrella of this agreement and as of August, at least five joint committees have initiated operation and held elections to choose employee representatives. Following the formation of “joint committees,” the ILO provided extensive trainings to the committee members on how to manage the committees, how to establish open channels of communications with workers and management, and the mechanisms to submit complaints to the competent authorities.

The law requires approval by the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs for worker organizations to affiliate with groups outside the country. The government did not respect freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining outside of the joint committees.

For those few workers covered by the law protecting the right to collective bargaining, the government circumscribed the right through its control over the rules and procedures of the bargaining and agreement processes. The labor code allows for only one trade union, the General Union of Workers of Qatar (General Union), which was composed of general committees for workers in various trades or industries. Trade or industry committees were composed of worker committees at the individual firm level. The General Union was not a functioning entity.

Employees could not freely practice collective bargaining, and there were no workers under collective bargaining contracts. While rare, when labor unrest occurred, mostly involving the country’s overwhelmingly foreign workforce, the government reportedly responded by dispatching large numbers of police to the work sites or labor camps involved; the government also requested the assistance of the embassies for the nationals involved. Strikes generally ended after these shows of force and the involvement of embassies to resolve disputes. In many cases the government summarily deported the workers’ leaders and organizers. International labor NGOs were able to send researchers into the country under the sponsorship of academic institutions and quasi-governmental organizations such as the NHRC.

Although the law recognizes the right to strike for some workers, restrictive conditions made the likelihood of a legal strike extremely remote. The law requires approval for a strike by three-fourths of the General Committee of the workers in the trade or the industry, and potential strikers also must exhaust a lengthy dispute resolution procedure before a lawful strike may be called. Civil servants and domestic workers do not have the right to strike; the law also prohibits strikes at public utilities and health or security service facilities, including the gas, petroleum, and transportation sectors. The Complaint Department of the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs, in coordination with the Ministry of Interior, must preauthorize all strikes, including approval of the time and place. In August several thousand migrant workers staged a strike against delayed wage payment and blocked a highway in a remote area outside the capital Doha. The government dispersed the protests and convinced the company to pay the workers one-half of their wages within 48 hours, and the remainder of their wages within the week. There were no reports of security forces arresting or clashing with the protesters.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. International media and human rights organizations alleged numerous abuses against foreign workers, including forced or compulsory labor, withheld wages, unsafe working conditions, poor living accommodations, employers who routinely confiscated worker passports, and a sponsorship system that gave employers inordinate control of workers. During the year Amnesty International reported multiple cases of slow access to justice after three medium-sized companies refused to pay wages, withheld passports, and refused to appear in court. The ILO noted the law allows for the imposition of forced labor on those who hold political views ideologically opposed to the established political and social system.

The government made efforts to prevent and eliminate forced labor, although the restrictive sponsorship system left some migrant workers vulnerable to exploitation. The law allows employees in the private sector to switch employers at the end of their contract, which can be up to five years, without the permission of their employer. Employees may also switch employers in cases of failure to pay, violation of contract, mutual agreement, filing of a legal case in court, and bankruptcy or death of employer. In 2018 the exit visa requirement for most workers covered under the labor law was rescinded. The law does not extend to domestic workers, who are required to obtain their employers’ permission to leave the country. All workers subjected to exit permit requirements are allowed to seek the removal of such restrictions through a Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs jointly operated grievance committee.

During the year the government opened the first trafficking-in-persons shelter. The government arrested and prosecuted individuals for suspected labor law violations. The Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs, the Ministry of Interior, and the NHRC conducted training sessions and distributed to migrant laborers multilingual written explanations of their rights under local labor and sponsorship laws. To combat late and unpaid wages, the government mandated that employers pay wages electronically to all employees subject to the labor law through a system subject to audits by an inspection division at the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs. Employers who failed to pay their workers faced penalties, but enforcement was inconsistent.

There were continuing indications of forced labor, especially in the construction and domestic-labor sectors, which disproportionately affected migrant workers. Exorbitant recruitment fees incurred abroad entrapped many workers in long-term debt, making them more vulnerable to exploitation. Some foreign workers who voluntarily entered the country to work had their passports and pay withheld and worked under conditions to which they had not agreed. Contract substitution remained a problem according to representatives of the migrant worker community; however, to help eliminate the practice, a government electronic contracting system exists in several third countries where workers are hired. Embassies of labor-sending countries reported this new system helped significantly reduce contract substitution and the number of workers who arrive in Doha without contracts.

The Residency Affairs Prosecution received 1,164 complaints for nonpayment in 2018, of which 1,155 were referred to courts and nine complaints were archived.

Also, see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law sets the minimum age for employment at 16 years and stipulates that minors between the ages of 16 and 18 years may work with parental or guardian permission. The law prohibits all of the worst forms of child labor. Minors may not work more than six hours a day or more than 36 hours a week. Employers must provide the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs with the names and occupations of their minor employees and obtain permission from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education to hire a minor. The ministry may prohibit the employment of minors in jobs judged dangerous to their health, safety, or morals. The government generally enforced relevant laws effectively, and child labor rarely occurred. Penalties were sufficient to deter violations.

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on sex, race, language, and religion, but not political opinion, national origin, social origin, disability, sexual orientation, age, or HIV-positive status. Local custom, however, outweighed government enforcement of nondiscrimination laws, and legal, cultural, and institutional discrimination existed against women, noncitizens, and foreign workers. By law women are entitled to equal pay for equal work, but this did not always happen in practice, and they often lacked access to decision-making positions in management of private companies and in the public sector. The government prohibited lower-paid male workers from residing in specific “family” residential zones throughout the country. The government discriminated against noncitizens in employment, education, housing, and health services (see section 6).

The law requires reserving 2 percent of jobs in government agencies and public institutions for persons with disabilities, and most government entities appeared to conform to this law. Private-sector businesses employing a minimum of 25 persons are also required to hire persons with disabilities as 2 percent of their staff. Employers who violate these employment provisions are subject to fines of up to 20,000 QAR ($5,500). There were no reports of violations of the hiring quota requirement during the year.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The labor law provides for a 48-hour workweek with a 24-hour rest period and paid annual leave days. The law requires premium pay for overtime and prohibits excessive compulsory overtime. Employees who work more than 48 hours per week, or 36 hours per week during the month of Ramadan are entitled to an overtime pay supplement of at least 25 percent. The government sets occupational health and safety standards including restrictions on working during the hottest hours of the day during the summer and general restrictions related to temperature during the rest of the day as well. The labor law and provisions for acceptable conditions of work do not apply to workers in the public sector or agriculture, or to domestic workers.

Responsibility for laws related to acceptable conditions of work fell primarily to the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs as well as to the Ministry of Municipality and Environment and the Ministry of Public Health. The government did not effectively enforce standards in all sectors; working conditions for citizens were generally adequate, because government agencies and the major private-sector companies employing them generally followed the relevant laws. Enforcement problems were in part due to insufficient training and lack of personnel. Penalties were not sufficient to deter violations.

The government took limited action to prevent violations and improve working conditions. In March 2018 the worker dispute settlement committees assumed their duties, chaired by first-instance judges appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council and members of the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs. In 2018 the committees issued final verdicts in 1,339 cases, archived 1,088 cases for no-show of workers, and settled 93 cases amicably.

The Labor Inspection Department conducted monthly and random inspections of foreign worker camps. When inspectors found the camps to be below minimum standards, the operators received a warning, and authorities ordered them to remedy the violations within one month. For example, after inspectors reportedly checked companies’ payrolls and health and safety practices, they returned one month later to ensure any recommended changes were made. If a company had not remedied the violations, the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs imposed fines, blacklisted the company, and on occasion referred the matter to the public prosecutor for action. Official statistics showed that the Ministry’s inspectors conducted 43,366 visits to work sites and 2,515 visits to labor accommodations in 2018.

Fear of penalties such as blacklisting appeared to have had some effect as a deterrent to some labor law violations. Blacklisting is an administrative hold on a company or individual that freezes government services such as processing new visa applications from the firms. Firms must pay a 3,000 QAR ($825) fine to be removed from the list–even if the dispute is resolved–and the ministry reserves the right to keep companies on the list after the fine is paid as a punitive measure.

The Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs inspectors continued to conduct inspection visits to work and labor housing sites. Officials from the ILO joined labor inspectors on several inspections and assisted in the formation of a new strategic plan for strengthening the Labor Inspections Unit. Violators faced penalties that were insufficient to deter violations. The ministry maintained an office in Doha’s industrial area, where most unskilled foreign workers resided, to receive complaints about worker safety or nonpayment of wages.

Violations of wage, overtime, and safety and health standards were relatively common, especially in sectors employing foreign workers, in which working conditions were often poor. The government did not effectively enforce these laws. Employers must pay their employees electronically to provide a digital audit trail for the Ministry of Administrative Development, Labor, and Social Affairs. Employers who failed to pay their workers faced penalties which were insufficient to deter violations. By law employees have a right to remove themselves from situations that endangered their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, but authorities did not effectively provide protection to employees exercising this right. Employers often ignored working-hour restrictions and other laws with respect to domestic workers and unskilled laborers, the majority of whom were foreigners.

Some employers did not pay workers for overtime or annual leave. Employers housed many unskilled foreign laborers in cramped, dirty, and hazardous conditions, often without running water, electricity, or adequate food. The government continued to serve eviction notices to property owners whose buildings were not up to code. Throughout the year international media alleged some abusive working conditions existed, including work-related deaths of young foreign workers, especially in the construction sector.

Domestic workers often faced unacceptable working conditions. Many such workers frequently worked seven days a week and more than 12 hours a day with few or no holidays, no overtime pay, and limited means to redress grievances. Some employers denied domestic workers food or access to a telephone, according to news reports and foreign embassy officials.

International NGOs found that foreign workers faced legal obstacles and lengthy legal processes that prevented them from seeking redress for violations and exploitative conditions. Noncitizen community leaders also highlighted migrant workers’ continued hesitation to report their plight due to fear of reprisals.

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