The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. It took concrete steps to reform the sponsorship system particularly for workers who are currently undocumented. In July 2017, the LMRA launched a “flexible work permit” program to legalize undocumented workers while simultaneously permitting previously exploited and illegal laborers to self-sponsor, thereby commencing a shift away from the sponsorship-based employment system. By allowing higher marketplace flexibility, stronger protections for workers’ rights, and improved workplace environs, this new permit program allows up to 2,000 expatriates to apply every month to reside and work in Bahrain without needing a sponsor, after which successful applicants can work any job with any employer on a full-or part-time basis, negotiate wages and working hours directly, and secure multiple jobs concurrently with varying employers. Currently domestic workers, workers who have absconded from their employers, and all classes of workers with valid work permits are not eligible to apply for the program. Some NGOs and source country embassies have expressed concern that unskilled workers may be dissuaded from participation in the program due to its relatively high cost of 449 Bahraini dinar ($1,190); however, the costs included a two-year work permit, health care coverage for both years, a refundable deposit for travel tickets, and an extension of residency permits. At the close of the reporting year, more than 2,200 individuals obtained a “flexi” work permit.
Passport retention was a crime punishable under Article 395 of the Bahraini penal code. It was a crime to limit or otherwise control any person’s freedom of movement in accordance with Article 19(b) of the constitution of Bahrain. Laborers may file a grievance for passport withholding with the police or LMRA; a worker may also register a complaint to the court directly if the employer refuses to return the passport. The government typically treated indicators of forced labor—cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and analogous abuses—administratively as labor law violations and resolved through arbitration rather than routinely investigated for trafficking crimes; however, if arbitration was unsuccessful a worker could file a grievance against the employer in a labor court. In 2017, the government reported closure of three recruitment agencies and revocation of their licenses for contravening Bahraini labor law, and cancelled 17 additional agency licenses for non-compliance with LMRA regulations. The LMRA’s Enforcement and Inspection Department employed 70 inspectors in enforcement of employment violations responsible for worksite inspections. The LMRA and the Ministry of Justice, in partnership with an international organization, trained more than 170 individuals—including journalists, source country labor attaches, social workers, judges, prosecutors, and labor inspectors—over the course of five separate, multi-day workshops focused on trafficking.
The NCCTIP’s budget during the year was 500,000 Bahraini dinar ($1.3 million) for operations and 376,000 Bahraini dinar ($997,350) for awareness and outreach programs, roughly equivalent to 528,300 and 265,000 Bahraini dinar ($1.4 million and $702,920), respectively, the year prior. The government launched an awareness campaign in both local and expatriate communities in Bahrain, involving youth of various nationalities, schools, religious institutions, and foreign embassies. In partnership with an international organization, the NCCTIP held a workshop targeting media personnel to enhance their understanding of trafficking, more accurately report on such issues, and improve the overall role of the media in combating the crime. Also during the reporting period, Bahraini officials participated in a two-day workshop, organized by the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Union, to discuss regulatory mechanisms germane to domestic workers in the region. A quasi-governmental organization produced a campaign to prevent companies from illegally withholding their employees’ passports. The LMRA continued to provide booklets outlining labor rights in 13 languages common among expatriate worker populations, and distributed them upon arrival at the Bahrain International Airport and LMRA when applying for initial or renewed residency cards. The NCCTIP hotline was active to both collect reports and serve as a resource to educate workers about their rights and available services in Hindi, Telugu, Sinhalese, Tamil, Urdu, Malayalam, Arabic, and English. In 2017, the hotline received 5,388 calls, most of which pertained to labor rights, advice on workplace situations, and miscellaneous requests; it was unclear how many calls constituted instances or indicators of trafficking, but officials identified one trafficking victim and investigated an unknown number of cases as a direct result of the hotline. The government had memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with several labor exporting countries, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and India, which focused on oversight of recruitment agencies and protection of migrant workers in Bahrain. The government did not make discernable efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.