The government strengthened overall efforts to prevent trafficking. Since its inception in July 2017, the LMRA’s “flexible (or flexi) work permit” program has served to regularize thousands of undocumented workers while simultaneously permitting previously exploited and irregular laborers to sponsor themselves independent of an employer. The “flexi” permit ultimately aimed to reduce trafficking vulnerabilities inherent to the sponsorship-based employment system. During the reporting period, the number of “flexi” permit holders increased from 5,000 to more than 24,000, comprised more than 50 different nationalities, and approximately 90 percent of “flexi” recipients hailed from Bangladesh. Under the “flexi” permit, expatriates can reside and work in Bahrain without a sponsor. Successful applicants can work any full- or part-time job with any chosen employer—including multiple jobs concurrently with various employers—and are able to directly negotiate wages and working hours. To address the concerns of NGOs and source country embassies regarding equity in coverage, in November 2018, the government temporarily extended eligibility for a six-month amnesty period to non-domestic workers and domestic workers—which includes agricultural workers, home security personnel, nannies, drivers, and cooks—who absconded from their employers. In addition, legal workers were eligible to enroll in the program without the consent of their employer after the termination or expiry of their work permit. Furthermore, in November the LMRA amended the “flexi” permit to allow new enrollees to purchase either a one- or two-year permit for 449 Bahraini dinar ($1,190) or 277 Bahraini dinar ($730), respectively. However, in February as part of the government’s launch of a National Employment Program, designed to promote the hiring of Bahrainis in the private sector, it subsequently increased fees for companies that hire Bahrainis over expatriates as well as the overall cost of the “flexi” permit fee. The two-year permit increased by 300 Bahraini dinar ($800) and the one-year permit increased by 150 Bahraini dinar ($400). The latter form of the “flexi” permit included a work permit, health care coverage, a refundable deposit for travel tickets, an extension of residency timeframes, and waived immigration fines incurred while in irregular status. During the reporting period, the Government of the Philippines began paying for its citizens’ “flexi” permit application fees with an estimated budget of $1.4 million to encourage wider participation in the program. However, some NGOs and labor rights organizations continued to express concerns that the “flexi” program created a system of day laborers, overly shifted legal responsibilities to the employees, and generated economic coercion given the associated costs of eligibility.
Passport retention was a crime punishable under Article 395 of the Bahraini penal code, although it remained a ubiquitous practice by employers of unskilled laborers and domestic workers. 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, the Ministry of Labor (MOL), or LMRA; a worker may also register a complaint to the court directly if the employer refuses to return the passport. Labor authorities reportedly referred an unknown number of cases of passport retention to the police as they violated the penal code vice labor law; however; they did not report investigating any such cases as potential trafficking crimes. The government typically treated indicators of forced labor—cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and related abuses—administratively as labor law violations and resolved through arbitration rather than routinely investigating for trafficking crimes; however, if arbitration was unsuccessful a worker could file a grievance against the employer in a labor court. The government piloted a recruitment integrity system, designed by an international organization, to identify agencies for auditing to ensure they adhered to global ethical standards on labor recruitment. Moreover, in partnership with the international organization, officials funded several workshops to certify that eight labor recruitment agencies had ethical labor recruitment and employment methods in compliance with international standards. During the reporting period, the government permanently shut down two recruitment agencies and revoked both licenses for contravening Bahraini labor law, and it cancelled the licenses of an additional 14 agencies due to non-compliance with LMRA regulations; in 2017, the government closed three agencies and cancelled 17 licenses. The LMRA’s Enforcement and Inspection Department employed 70 inspectors responsible for enforcement of employment violations, immigration violations, and worksite inspections; the inspectorate body conducted quarterly visits to all recruitment agencies.
The national committee’s budget remained at 500,000 Bahraini dinar ($1.3 million) for operations and 376,000 Bahraini dinar ($997,350) for anti-trafficking outreach programming. The government also earmarked an annual budget of 190,000 Bahraini dinar ($503,980) to establish and run a center of excellence for an international organization for the purposes of capacity building for victim assistance among government and regional stakeholders. The government maintained its anti-trafficking awareness campaign in both local and expatriate communities in Bahrain, involving youth of various nationalities, schools, religious institutions, NGOs, and foreign embassies. In partnership with an international organization, the national committee 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, the government regularly hosted students from the University of Bahrain’s legal clinic to enrich their understanding of trafficking, in addition to the protective services officials provide to foreign and domestic laborers. The LMRA continued to provide booklets outlining labor rights in 14 languages common among expatriate and migrant worker populations, and distributed them to such populations upon their arrival at the Bahrain International Airport and at LMRA when applying for initial or renewed residency cards. The LMRA’s hotline was active to both collect reports and serve as a resource to educate workers about their rights and available services in Arabic, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Tagalog, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. During the reporting period, the hotline received 5,654 calls, most of which pertained to labor rights, advice on workplace situations, and miscellaneous requests; however, officials did not identify any trafficking victims through this hotline. MOL investigated 1,373 cases of delayed or withholding of wages based on calls received, of which they resolved 48 percent in amicable out-of-court settlements and referred the remainder to the labor courts. The government had memoranda of understanding with several labor exporting countries, including 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 or forced labor. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.