The government increased efforts to prevent trafficking. The LMRA, with senior government support, convened, hosted, and fully funded the region’s first anti-trafficking forum —with participation of high-level delegations from across the Middle East—to share best practices, discuss challenges to curbing the crime, and commit to regionally-specific efforts to combat trafficking to include the notorious kafala system. 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. During the reporting period, the number of “flexi” permit holders increased from just under 24,000 to 27,660 comprised of more than 50 different nationalities. Nearly 5,500 “flexi” permit holders renewed their permit during this time. Under the “flexi” permit, expatriates can reside and work in Bahrain without a sponsor, thereby reducing trafficking vulnerabilities inherent in the kafala or sponsorship-based employment system. 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 concerns of NGOs and source country embassies regarding equity in coverage, in November 2018, the government temporarily extended eligibility to non-domestics and domestic workers who absconded from their employers; however, the government did not renew this expansion during the current reporting period, rendering domestic employees vulnerable to the plight of the kafala system. Legal workers were eligible to enroll in the program without the consent of their employer after the termination or expiry of their work permit. The “flexi” permit—one-year permit cost of 427 Bahraini dinar ($1,130)—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. Some NGOs and labor rights organizations continued to express concerns that the “flexi” program created a system of day laborers, shifted legal responsibilities to the employees, and amounted to economic coercion given the associated monetary costs of eligibility.
Passport retention was a crime punishable under Article 395 of the Bahraini penal code, although it remained a common practice by employers of unskilled laborers and domestic workers. However, unskilled and domestic laborers feared reporting their employers and refusing to hand over their passports. 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 could file a grievance for passport withholding with the police, the Ministry of Labor, or LMRA; a worker could also register a complaint to the court directly if the employer refuses to return the passport. Labor authorities did not report referring any cases of passport retention to the police or investigating any such cases as potential trafficking crimes. The government required all recruitment agencies to submit a security deposit equivalent of 10,000 Bahraini dinar ($26,530) to safeguard employees’ rights. During the reporting period, the government permanently shut down one recruitment agency and revoked its license for contravening Bahraini labor law; in 2018 it similarly closed two agencies. It cancelled the licenses of seven additional recruitment firms due to noncompliance with LMRA regulations. 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 for Combating Trafficking in Persons’ budget increased to 984,000 Bahraini dinar ($2.6 million), which included 534,000 Bahraini dinar ($1.42 million) for operations and 376,000 Bahraini dinar ($997,350) for anti-trafficking outreach programming. Earmarked in the previous reporting period, the government allocated 250,000 Bahraini dinar ($663,130) during the current year to officially inaugurate a Center of Excellence, in partnership with two international organizations, for the purposes of capacity building for victim assistance among government and regional stakeholders. The government expanded its anti-trafficking awareness campaigns in both local and expatriate communities in Bahrain, involving youth of various nationalities, schools, social groups, religious institutions, NGOs, and foreign embassies. Additionally, it used mobile phones to proactively engage with migrant labor populations, sending out more than 400,000 text messages with the trafficking hotline information, labor rights facts, and police station locations. The LMRA launched a new website during the reporting period (endtrafficking.bh) with a wide range of information on trafficking and myriad resources readily accessible for foreign workers. 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. 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 13 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. The government reported receiving a 14 percent increase in the number of calls during the reporting period (6,444, up from 5,654 such calls the previous year), most of which pertained to labor rights, advice on workplace situations, and miscellaneous requests. Officials did not identify any victims through this hotline. The government concluded 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 efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.