The government made uneven efforts to prevent trafficking. Although it allowed some workers, including domestic workers, to self-sponsor their work visas under certain conditions and allowed domestic workers to change jobs at the end of their contract without employer consent, it did not adequately or fully implement these efforts. In the previous reporting period, the government reinstated the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons after a one-year hiatus; however, the full committee did not convene. The government appointed a new chair in March 2023. The government established a working group in July 2022 to implement best practices in the anti-trafficking field, chaired by the Minister of Interior. In July 2022, the government conducted the second iteration of its training of trainers program at its Regional Center of Excellence and Capacity Building for Combating Trafficking, certifying 25 trainers for individuals in healthcare, aviation, labor inspection, victim care, and LMRA staff to enable them to share expertise on victim identification in Bahrain. The LMRA established a new section within the Regional Center to conduct research and development based on data gathered from cases within the NRM, but did not report any outputs of the section at the close of the reporting period.
Article 23 of Bahraini Law No. 19 of 2006 prohibited “for any person to receive any moneys or obtain any benefit or advantage from an employee in lieu of issuing him a work permit or in return for the employment of such an employee or his retention in his job.” However, observers noted migrant workers continued to report the prevalence of schemes in which prospective workers paid a recruiter in their home country, or more rarely paid a recruiter in Bahrain, for employment or a work permit. Furthermore, experts asserted the government did not adequately pursue measures to limit this practice or provide support to workers indebted to unscrupulous recruiters, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses such as construction firms, salons, and those in office support fields like security personnel, cleaners, and other support staff. Nonetheless, during the reporting year, PPO received one case of violation for prosecution. The LMRA continued to oversee issuance of licenses and regulation of recruitment agencies through quarterly inspections, monitoring agencies for employment and immigration violations, and other measures. The government continued to require employers provide workers with adequate accommodation and required recruitment agencies pay a one-time deposit equivalent to 10,000 BD ($26,525) that would be forfeited if the company violated employees’ rights. During the year, PID conducted 241 recruitment agency inspections and shut down two unlicensed agencies and referred them for civil prosecution, one of which resulted in a conviction. PID also shut down one licensed recruitment agency due to noncompliance with LMRA regulations. Between October and December 2022, the LMRA carried out 7,037 worksite and labor camp inspections, including 116 joint inspections with MOI officials and other government ministries; it referred 257 employers for violating labor regulations and 474 workers for violating the residency law to the PPO. Notably, the inspections resulted in the referral of 62 potential forced labor cases to the PPO for criminal proceedings. The LMRA reported in October the conviction of 20 defendants for “obtaining a work permit without an actual need for it” or “keeping the work permit when it is no longer needed,” under Law No. 19 of 2006 with regard to regulation of the labor market.
Since 2011, the government allowed private sector migrant workers freedom to change jobs without their employer’s consent after one year of employment, although the LMRA still had to approve each transfer; during the reporting period, 4.86% of Bahrain’s migrant worker population changed employers. In addition to this policy, the government operated programs granting foreign workers the ability to work without a Bahraini visa sponsor. In November 2022, the government abolished its Flexi Permit program which had previously allowed foreign nationals to reside and work in Bahrain without a visa sponsor. NGOs and labor rights organizations expressed concerns low-income workers could not afford the permit under the old system and, in some cases, accrued debt to pay for it. In December 2022, the LRP replaced the Flexi Permit program at significantly lower cost, allowing migrants to register at labor registration centers to obtain a work permit without a sponsor or contract. Non-contract workers could register for a one- or two-year permit, both renewable at the end of either period. A one-year permit cost 347 BD ($920) and a two-year permit cost 519 BD ($1,376), which included health insurance and departure flight ticket insurance. These programs allowed registered workers to hold multiple jobs concurrently with various employers. Some migrant worker advocates feared that labor registration centers would require a vocational certification or professional qualification and semi-skilled workers, like electricians and carpenters, would face difficulty applying without the proper credentials. The government stated that technical certification was not a requirement for the registration process.
The LRP was available for current Flexi Permit holders and workers with expired, cancelled, or terminated contracts, regardless of their immigration status. Workers transitioning from the Flexi Permit to the LRP were eligible for a refund or credit for fees paid. However, like the Flexi Permit program, migrants could not register with the LRP before arriving in Bahrain or after arriving on a tourist visa; workers were only eligible for the program once their work visa expired, contract ended, or if they were undocumented. This continued to put migrant workers in vulnerable situations with their legal immigration status tied to their sponsor or employer when first arriving and seeking employment in the country. Additionally, workers who were the targets of legal charges filed against them for items such as “absconding” or criminal charges, were not eligible to register. Notably, domestic workers were eligible to register with the LRP following the expiration of their contract or in situations where their contract was cancelled or terminated due to a violation of their rights or abuse. Domestic workers were not previously eligible for the Flexi Permit. Separate from the LRP, the government reported domestic workers could change jobs without employer consent following the conclusion of their initial contracts; domestic workers in Bahrain generally had two-year contracts. However, it did not publicize or announce this policy change, which limited the number of domestic workers aware of and able to utilize this reform, as well as its implementation among officials. One NGO reported low awareness of the change among domestic workers and expressed concerns employers could unilaterally renew a worker’s permit and visa. The LMRA stated that workers had the option to preempt any unilateral or automatic contract renewal or to notify the LMRA at the contract’s end that they do not want to renew. All migrant workers remained able to terminate employment at any time, within the notice period specified in their contract, and leave the country permanently without employer consent; however, some employers continued to demand employees procure an exit permit, suggesting low awareness of the policy.
Previously, advocacy groups expressed the need to ensure rights for self-sponsored workers. Freelance workers or those in short-term employment were not required to have a contract with their employer, and rarely did, heightening their vulnerability to wage disputes or other issues related to temporary employment. Furthermore, because self-sponsored workers were not categorized as “employees,” they were not entitled to rights and protections enshrined under the labor law. The LRP maintained this approach, with registered workers not covered under the labor law, although they could file complaints with the LMRA for addressing disputes between the worker and employer or labor registration center. The government reported it was in the process of launching a hotline for registered workers to report problems as well as signing an MOU with the Ministry of Justice, Islamic Affairs and Endowments to establish offices within the LMRA dedicated to filing civil cases for registered workers and providing pro bono services in legal proceedings; however, it did not report finalizing or implementing either initiative.
The government’s WPS obligated employers to pay wages electronically to workers via financial institutions authorized by the Central Bank of Bahrain. The government designed the system to alert the LMRA to instances of non- or delayed-payment of wages with violators subject to penalties and legal action. The final phase of the WPS launched in January 2022 to encompass any employer with one or more employees and during the reporting year, the government began automatically registering self-sponsored workers in the WPS. As of January 2023, the government had not pursued any penalties against employers for non-compliance and noted it preferred to continue education for employers – especially small enterprises, which comprise the majority of businesses in Bahrain – instead of penalizing them. NGOs continued to express concern that a bar on issuing new work permits was an insufficient penalty for violating the WPS. NGOs reported officials still preferred to mediate WPS wage disputes between the employer and employee, rather than hold the non-compliant employer accountable with penalties. Non- and delayed-payment of wages continued to be common practice; the LMRA reported it received 1,034 claims of unpaid wages from workers during the year. For example, during the reporting period, 62 migrant workers employed by a construction company in Bahrain reported that beginning in January 2021, the company owed six to 12 months of wages to the workers and end of service benefits; as of November 2022, the government had frozen the company’s assets, but the workers remained without their salaries or other benefits. Employers of domestic workers were not required to enroll in the system. A total of 2,760 employers had voluntarily registered to pay domestic workers through the WPS by the close of the reporting period.
Articles 19 and 40 of the labor law established limited protections for domestic workers, which included agricultural workers, home security guards, nannies, drivers, and cooks who work for the employer or family members, requiring employers to provide a labor contract specifying annual leave and bonuses, and that such workers must be paid at least monthly. However, Article 22, which prohibited contract switching or changes to preset work conditions outlined in the contract, was not applicable to domestic workers. Labor inspectors were unable to conduct unannounced inspections of domestic workers’ accommodations and investigate abuse allegations without an official complaint, which may have left some victims at risk of exploitation and without protection. Due to these limited protections, NGOs reported domestic workers frequently fled their employer’s home to remove themselves from abusive situations, thereby further increasing their vulnerability to traffickers seeking to exploit their unemployment and undocumented status. As soon as employers reported a worker as “absconding,” they faced residency law violations and could be detained by officials. Employers reported 1,585 “absconding” cases against workers during the reporting period – including 801 against domestic workers. The LMRA continued to disseminate copies of the standard labor contract to all registered recruitment agencies in Bahrain, which required domestic workers to sign, prior to their arrival, a comprehensive work agreement outlining labor rights and employment obligations. The contract aimed to strengthen protections for domestic workers by requiring employers to disclose duties, hours of work, salary, rest hours, and weekly days off. Domestic workers brought into Bahrain by recruitment agencies were able to accept or reject a contract in their respective countries of origin, and the LMRA maintained copies of signed contracts to assist in future labor disputes. However, NGOs expressed concern the standard contract lacked mandatory working conditions as it remained up to the employer to determine working hours, minimum wage, overtime pay, and rest time. In contrast, title seven of the labor law stipulated a maximum daily limit of eight working hours for other private sector workers. Additionally, NGOs noted many vulnerable domestic workers did not know the contents of their contract due to language barriers; thus, one rights group asserted domestic worker contracts should be signed with a Bahraini government official and interpreter present. Furthermore, domestic workers rarely received a copy of their contract. During the reporting period, the government reported implementing a mandate on the use of the standard contract for all domestic worker recruitment – either through a regulated recruitment agency or directly by a family employer – and ensuring LMRA had the contract on file to mitigate contract switching. Previously, NGOs reported standard contracts were only required when using regulated recruitment agencies.
Bahraini law did not explicitly prohibit passport retention, even when the employee objected to the practice. Instead, the government handled passport retention administratively once migrant workers filed a grievance for passport withholding with the police or the LMRA. Such cases handled by the LMRA reportedly involved screening for trafficking indicators by trained GPD staff. Representatives of labor-source country embassies reported cases handled by LMRA resulted in expedient and fair disposition of cases. Once contacted by the LMRA or police, employers routinely denied having possession of an employee’s passport. Without an admission, law enforcement did not pursue cases of passport retention as an indicator of trafficking, and the LMRA did not impose administrative penalties. In most cases, the employer returned the passport, once contacted by the police or LMRA. The LMRA reported it received 3,254 phone calls with claims of passport retention through the NRM, although this number did not include all other complaints of passport retention submitted by other mechanisms. The LMRA retrieved and returned 3,844 passports to migrant workers in 2022. Police generally did not consider passport retention to be a trafficking indicator, instead considering it stolen property if the employer refused to return it. In such cases, the LMRA referred the case to law enforcement and could prohibit the employer from obtaining new or renewing existing work permits and could refer the employer to law enforcement for legal action. The government reported a draft labor law amendment was under review to criminalize passport confiscation, but it did not specify penalties and it remained under review at the close of the reporting period.
In partnership with an international organization, the government conducted a national awareness campaign targeting foreign workers on workers’ and employer’s rights and responsibilities, as well as exploitive practices that may lead to trafficking such as passport retention, restriction of movement, long working hours, and lack of medical attention. The LMRA maintained a website (endtrafficking.bh) with information on trafficking and resources for foreign workers; however, NGOs reported key information on the website was only available in English, limiting its utility. The LMRA reported multilingual materials from the awareness campaign would be added to its website but did not report doing so by the close of the reporting period. 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 the LMRA when applying for initial or renewed residency cards; the government also provided mobile phone subscriber identity module (SIM) cards to workers upon entry into Bahrain, which allowed the LMRA to maintain contact information for each worker to ensure workers could be notified via short message service (SMS) for updates on their legal status, worker permits, and receive awareness messages. The EPC’s trafficking hotline collected reports and educated workers about their rights and available services in nine languages 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The government advertised the hotline’s number and mandate through pamphlets given to each migrant worker upon arrival in Bahrain and on the LMRA’s social media platforms and website. The government reported the LMRA’s trafficking hotline received 14,169 calls during the year; however, it did not report identifying any trafficking cases or victims through the hotline. One NGO reported the government hotline sometimes went unanswered and did not provide support in Tagalog, despite there being many Filipino workers in Bahrain. The government continued to uphold MOUs with several labor source countries, including Pakistan, that focused on recruitment agency oversight and migrant worker protections, and reported several additional MOUs were in progress. The government partnered with an international organization to begin implementation of orientation programs for migrant workers developed in 2021 – two in a worker’s home country, one upon arrival in Bahrain, and one in preparation to depart 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.