US to Investigate Compliance With Free Trade Agreement
(Manama) - The Bahrain government should investigate and remedy the summary dismissals of more than 2,000 workers since late March, apparently as punishment for having participated in or otherwise supported pro-democracy demonstrations, Human Rights Watch said today.
The dismissals may have violated Bahraini labor laws as well as international standards, in particular those prohibiting discrimination on the basis of political opinion, and should be rescinded, and those affected should be compensated if investigations show that this is the case, Human Rights Watch said.
"It appears that hundreds of workers have been dismissed arbitrarily, ostensibly because they missed some days of work," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "It seems more likely that it was because they supported peaceful protests or heeded the union federation's strike call."
As of July 12, 2011, a total of 2,186 workers, many in key firms in which the state has a financial stake, had been fired since late March, according to the independent General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU). In most cases the stated reasons seem to have been absence from work during street protests and the initial days of martial law.
The government narrative that the pro-democracy protests constituted an Iranian-inspired plot to overthrow the ruling family also casts the leadership of the union federation as playing a major role. Those fired by companies include 41 local union leaders and seven out of 15 members of the federation's executive board.
Human Rights Watch interviewed 18 workers fired from six companies. All said they were given no advance warning and that the companies did not conduct independent investigations to determine that they had violated company or government regulations before they were dismissed. Human Rights Watch also contacted management in these six firms. In the course of this research, the government informed Human Rights Watch's researcher that it would not extend his visa and that he had to leave the country within 24 hours.
Article 113(4) of Bahrain's Labor Law (23/1976) allows a firm to dismiss a worker if he or she has been absent "without reasonable cause" for more than 20 days in a year, or more than 10 consecutive days, provided that dismissal is preceded by a written warning after five consecutive days of absence. Almost all of the cases reviewed by Human Rights Watch involved absences of fewer than 10 days, and the workers said they had received no warning. Article 102 (4) states that there should be no penalty for any offense committed outside of the workplace, making dismissals for participating in demonstrations outside of work time unlawful, even if the government considered the demonstrations themselves illegal.
"These companies carried out widespread summary dismissals that appear to violate Bahrain's own labor laws as well as Bahrain's obligations as a member state of the International Labour Organization," Stork said. "The government needs to respect, and ensure that companies respect, the right of workers and employees to assemble peacefully and to hold dissenting political beliefs without facing politically motivated reprisals."
Union federation officials told Human Rights Watch that authorities have questioned many workers about their participation in the Pearl Roundabout demonstrations between February 18 and March 16 or funeral marches for people killed by security forces, and about political comments posted on social network sites. In at least some cases, support for the protests was the declared reason for dismissal.
For instance, the Disciplinary Body of the Council of Representatives, Bahrain's elected lower legislative chamber, on May 19 terminated Muhammad Abdullah Hillal al-Kiraz for allegedly attending the funeral of Ali Mushaima, who had died on February 14, participating in a demonstration on March 3, and "participating in the roundabout."
At the time of the street protests, Bahrainis had every reason to think they were not violating the law. In an interview on state-run Bahrain TV on March 6, for example, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa said that participating in the Pearl Roundabout demonstrations was "one of the rights of Bahraini citizens; it is their right to gather and walk in peaceful marches." He also said: "We have thousands protesting in the roundabout and with complete freedom and ease are expressing their opinions."
Human Rights Watch called on all companies and government bodies that have laid off workers to produce copies of written warnings and dismissal messages that Bahrain's labor law and civil service law requires them to send, if such notices were in fact sent to the workers who were subsequently dismissed. The companies and government bodies should ensure that workers wrongfully dismissed are reinstated in their previous positions and receive full pay for the period between the wrongful dismissal and the reinstatement.
In mid-June Bahraini media reported that a "verification committee headed by Labor Minister Jamil Humaidan had recommended reinstatement of 571 dismissed workers." A union federation official told Human Rights Watch on July 6 that, as of that date, reinstatement had been "very slow" - he put the number at "100 maximum."
Human Rights Watch said that the United States should urge Bahrain to reinstate unlawfully dismissed workers and compensate them for lost wages and salaries. Human Rights Watch also urged the US Labor Department to consider the information in this report as it investigates a complaint submitted by the AFL-CIO calling for termination of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Bahrain, which entered into force in August 2006.
Under the terms of the agreement, Bahrain is required to enforce its own labor laws, which it apparently failed to do in the summary dismissals documented here. Under chapter 15 of the agreement, the parties reaffirm their commitments under the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles at Work and Follow-Up, including the right of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Under US law, the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs has jurisdiction to review compliance with free trade agreement provisions.
Human Rights Watch also supported the call of the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation to establish an ILO Commission of Inquiry into Bahraini violations of ILO Convention 111, prohibiting discrimination in hiring and firing for reasons of, among other things, political opinions.
The government itself has fired or suspended hundreds of workers in ministries and other state institutions, including schools and hospitals. Authorities say they are "investigating" others. The wholly state-owned Bahrain Petroleum Company (Bapco) dismissed 293 workers, the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA) reported on May 11. Bapco management also filed a complaint against 12 fired union leaders with the Public Prosecutor, which the government then moved to the office of the Military Prosecutor. According to the labor federation, Bapco had dismissed 303 workers as of July 12.
As of April 7, according to the BNA, the Education Ministry had fired 111 employees and the government disbanded the Teachers Association. The BNA also reported that the Municipal and Urban Planning Affairs Ministry had suspended 21, while "investigating" 200 others, and that dozens of civil servants will face "legal action" for alleged illegal acts during unrest that began on February 14.
"It appears that Bahrain is punishing more than 2,000 workers and their families, interpreting days absent from work as support for protests seeking for political reform, protests that the government sanctioned at the time," Stork said. "There is no reason for the United States to indulge this kind of official retribution for exercising the basic right of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly."
The General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU) represents over 25,000 workers in 65 company-based unions. The federation has registered the names of fired workers and the circumstances of their dismissals in order to file complaints with the Labor Ministry and to request unemployment compensation.
On February 17, following attacks by army and security forces on demonstrations that left seven protesters dead, the federation called a general strike of its members for February 20. The union canceled the call the next day, February 18, when security forces pulled out from the Pearl Roundabout.
On March 13, as tensions again mounted, the federation called for another nationwide strike for the next day. On March 16, security forces violently dispersed demonstrators from the Pearl Roundabout and began a systematic crackdown throughout the country against protest supporters.
In the days immediately preceding and following the declaration of martial law on March 15, numerous checkpoints and security operations made travel hazardous and resulted in numerous arbitrary arrests. On March 14, for example, the head of the trade Union of the Bahraini Petroleum Company (Bapco) wrote to Energy Minister Abd al-Hussein Bin Ali Mirza, who is also president of Bapco's board of directors, saying that some Bapco workers had been beaten and their cars destroyed by gangs armed with iron rods and wooden sticks, and in some cases firearms. He wrote that "workers are not willing to put themselves and their lives at risk for the sake of work."
The federation ended its general strike on March 22. The federation maintains that it called both strikes because workers traveling to and from work were endangered by troops and security forces attacking demonstrators and by numerous unofficial checkpoints in the days just prior to and following the declaration of martial law.
On April 5, following initial reports of mass firings, Juan Somavia, director-general of the UN International Labor Organization, called on the government "to ensure that workers and their unions in Bahrain do not face any further form of unfair, unjust, and degrading treatment for having expressed their legitimate rights in accordance with the principles of freedom of association."
On April 18 Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa labeled the February and March protests "a coup attempt," in a statement carried by BNA. "No violators will get away with it," he said. "All co-conspirators and abettors must be held accountable." The prime minister ordered all ministries and government departments to submit reports on employees who failed to report to work in March.
On April 19, the University of Bahrain president, Ebrahim Mohammed Janahi, announced that the university was firing "200 students, academicians, admins [sic], employees, and security guards," BNA reported.
Laws Relating to Dismissals
Under article 113 of Bahrain's private sector labor law (Law 23/1976), firms can dismiss workers for being absent without authorization for 10 consecutive days (or 20 days in a single year). The law's implementing regulations require a company to first warn the worker of possible action after five days' consecutive absence. The relevant regulations of the Civil Service Act, covering absences by state employees also call for a written warning and up to a one-day suspension for any absences without permission, suspension for up to 10 days for missing five consecutive days of work without permission, and dismissal if the employee misses five consecutive days for a third time. The act also permits dismissal if the employee participates in strikes at "vital facilities." The civil service regulations also allow for dismissal for "misbehavior inside or outside the workplace" and for "engaging in work harmful to or inconsistent with government employment."
All of the dismissed workers interviewed by Human Rights Watch were employed by private firms, and thus covered by Law 23/1976. These workers consistently and independently told Human Rights Watch they were dismissed without warning. Except in one case, those dismissed were absent from work for fewer than the 10 days specified in the labor law, and in some cases they had received their employers' approval for their absences.
All of them said they had taken part in the pro-democracy protests at one time or another. This was not the explicit reason that companies gave for their dismissal, but in at least one case an employee was terminated after a plainclothes company guard or state security officer - his affiliation was not clear - observed that she had a copy of a newsletter of al-Wifaq, an opposition political society. In the case of independent taxi drivers, it was clear that they were punished for participating in a peaceful protest.
Fearing arrest if they spoke out, all asked that Human Rights Watch not make their full names public.
J., who worked for 23 years at the Bahrain Telecommunications Company (Batelco), said he received an SMS message from the company's human resources department on April 3 informing him that management was going to fire him. The message said he should report to the "staff center" the next morning. His company e-mail account was blocked at the same time he got this message, J. told Human Rights Watch.
When J. arrived on April 4 at the front gate of the Batelco office, security guards took individual employee identification cards from him and about 80 other Batelco workers. The cards, coded to allow access to the office, had already been deactivated, J. said. The guards gave each worker an identical letter dated April 3 (with an identical reference number at the top - "213") saying each worker had been dismissed for failing to follow "procedures."
J. and the other workers went immediately to the Labor Ministry to file a complaint and apply for unemployment benefits. Police there shooed them away. They then went to the office of the labor federation, whose officials said they would relay the cases to the ministry.
J. told Human Rights Watch he was absent from work for seven consecutive work days beginning March 16. He said that Batelco managers sent SMS messages to all its employees during this period advising them not to come to work if they felt unsafe on the roadways and to arrange their absences with their supervisors, which J. said he did. Many workers continued to work from their homes using the Internet, J. said, including himself. When J. returned to work on March 23, he said, managers said nothing to him about his absences and he worked without incident until April 3.
According to the labor federation, Batelco had dismissed 165 employees as of July 12.
S., a truck driver at the Khalifa bin Salman Port, operated by Netherlands-based APM Terminals, said he was fired on March 30. He had been absent for a total of 10 days and returned to work on March 26.
On March 30, at the close of the work day, plainclothes police and company security officers stood at the gate of the port with a list of names in hand, S. told Human Rights Watch. He recognized the police investigators because they frequently made inspections at the port. As S. left work, he said, the agents took his work badge and told him, "You're finished." APM Terminals fired 11 drivers that day and six more on March 31, he said.
On March 31, S. received a letter by mail warning that he had been absent without permission for five days. On April 7 he called the human resources department to check on his status, and officials said he had been fired for missing 10 days of work. He reported his firing to the federation.
According to the federation, Khalifa Sea Port, operated by APM, fired 145 workers as of July 12.
Two manual laborers from Aluminum Bahrain, an aluminum smelter company also known as Alba, said they were fired March 24 after an absence of nine days. They said the human resources department called each of them in and asked them to sign a paper saying they had been "informed' of their dismissal. They said 40 people received such notices from Alba that day.
These two workers said they had not received any official warning letter or threat of dismissal. Each had answered the union federation's strike call by walking out on March 14. One said he called his supervisors a few days later to say that roads were unsafe and that he could come to work if Alba sent transportation. The supervisor said that would not be possible.
On July 12 the federation reported that 410 workers from Alba had registered with the union as having been fired.
Bahrain Airport Services
Al-Aradi, a driver at Bahrain Airport Services (BAS), told Human Rights Watch he was absent from work for seven consecutive work days between March 14 and March 21. When he returned to work, on March 22, he and eight other employees received letters at the front gate of the BAS office saying they had been fired for missing more than 10 days work. The nine workers went to file a complaint at the Labor Ministry, where police turned them away. They then registered a complaint with the labor federation and a request for unemployment benefits with the Labor Ministry, al-Aradi said. BAS had dismissed 70 employees as of July 12, according to the labor federation.
Um Hussein, a worker at Gulf Air, the state-owned carrier, said the company's human resources department fired her on April 14. She had missed work from March 14 to March 22 in response to the labor federation's strike call, although she said a supervisor had told her he would mark her down as on leave.
On March 28 a man in civilian clothes at the exit gate of Gulf Air offices in the Muharraq district searched Um Hussein's car and found a newspaper published by al-Wifaq, the opposition National Islamic Society, she told Human Rights Watch. The man asked her, "Who do you like?" specifically asking her if she liked the king of Bahrain. She replied, "I like whoever you say to like." He told her to return to her office, where he made her open her computer and saw that it contained a web page about Shia Islam. He took her name and mobile phone number and left, she said.
On April 14, Um Hussein's supervisor said that the Gulf Air human resources office wanted to see her. When she arrived, about six other employees were there. A human resources officer told her to hand over her company badge and asked her to sign a paper, which Um Hussein refused because she was not permitted to read it. She was dismissed anyway.
According to the labor federation, Gulf Air had dismissed 168 workers as of July 12.
Bahrain National Gas Company
Three employees from the Bahrain National Gas Company told Human Rights Watch they were fired on April 9. They said they had been absent from March 14 to March 19 due to fears for their safety while traveling to and from work, and from March 23 to March 30, a period in which, they said, a supervisor approved their formal leave requests. One of the men, Abu Ali, said that he was called into the human resources office in early April, where he explained that his absence was due to chaos on the streets and that he had requested escorted transportation. His supervisor had told him at the time no secure transportation was available. A company official gave him a letter saying that he and the others had broken company regulations and that the company was dismissing them.
According to the labor federation, Bahrain National Gas fired 52 workers as of July 12.
Self-employed taxi drivers were punished for participating in their own demonstrations during the March protests. Sa`id, a taxi driver for nine years, told Human Rights Watch that on April 6 he received a phone call from the traffic department at the Interior Ministry to go to an intersection known as the Alba roundabout the next day. At 9 a.m. on April 7, Sa`id arrived at the roundabout, where, he said, he saw about 30 other parked taxis and their drivers. Uniformed police called each driver by name, confiscated his mobile phone, and ordered him to drive to a local scrap yard and park his taxi in a long row.
One by one, the men were then called into a small building where three uniformed policeman and an army officer awaited. A policeman asked Sa`id if he had taken part in demonstrations. Sa`id answered that he had. The officer took his taxi permit. The officer returned Sa`id's mobile phone but not his car. They escorted him out of the yard, and he called a friend to pick him up. At the time Human Rights Watch spoke with him, Sa`id did not know what had happened to his car, or if he would be able to retrieve it.
Human Rights Watch requested an interview with Alba officials. In response, Eline Hilal, investor and public relations manager, said by telephone, "We have nothing to talk about." She referred Human Rights Watch to the company's news releases on the subject. In a March 31 news release, Alba said that 85 per cent of its employees went to work "despite the call from the labor federation and restrictions in traffic movement. Nevertheless, employees who have infringed the Kingdom of Bahrain's Labour Law as well as Alba's HR [human resources] policies by not reporting, or committing other offences against the company will have to face disciplinary actions accordingly."
Batelco, with 144 dismissals, did not respond to Human Rights Watch's April 18 request for information about the reasons and procedures for dismissals. Banagas, where 50 workers were fired, also did not respond to an April 18 request for information. A telephone call and two emails requesting interviews with Gulf Air, which fired 17 employees, were unanswered. Bahrain Airport Services, where there were 51 firings, said it could not provide an interview during the time Human Rights Watch was in Bahrain. In an April 3 article in The National, a Abu Dhabi-based daily, the BAS chief executive Phil Bowell said, "We have got some people we haven't heard from for a long time, and as far as we're concerned, they're no longer part of the company." Requests to BAS for a telephone interview on July 11 and July 12 went unanswered.
APM Terminals' chief for the Africa-Middle East region, Charles Menkhorst, told Human Rights Watch that the company "regretted" firing 128 workers, but that absences "for no valid reason" had had a "massive impact on our ability to service our customers." He said the company had sent SMS messages to the company's workers warning against striking. Warning letters went out five days later and dismissal letters were sent by registered mail on March 31, Menkhorst told Human Rights Watch. He said that eight workers originally dismissed were reinstated when they came up with "valid" reasons for their absences.
Bahraini newspapers reported on April 30 that Prime Minister Shaikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa directed the Labor Ministry to review worker dismissals "in order to ensure the integrity of the legal proceedings." Human Rights Watch understands that all the panels reviewing dismissals consist only of government representatives. It is not known whether any of the panels have started functioning or made decisions regarding any workers.
Free Trade Agreement
The United States-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement entered into force in August 2006. Under the terms of the agreement both countries are obligated to enforce their respective labor laws. Under chapter 15 of the US-Bahrain FTA, the parties reaffirm their commitments under the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles at Work and Follow-Up, including the right of association and the right to organize and bargain collectively. Under US law, the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs has jurisdiction to review compliance with free trade agreement provisions.
Under chapter 15 of the FTA, both parties "reaffirm their obligations as members of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and their commitments under the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and its Follow-up (1998) (‘ILO Declaration')." The 1998 ILO "core labor standards" declaration incorporates conventions on freedom of association and non-discrimination in the workplace, including discrimination on the basis of political opinion.
On the relationship between workers' freedom of association and civil liberties, including the right of assembly and protest, the ILO has declared that "A free trade union movement can develop only under a regime which guarantees fundamental rights . . . the right of assembly, freedom of opinion and expression and, in particular, freedom to hold opinions without interference . . . constitute civil liberties which are essential for the normal exercise of trade union rights."
The US-Bahrain FTA obligates each party to "strive to ensure that such labor principles . . . are recognized and protected by its law." It further requires both parties to "effectively enforce" national labor laws protecting the exercise of freedom of association, and to "ensure that proceedings . . . for the enforcement of its labor laws are fair, equitable, and transparent."
Human Rights Watch also said the ILO should set up a commission of inquiry to look into Bahrain's violations of Convention 111. The ILO Convention on Discrimination (111, 1958) defines discrimination as "any distinction, exclusion or preference made on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin, which has the effect of nullifying or impairing equality of opportunity or treatment in employment or occupation."
The dismissals coincide with a broader campaign to punish Bahrainis who supported or participated in the protests demanding substantive political reform, most of them, reflecting the demographics of the island, Shia Muslims. As of early July, hundreds of people remained in detention, according to local rights groups and the al-Wifaq National Islamic Society, the largest opposition party, which has collected reports from families of detained individuals and those missing and thought to be in official custody.