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(Beirut) - Bahrain's revision of its restrictive kafala (sponsorship) system will dramatically improve the status of most migrant workers and reduce their risk of exploitation, Human Rights Watch said today. But the protections should be extended to migrant domestic workers, who are especially vulnerable to employer abuse, Human Rights Watch said.

The kafala system ties migrants' work visas and immigration status to their employers, enabling employers to prevent workers from changing jobs or leaving the country. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly documented how this system fuels abuses such as unpaid wages, exploitative working conditions, and forced labor in countries across the region, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon.

"Most governments in the region acknowledge that the current system allows employers to abuse workers, but have wasted years debating alternatives without taking action," said Nisha Varia, deputy director of the women's rights division, who researches abuses against migrants for Human Rights Watch. "Bahrain deserves enormous credit for being the first to make concrete reforms. Other countries should follow suit."

Many countries in the Middle East that rely on low-wage workers from Asia and Africa use the kafala system. Several of these countries are also considering changes, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, though progress has stalled.

Bahrain's labor minister, Majeed al-Alawi, announced last week that beginning on August 1 the government's Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), rather than employers, will sponsor migrants' work visas. Migrants will be able to apply to the authority to change employers. The government will also cap the number of migrant workers entering the country.

"These reforms reduce the lopsided power balance between employers and migrant workers," said Varia. "Previously, employers could threaten migrants with deportation or seize their passports, and force them to accept lower wages. Employers now have an incentive to improve working conditions because these reforms will give workers more opportunity to choose where they work."

The reforms do not apply, though, to migrant domestic workers, whose employment visas will continue to be sponsored by their employers. Human Rights Watch research in the Middle East shows that domestic workers' isolation in private homes and exclusion from key labor protections puts them at particular risk of a wide range of abuses, from excessively long working hours to physical and sexual abuse.

"Bahrain took the first step, but they neglected the workers in greatest need of protection," said Varia. "The government should move quickly to extend the sponsorship reforms to domestic workers and to bring them under the protection of the labor law."

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