(New York) - Bahrain's Labor Ministry should hold employers who withhold wages and passports from migrant employees accountable, Human Rights Watch said today. Both practices are illegal under Bahraini law, but authorities do little to enforce compliance.

In one recent case, on October 6, 2009, Muhammad Naseer, an Indian citizen, filed a complaint with the Labor Ministry alleging that his employer and sponsor had refused to pay him nearly four months of back wages and withheld his passport, preventing him from returning home. The Labor Ministry helped him retrieve his passport but not the pay, and he returned to India on October 26 without it.  Another worker at the same company told Human Rights Watch that the company owes him and at least 28 other workers wages for three months. At another company that sponsors migrant workers, eight employees say they have not been paid for five months.

"Withholding wages and confiscating passports appears to be rampant, but the authorities do nothing to stop it," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "There is no system to make sure these vulnerable migrant workers can actually recover both their passports and wages, let alone to punish the abusive employers."

Instead of enforcing the law, as it is authorized to, the government steers workers into an arbitration system that favors employers, Human Rights Watch said.

In Naseer's case, the company rebuffed his requests for his back wages, his brother, Bashir, told Human Rights Watch. Naseer, a husband and father of two, then told his employer that he would need to return to India to find work and support his family. Naseer borrowed from friends for an airline ticket, but was unable to use it because the sponsor refused to return his passport or approve his travel.

After Naseer sought the help of the Indian embassy and filed a formal complaint with the Labor Ministry, it called an arbitration meeting between with the company.

"The Ministry told my brother he could either go to court to try to recover his wages or get his passport back and leave the country," said Bashir.

Naseer, who only speaks Malayalam, decided he was unable to go to court, where he would have faced a potentially lengthy and costly legal battle with no income and little hope of prevailing. He felt he had little option but to sign a settlement letter, written in English, in which he waived all legal claims against his employer in exchange for his passport and authorization to leave the country, his brother said.

Marietta Dias, who works for the Migrant Labor Protection Society in Bahrain, told Human Rights Watch that Naseer's case is not unusual. "The Ministry of Labor has the authority to arbitrate such cases but not to compel the employer to comply with the law," she said. "If the employer doesn't agree to settle the case, then the ministry can only send it to the labor court."

Under the current arbitration system, an employer can force litigation by refusing the Ministry of Labor's request to settle.  Dias said that most workers cannot afford lawyer fees or the loss of income, and so they have little choice but to accept highly unfavorable settlements. If the employer doesn't show up at an arbitration meeting after it is scheduled three times, the Labor Ministry automatically refers a case to the court.

"Employers know if they do not show up then the case will probably go away," Dias said.

The employee at the same company, who alleges the company still owes him and at least 28 other workers three months in back wages, said they received only one month's pay. The company tried to get the unpaid workers to sign documents affirming receipt of full payment, but they refused, the employee said. Some workers have also alleged that the owner of the company physically assaulted an employee for requesting back wages, allegations the employer denies, according to Construction Week magazine, published in Dubai.

On October 24, another 38 migrant workers at another company held a demonstration outside the Indian Embassy in Manama claiming that their employer has failed to pay them for five months, Construction Week and the Bahrain-based Gulf Daily News reported. Workers reportedly filed a complaint against their employer with the Ministry of Labor and assault charges with the local police.

Several recent news reports say that employers blame the global credit crunch for their failure to pay workers.

Article 302 of the Bahraini penal code makes it illegal for an employer to withhold wages in full or in part, and authorizes the government to prosecute abusive employers.

While Bahraini law also forbids employers from holding on to migrant worker passports, the Migrant Worker Protection Society maintains that the practice is widespread.

"We keep asking the government to prosecute but have not seen anything yet," Dias said. She added that authorities also rarely prosecute employers for withholding payments.

"Bahrain portrays itself as a regional leader in migrant labor rights, but the government has some way to go before it really earns that reputation," Stork said. "It should start by actually enforcing its own law."