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Middle East
'Mass sackings' in Bahrain crackdown
Part four in our exclusive series on Bahrain examines claims that a government crackdown has moved into the workplace.
Last Modified: 14 May 2011 12:02

More than 2,000 private sector employees, most of them Shia, have either been sacked or suspended in an expanding Bahraini crackdown on anti-government protests, an Al Jazeera investigation has found.

The General Federation of Bahrain's Trade Unions puts the figure of those who have been fired at 1,300, with Bahraini rights groups reporting that hundreds more have been suspended from their government jobs.

The International Labour Organisation says that the number of people dismissed or suspended currently stands at over 2,000.

Al Jazeera spoke to a number of people who had been fired in recent weeks. They spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing government reprisals.

One man said that lawyers asked him questions related to anti-government protests the day he was fired.

"He kept asking if I went to the Pearl Roundabout, if I went to the protests. If I met any of the opposition leaders. If I was a member of any political societies. If I made donations to the protesters. These questions were repeated again and again," he said.

Turning point
 
The turning point for this side of the crackdown came when labour unions called a general strike on March 13. Under Bahraini law, companies are within their rights to terminate the employment of staff members who miss days of work above and beyond a specified period of unexcused leave.

Another man who lost his job told Al Jazeera that he was struggling to support his family. He said that the mass dismissals were completely unexpected.

"We have never faced this before. We have no idea how to deal with it. We are waiting for news from the company. Will they let us back? Will i be compensated?" he asked.

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"It's the only job I know and I loved it."
 
The International Labour Organisation has appealed to the Bahraini government to ensure that workers are not subjected to "unfair, unjust and degrading" treatment.

In a statement released on April 5, 2011, Juan Somavia, the director-general of the ILO's international labour office, said that he had conveyed "grave concern" to the Bahraini prime minister in an earlier missive.

"In the wake of the recent wave of peaceful demonstrations which were met by the Bahraini authorities with excessive use of force and the declaration of a state of emergency, the ILO has received further information about dismissals of GFBTU activists and other repressive measures that effectively undermine its capacity to exercise its legitimate trade union functions," the statement read.

The ILO said that mass dismissals had been reported from the Bahrain Petroleum Company (including the president of that company's trade union), the Alba Aluminium Company, the Khalifa Sea Port and Gulf Air. It said that employees and trade union activists were facing dismissal and legal prosecution for encouraging workers to take part in the general strike.

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), the largest trade union group in the US, has also urged Washington to suspend a free trade pact with Bahrain over alleged human rights abuses committed since the crackdown on protests began.

Contradictory discourses

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Guy Ryder, the deputy director-general of the ILO, said that there were two contradictory discourses at play.

"The discourse of the government is that it has had, in fact, no role whatsoever in the dismissal of workers. That dismissals have taken place by decision of companies and in accordance with labour legislation prevailing in Bahrain. So the government has very much a hands-off discourse on this matter.

"That version is contradicted by the trade unions in Bahrain, who say that employers, in fact, have been subjected to political pressure to dismiss people who the government perceives as having been active in the ... protest movement," he said.

The Bahraini economy, meanwhile, continues to reel from both the earlier mass protests, and now mass dismissals of employees. Analysts say the sackings do not inspire confidence in the business community.

In March, foreign assets in the country's offshore banking sector fell 10 per cent, hitting their lowest levels since 2005.

The Bahraini government insists it has only punished those who committed criminal acts during the protests, and denies there is a sectarian angle to the issue.

Analysts are not so sure, however.

"I do believe this is a political decision done by the authorities, rather than decisions done by the companies or establishments," said Sayed Hadi, a former member of parliament and a trade union chairman.

The ILO's Ryder pointed out that Bahrain, in comparison to other countries in the region, has had a much freer labour law regime, and that this offers hope for workers who have been dismissed.

The ILO's Guy Ryder speaks to Al Jazeera about
the mass dismissals in Bahrain

"It's worth recalling that Bahrain has stood out over the last decade or so as perhaps the best example of progressive policies towards labour in the Gulf region. Bahrain stands out as a country with an independent trade union movement, and that is not generally the case in the region," he said.

"It's existed since 2002, so there's a tradition of labour activism in the country, and one of the encouraging ... messages that we got from the government in our conversations with them is that despite the events of recent weeks, the government's clear intention is to proceed with the reform agenda, and that trade unions will be a part of the future of the country.

"The ILO is doing whatever it can with the government and also with the other social partners to try to find a way forward so that people can return to their jobs. The government recently announced... the establishment of a joint committee, headed by the minister of labour, with whom we've been talking, to review all dismissals."

The results of that review process are due in the next few days, the government says.

In the meantime, dismissed workers say they face crushing uncertainty about their future.

"It's difficult to find another job if you have been sacked at this time. We cannot plan. I'm worried about my kids and the future," one such worker told Al Jazeera.

Source:
Al Jazeera
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