Bahrain is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Men and women from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Eritrea, Uzbekistan, and other countries migrate voluntarily to Bahrain to work as domestic workers or as unskilled laborers in the construction and service industries. In 2013, NGOs observed a greater influx of workers from Ethiopia. Some migrant workers face forced labor after arriving in Bahrain, experiencing unlawful withholding of passports, restrictions on movement, contract substitution, nonpayment of wages, threats, and physical or sexual abuse. NGOs report that Bangladeshi unskilled workers—especially men—are in particularly high demand in Bahrain and are considered to be exploitable since they do not typically protest difficult work conditions or low pay, nor is there a well-established Bangladeshi expatriate community to which workers can seek support and information about their rights. Domestic workers are also considered to be highly vulnerable to forced labor and sexual exploitation because they are largely unprotected under the labor law and are not required to register with the Bahrain government’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA). Government and NGO officials report that the physical abuse and sexual assault of female domestic workers are significant problems in Bahrain; strict confinement to the household, withholding of workers’ identity cards and passports, and intimidation by employers prevent these workers from reporting abuse and restrict authorities from investigating such abuses.
Forced labor, debt bondage, and isolation have led to a high incidence of suicide among migrant workers in Bahrain; workers who committed suicide reportedly lost their jobs or had their salaries and passports withheld by employers or sponsors. In 2012, 40 suicides were reported among migrant workers in Bahrain, especially those from India; 25 suicides were reported among migrant workers in 2013. A 2011 study by the LMRA found that 65 percent of migrant workers had not seen their employment contract and that 89 percent were unaware of their terms of employment upon arrival in Bahrain. The LMRA study found that 70 percent of foreign workers borrowed money or sold property in their home countries in order to secure a job in Bahrain. Many labor recruitment agencies in Bahrain and source countries require workers to pay high recruitment fees—a practice that makes workers highly vulnerable to debt bondage in Bahrain. Some Bahraini employers illegally charge workers exorbitant fees to remain in Bahrain working for third-party employers (under the illegal “free visa” arrangement). In previous years, the LMRA estimated that approximately 20,000 migrant workers were in Bahrain under “free visa” arrangements under which employers apply for work visas for nonexistent jobs and then illegally sell them to migrant workers—a practice that can contribute to debt bondage—and approximately 52,000 others are working on expired or terminated visas. Women from Thailand, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Morocco, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Russia, Ukraine, and other Eastern European states are subjected to forced prostitution in Bahrain.
The Government of Bahrain does not fully comply with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking; however, it is making significant efforts to do so. The government has not shown evidence of increasing efforts to address human trafficking compared to the previous year; therefore, Bahrain is placed on Tier 2 Watch List for a third consecutive year. The Government of Bahrain was granted a waiver from an otherwise required downgrade to Tier 3 because the government has a written plan that, if implemented, would constitute making significant efforts to bring itself into compliance with the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking and it has committed to devoting sufficient resources to implement that plan. The government investigated, prosecuted, and convicted an increased number of trafficking offenders in 2013, in comparison to the previous reporting period; the number of investigations, half of which were forced labor cases, was higher than the previous reporting period. The government also continued to identify and refer victims to protection services, including government-run shelters. The government continued to implement awareness campaigns. Nonetheless, the government failed to prosecute or convict any forced labor offenders and frequently treated potential cases of forced labor as labor violations instead of treating them as serious crimes. Furthermore, potential trafficking victims—particularly domestic workers who ran away from abusive employers—continued to be arrested, detained, and deported for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking. The government also did not finalize a formal trafficking victim identification procedure or guidelines for officials to refer suspected trafficking victims to protection services.
Recommendations for Bahrain:
Enforce the 2008 anti-trafficking law, and significantly increase the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenses—particularly those involving forced labor—including convictions and punishment of trafficking offenders; ensure that identified victims of trafficking are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as illegal migration or prostitution; institute and apply formal procedures to identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers and women in prostitution; institute a formal victim referral mechanism for law enforcement and other government officials to refer identified victims to protection services; expand government-run shelters to provide protection services to all victims of trafficking, including victims of forced labor and male victims of trafficking, and ensure that shelter staff receive anti-trafficking training and speak the languages of expatriate workers; reform the sponsorship system to eliminate obstacles to migrant workers’ access to legal recourse for complaints of forced labor; actively enforce labor law protections for domestic workers; continue to train officials on the anti-trafficking law and victim identification; and continue to publicly raise awareness of trafficking issues in the media and other outlets for foreign migrants, specifically domestic workers, in their native languages.
The government made some progress in its efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenses. However, law enforcement efforts were hampered by lack of training of lower-level police officers, investigators, and prosecutors; the government frequently treated potential cases of forced labor as labor violations in labor court instead of treating them as serious crimes. Bahrain’s anti-trafficking law, Law No. 1 of 2008, prohibits all forms of trafficking in persons and prescribes penalties ranging from three to 15 years’ imprisonment, which are sufficiently stringent and commensurate with penalties prescribed for other serious crimes, such as rape. Although withholding a worker’s passport is illegal and carries a financial penalty under a ministerial order, a worker must file a complaint with the police who do not have the authority to enforce this law and can only refer a complaint to the court if the employer refuses to return the passport. According to NGO sources, employers often claimed that a worker’s passport was lost. The government reported it investigated 30 trafficking cases, an increase from seven trafficking investigations in the previous reporting period; according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), 14 of these cases were forced labor investigations and 15 were sex trafficking. In 2013, the government prosecuted and convicted seven sex trafficking defendants; four of the convictions were cases initiated in 2012. The number of prosecutions and convictions in 2013 was an increase from three prosecutions and no convictions in the previous reporting period. Courts sentenced the seven convicted offenders to a range of two to five years’ imprisonment.
The government did not prosecute or convict any potential forced labor offenders, even though NGOs and foreign embassy officials abundantly documented forced labor offenses. Cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and other abuses—common indicators of trafficking—were treated as labor violations and taken to labor court. For example, in 2013, the labor court reviewed 225 out of 354 cases in which workers reported that their employers or sponsors withheld their passports and the Ministry of Labor (MOL) filed 36 complaints on behalf of foreign workers whose employers withheld their travel documents. However, authorities did not investigate any of these cases as potential forced labor offenses. Similarly, although the government received 927 labor court cases from workers whose employers withheld their wages, none of these cases were investigated under the criminal law as forced labor offenses. The government did not report any investigations, prosecutions, or convictions of government employees complicit in human trafficking. Bahraini government officials indicated there was a general lack of awareness of trafficking crimes among working-level police.
At the end of 2013, the LMRA established an anti-trafficking team, which worked with the office of the Public Prosecutor to refer suspected trafficking cases for judicial proceedings. The LMRA team referred eight suspected forced labor cases to the Public Prosecutor in December 2013, which were under investigation at the end of the reporting period; the LMRA also referred more than 40 suspected forced labor cases in February 2014. Additionally, in June 2013, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—in cooperation with an international organization—organized an anti-trafficking workshop for over 200 law enforcement and judicial officials. In October 2013, the MFA organized an anti-trafficking seminar for representatives of religious ministries and officials from the Ministries of Interior and Labor, the LMRA, and local NGOs.
The Bahraini government made some progress in improving identification of and protection for victims of trafficking. Nonetheless, the government continued to lack systematic procedures to identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers who have fled abusive employers or women arrested for prostitution. The government also did not have policies to protect trafficking victims from punishment for crimes committed as a direct result of being subjected to human trafficking; trafficking victims were punished for employment or immigration violations and subjected to detention and deportation. For example, government and NGO contacts reported that some domestic workers who ran away from employers because of abuse or nonpayment of wages were sentenced to 10 days or more in jail and deported, particularly if an employer filed a criminal claim, such as theft, against the worker. Police investigating runaway workers’ abuse claims are required to attempt to reach the employer three times before taking other actions. Some police stations reportedly followed up on an abuse claim immediately, while others let days or weeks lapse between attempts to contact the employer by phone. This failure to immediately investigate claims of abuse and potential trafficking crimes left victims at risk of further exploitation and without protection services. Government officials failed to recognize that some contract violations or salary disputes—including withholding of salaries—are indicators of forced labor and required further investigation. For example, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) estimated there were 1,700 runaway workers at the end of 2013, but without an official allegation of abuse from the worker, the government assumed these workers violated the labor law. The Labor Law No. 36, which was adopted in September 2012, provided some protections to domestic workers, which included requiring that domestic workers be provided a labor contract that specified working hours, annual leave, and bonuses; it also required that the employer pay the worker at least once a month. Nonetheless, the government did not issue guidance on how to implement the law. NGO sources reported that most domestic workers entered the country illegally or under false pretenses, so they did not benefit from protections in the law.
While law enforcement officials’ victim identification efforts remained ad hoc, police identified 21 suspected victims of trafficking in this reporting period, a slight increase from the 18 identified in the previous reporting period. The government, however, did not report if the identified victims in this reporting period were sex trafficking or forced labor victims. The Ministry of Social Development (MOSD) continued to fund a 120-bed domestic violence shelter, which also offered services to female victims of trafficking and their children. The shelter assisted and provided some medical services to 45 suspected sex trafficking victims and three potential forced labor victims in 2013—which included victims involved in investigations initiated in this reporting period—which was an increase from the 25 victims the shelter assisted in the previous reporting period. Shelter residents could freely leave the shelter unchaperoned. During the year, the MOSD began sending male trafficking victims to a government-run shelter for homeless men. The majority of trafficking victims in Bahrain continued to seek shelter at their embassies or at an NGO-operated trafficking shelter, which reported assisting 156 female victims of abuse—some of whom were likely trafficking victims. Foreign embassies stated that when foreign victims of trafficking or abuse approached Bahraini labor officials for assistance, they were typically advised to seek assistance at their embassies, with no effort to proactively identify trafficking victims among those who make complaints or to refer potential forced labor cases to law enforcement for further investigation.
In November 2013, the MOSD released and sponsored a seminar on a 400-page legal framework document on the protections of trafficking victims, which also clarified the roles of the Public Prosecutor and the MOSD in protecting victims. The MOSD also sponsored a seminar in November to explain the framework to government officials; the seminar discussed human trafficking, human smuggling, and organ smuggling within the same context. Bahraini government officials stated that they encouraged victims to participate in the investigations and prosecutions of their traffickers, and the public prosecution was responsible for protecting victims of trafficking crimes during preliminary investigations and court proceedings. While the labor law stipulates that foreign workers may change sponsors during investigations and court proceedings, this option was not available to victims while their complaints were adjudicated by the court. It was unclear how many trafficking victims, if any, whose cases were not being adjudicated, were able to change sponsors. Workers typically did not file complaints against employers due to distrust of the legal system and lengthy court procedures, inability to afford legal representation, lack of interpretation and translation services, fear of losing residency permits during proceedings, and fear of additional maltreatment at the hands of the employer. The government did not provide foreign victims with legal alternatives to their removal to countries where they faced retribution or hardship.
The government made sustained efforts to prevent trafficking in persons. However, despite past commitments and pledges, the government did not abolish the sponsorship system, which contributed greatly to forced labor and debt bondage. The government’s interagency National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons, which also includes members of civil society, met once a month during the reporting period and sponsored public awareness media campaigns and organized trainings and seminars for over 400 attendees from government ministries and NGOs. In 2013, the government established the Committee for the Evaluation of Foreigners Who Are Victims of Trafficking, which was chaired by MOSD and responsible for identifying and protecting victims of trafficking. The committee helped organize a seminar on legal resources for the protection of trafficking victims in November 2013 and assessed individual trafficking cases according to the guidelines in its mandate. The LMRA distributed workers’ rights pamphlets in various languages to foreign workers and launched a weekly radio program on a local Indian radio station to answer workers’ labor-related inquiries in Hindi and Malayalam. The LMRA website also provided information about workers’ rights in Bahrain. The government reported 170 labor complaints against 108 separate companies that were late in paying their workers’ monthly salaries; however, it is unclear how many of these companies were investigated or punished for illegally withholding workers’ salaries. The LMRA conducted regular visits to work places to check for indications of abuse of workers; the government did not report if suspected cases of trafficking were identified during these visits. In December 2013, the LMRA also began distributing SIM cards to workers on arrival in the country, to enable the workers to use text messaging to contact the LMRA immediately if there were problems with their employers. The Ministry of Interior continued to operate a 24 hour, toll-free hotline for trafficking victims, but officials did not provide statistics on the use of the hotline. The LMRA also operates an abuse hotline during working hours, though it is unknown if any trafficking victims were identified through this number. The government reported no efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex during the year.