BAHRAIN: Tier 2
Bahrain is a destination country for men and women subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Men and women from South and Central Asia, and East Asia; East and West Africa, Uzbekistan, and other countries migrate voluntarily to Bahrain to work as domestic workers or as unskilled laborers in the construction and service industries. In recent years, NGOs observed a greater influx of workers from parts of East Africa. 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. Government and NGO officials report 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 prevents some of these workers from reporting abuse. NGOs report male Bangladeshi unskilled workers are in high demand and are considered by employers to be exploitable as they typically do not protest difficult work conditions or low pay. Domestic workers are also considered to be highly vulnerable to forced labor and sexual exploitation because they are largely unprotected under the labor law. In recent years, reports of suicides among migrant workers have been associated with forced labor, debt bondage, and isolation. A Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) study in 2011 found 65 percent of migrant workers had not seen their employment contracts and 89 percent were unaware of their terms of employment. Additionally, the study revealed 70 percent of foreign workers borrowed money or sold property in their home countries to secure their jobs, increasing their vulnerability to debt bondage. Women from Asia, the Middle East, 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 continued to investigate, prosecute, and convict sex trafficking offenders in 2014. The government reported its first criminal prosecutions of forced labor offenses involving five suspected labor traffickers in 2014. In addition, it referred 63 labor violations for criminal prosecution, up from zero the previous year; however, among hundreds of reported labor violations in Bahrain, efforts to investigate and prosecute such cases as serious trafficking crimes or identify potential forced labor victims still remained modest. The LMRA assumed oversight of the national anti-trafficking committee and—in an attempt to better monitor the employment of domestic workers and the modest labor law protections for them—took on management of their visa processing. The government also identified an increased number of victims and continued to refer victims to protection services, including those offered at government-run shelters. It launched innovative awareness-raising efforts, including a social media competition for Bahraini youth to encourage respectful treatment of domestic workers among the general population. Nonetheless, 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. Despite past commitments and pledges, the government did not abolish the sponsorship system, which contributed greatly to forced labor and debt bondage in the country.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BAHRAIN:
Significantly increase the investigation and prosecution of trafficking offenses—particularly those involving forced labor—including convictions and punishment of trafficking offenders, using the 2008 anti-trafficking law; vigorously investigate cases involving withholding of passports and nonpayment of wages; continue to institute and apply formal procedures to identify victims of trafficking among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers and women in prostitution; ensure identified victims of trafficking are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being subjected to trafficking, such as illegal migration or prostitution; institute a formal victim referral mechanism for law enforcement and other government officials to refer identified victims to protection services; expand labor law protections to include domestic workers and actively enforce them; 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; amend labor laws to eliminate obstacles to migrant workers’ access to legal recourse for complaints of forced labor; 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 notable progress in its efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict trafficking offenses. 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 is required to file a complaint with the police, who have no 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 a worker’s passport was lost. A Royal Decree enacted in September 2014 expanded authorities’ ability to prosecute Bahraini companies that illegally obtain work permits and aimed to prohibit and penalize the falsification of immigration documents.
The government reported it investigated and prosecuted 21 trafficking cases, involving 51 suspects and 56 victims during the reporting period; according to the public prosecutor, five of these cases involved forced labor offenses and 16 included sex trafficking crimes. Additionally, the public prosecutor pursued 46 cases in which employers had withheld payment. Nonetheless, cases of unpaid or withheld wages, passport retention, and other abuses—common indicators of trafficking—were often still treated as labor violations and taken to labor court where offenders received no punishments unless cases were identified as particularly egregious and referred to the public prosecutor. For example, in 2014, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) closed 600 cases of labor law violations; 377 of these cases involved nonpayment of wages and 223 cases involved passport withholding. The MOL employed nearly 40 safety and health inspectors who carried out visits to work and accommodation sites. When a violation was found, the inspector wrote a report on the violation and arbitrated between the site owner and laborer. If arbitration failed, the MOL could refer the case to the prosecutor for criminal trial; in 2014, the MOL referred 63 out of 427 of these pending labor violations to the prosecutor—a significant improvement from the previous reporting period where none of the cases were investigated under the criminal law as potential forced labor offenses. Most of the cases taken to the labor court involved wage payment delays of one to two months. According to the MOL, embassies could also inspect their nationals’ living situations, and all workers had the right to file complaints with the MOL. In August 2014, authorities detained and investigated the chief inspector at the LMRA for accepting a bribe in exchange for waiving legal action against an Indian restaurant accused of trafficking its employees; prosecutors dropped this prosecution after the victims recanted their testimony against the employer and acquitted the inspector in January 2015. Bahraini government officials indicated there was a general lack of awareness of trafficking crimes among working-level police.
The government made some progress in improving identification and protection of trafficking victims. The government identified 50 suspected trafficking victims in 2014, a significant increase from the 21 victims identified in 2013. Of these victims, 40 were identified as sex trafficking victims and 10 as forced labor victims. The Ministry of Social Development (MOSD) managed a 120-bed domestic violence shelter, which also offered services to female trafficking victims and their children. In 2014, the shelter assisted and provided some medical services to 45 women while their cases were pending in court. Shelter residents could only leave the shelter with a chaperone. The majority of trafficking victims in Bahrain continued to seek shelter at their embassies or at an NGO-operated trafficking shelter. The government provided very limited shelter services to male trafficking victims; however, the MOSD began efforts in 2014 to construct a shelter dedicated to men.
When investigating claims of abuse from domestic workers that ran away from their employers, some police stations reportedly followed up 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. The Labor Law No.36 provides some protection to domestic workers, which includes requiring domestic workers be provided a labor contract specifying working hours, annual leave, and bonuses; it also requires the employer pay the worker at least once a month. Nonetheless, the government did not issue guidance on implementation of the law. Police officials did not systematically and proactively identify victims—especially victims among the domestic worker population—in stations across the country. NGO sources reported many domestic workers entered the country illegally or under false pretenses, so they did not benefit from protections in the law. NGO sources assessed punishment of trafficking victims had significantly decreased in comparison to the previous reporting period. Nonetheless, the government 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. It continued to lack systematic procedures to identify victims among vulnerable groups, such as domestic workers who fled abusive employers or women arrested for prostitution. The Ministry of Interior’s anti-trafficking division used criteria, developed in partnership with an international organization, to assist law enforcement officials to identify trafficking victims. NGOs stated victim identification efforts by police were improving, but remained inconsistent across different stations.
Bahraini officials stated they encouraged victims to participate in the investigations and prosecutions of their traffickers and the public prosecutor was responsible for protecting victims of trafficking crimes during preliminary investigations and court proceedings. While the labor law stipulates foreign workers may change sponsors during investigations and court proceedings, victims were unable to change sponsors while their complaints were being adjudicated by the court. It was unclear how many trafficking victims whose cases were not being adjudicated were able to change sponsors, if any. 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, concern over potential loss of residence permits during proceedings, and fear of additional maltreatment at the hands of the employer. In addition to staffing, counselling, and legal support, the government funded the repatriation of third-country nationals to their home countries, but did not report how many victims were provided this assistance during the reporting period. The government provided foreign victims with legal alternatives to their removal to countries where they faced retribution or hardship, including assistance in finding legal work and a new sponsor.
The government increased efforts to prevent human trafficking by reforming its National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons and expanding its awareness campaigns targeting both migrant workers and Bahraini employers. In March 2015, leadership of the committee transferred to the LMRA, the level of participation was raised to the undersecretary level for each ministry, and representatives from the Bahrain News Agency and three human rights-focused NGOs joined. In addition, the government established the Protection of Migrant Workers’ Rights Unit within the LMRA to staff the committee, tasked with serving as an information hub and service center for trafficking victims and potential victims, as well as coordinating with other relevant ministries on all cases as they move through the system. The committee met once a month during the reporting period and focused primarily on increasing prosecution, expanding victim assistance, broadening training for government personnel, and raising awareness.
In September 2014, the government transferred its management of domestic worker visa processing to the LMRA, which allowed the government to better monitor domestic workers’ places of employment and labor law violations. To ensure timely payment of wages, the LMRA piloted a partnership with a private company to provide employers the ability to set up regular money transfers to debit cards to receive payment. The government did not report how many workers were included in this pilot or whether they would make this a mandatory requirement. The LMRA created an awareness-raising competition targeting Bahraini youth aged 16 to 26 years, calling for either a photo, drawing, short movie, or a poster for the general public submitted via social media, to encourage respect for the rights of domestic workers. It distributed pamphlets in English and 13 other languages to foreign workers; it also placed advertisements on public transit, which explained workers’ rights and advised victims to contact their embassies or call the LMRA hotline if their rights had been violated. The LMRA also distributed SIM cards containing credit to each foreign employee upon their arrival at the Bahrain Airport. Despite past commitments and pledges, the government did not abolish the sponsorship system, which contributed greatly to forced labor and debt bondage. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex or forced labor. The government provided anti-trafficking training or guidance for its diplomatic personnel.