The three main items of business facing elected parliamentarians this week concerned amendments to the legal framework governing the Defence Forces; measures rejected by the Shura Council for giving preferential treatment to Bahraini workers; and updates on the housing issue.
Houses of Parliament clash over Bahraini recruitment bill
A confrontation has been going on for a few weeks between the two houses of Parliament (the elected Council of Representatives and the appointed Shura Council) over proposed measures which would force employers to prefer a Bahraini candidate over an equally qualified non-Bahraini worker, both for recruitment and when staff have to be laid off.
The Shura Council – supported by the Cabinet and Chamber of Commerce – rejected the proposals, saying they were unenforceable in court; contradicted international laws on non-discriminatory employment rights; and infringed the rights of employers to freely choose their staff.
However, during the 24 February parliamentary session, MPs one after the other spoke in rejection of the Shura Council’s decision. Deputies pointed out that, in practice, non-Bahrainis were being recruited at a faster rate than Bahrainis, so the authorities had a responsibility to redress the balance. As MP Mohammed al-Ammadi pointed out: “All states around the world give preference to their own citizens, so why should Bahrain be any different?”
The only MP whose opinion differed was Isa al-Kooheji who noted the rights of employers to decide who they wanted to employ; particularly as deputies would be looking to the private sector to increase revenues and help balance the State Budget.
MPs voted to recommend to the Services Committee to uphold these proposed amendments to the Employment Law. However, in the face of continued Shura Council opposition, it is difficult to see any progress being made on this issue, unless the respective committees get together and succeed in agreeing on a compromise draft.
Foreign firms targeting Bahraini military personnel for recruitment
Parliamentarians were briefed by Defence Ministry officials about the risks incurred by foreign contractors targeting former Bahraini military personnel for recruitment. It was argued that such practices put regional Gulf security at risk and raised the possibility of disclosure of state secrets. Those conducting the briefing also noted the strategic threat that Iran posed to Bahrain.
In the light of this, measures have been proposed for strengthening existing legislation restricting the ability of former military personnel to be recruited by foreign firms, without securing permission.
This would cover a ten-year period following retirement from the armed forces; with those who ignored the law facing a maximum life prison sentence.
MPs questioned the officials extensively, raising concerns about whether this infringed the rights of Bahraini military personnel. However, there was a general consensus about the priority of guaranteeing national security. MPs were assured that the process of seeking permission for employment with outside agencies would be a simple one which would not unduly limit the employment opportunities of those retiring from the army.
During the session, MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of the proposals, which included other matters related to the legal regime governing the Defence Forces. Only one MP, Mohammed Milad, abstained.
Plan for 25,000 new housing units on track
A significant part of the Tuesday weekly parliamentary session was taken up by a briefing by the Housing Minister Bassim al-Hamar. Al-Hamar’s briefing concerned ongoing housing projects across Bahrain. He assured MPs that the pledge to build 25,000 housing units over four years would be fulfilled.
The Minister also responded to questions from MPs about housing plans in their specific constituencies. However he reprimanded MPs, saying: “The Council of Representatives should be concerned with the housing file across the whole Kingdom; and not just at the narrow level of their constituencies”.
However, MP Abdullah Bin-Huwail shot back that “the Housing Ministry is concerned with the whole of Bahrain; but deputies are concerned about housing projects for the constituencies which they represent.”
Al-Aradi hopes for public action against failing MPs
In a spirited interview with Al-Watan newspaper, Deputy Head of Parliament Ali al-Aradi, said that improving public perceptions of the Parliament had to begin with improvements in the performance of deputies.
Al-Aradi pointed out that with the debate on the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan, MPs adopted the approach of “consultation with target audiences in order to become acquainted with their views and demands. This approach reveals to people at street level that representatives won’t take decisions in matters which concern [citizens] without consulting them. Such activity changes the opinions of people about the work of representatives”.
He said that, in the first instance, it was a matter for the consciences of individual MPs whether they were fulfilling their elections promises. Al-Aradi added that he hoped to see public awareness rise and for citizens in constituencies petition Parliament when they felt that their representatives were failing to accomplish what they had promised.
Awaiting the State Budget
Meetings have been taking place over the past week between parliamentarians and ministers to help prepare the ground for the State Budget, which is to be submitted to Parliament at the beginning of March.
These meetings have come up with a number of agreed principles. Primarily, the challenge is to manage public spending in the context of sharply reduced oil revenues, in order to increase efficiency, but not reduce “entitlements” to Bahraini citizens.
There is also much debate about increasing revenues by other means, such as increased investment in the tourism and financial sectors.
The Shura Council Financial Committee, which met on 19 February, demanded clearer plans from the Government for how it proposed to increase revenues. Meanwhile, the Committee expressed some reservations about the final accounts for the 2013 financial year, but recommended for this to be approved by the Shura Council. The Financial Committee expressed particular concern about continuingly rising levels of government debt, which it noted was out of step with sluggish economic growth rates. The Shura Council went ahead and approved the 2013 accounts on 22 February.