Bahrain has hosted the government forum to combat trafficking in persons in the Middle East, a major official event dedicated to stamping out human trafficking. The event was opened by Foreign Minister Khalid Bin-Ahmed Al Khalifa, with a number of other senior officials in attendance from across the region. The phenomenon has been recognized as a specific challenge for the GCC region, given the large size of the foreign workforce; and the GCC’s central position between developing states in Africa and South Asia and Europe. The exploitation of vulnerable people by ruthless criminal networks is responsible for the virtual enslavement of hundreds of thousands of individuals worldwide.
With human trafficking becoming the subject of growing attention, in 2018 Bahrain became the first state in the region to be upgraded to having “Tier 1” status in combatting human trafficking, according to the US State Department’s 2018 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report.
Since achieving Tier 1 status, Bahrain’s approach to people trafficking has been a subject of interest from other regional governments seeking to improve their record. There have been a number of fact-finding visits and Bahraini officials have travelled overseas to act as trainers and mentors for people trafficking personnel in other states.
Bahrain followed this up this year by announcing the establishment of a centre of excellence for capacity building, with the aim of increasing the readiness of state personnel to address this challenge. The centre will be based at the Labour Market Regulatory Authority’s Expat Protection Centre in Northern Sehla.
Tier 1 status places Bahrain on the same level as states like Britain, Germany and the US in having the highest standards of best practice in this area. Among the achievements which merited Bahrain’s promotion to Tier 1 status were the Flexible Work Permit and “standardised tripartite labour contract system” which provide reinforced protections to vulnerable expatriate workers. The Flexible Work Permit is the first of its kind in the region and has been praised by the International Organisation for Migration and the UN Human Rights Council as a model example of responsible and effective labour market reform.
Below are a number of the other mechanisms and initiatives which Bahrain has in place for addressing human trafficking:
National Referral Mechanism
In 2017, the National Committee to Combat Trafficking in Persons (NCCTIP) launched its government-wide National Referral Mechanism (NRM) to “streamline the proactive identification of trafficking victims, ensure proper documentation of cases, effectively refer cases to the Interior Ministry and public prosecutor’s office for an official determination as a trafficking case and provide adequate protective provisions to victims until case resolution or voluntary repatriation.” The government also distributed booklets about the NRM to all relevant ministries and nongovernmental stakeholders in order to raise awareness about the NRM and the obligations of all concerned.
Supporting victims of trafficking
The Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) between 2017-2018 received direct referrals from 516 potential victims from a variety of sources, including the NCCTIP’s hotline, police stations, other government entities and foreign embassies. The LMRA’s Expatriate Protection Unit (EPU) provided all 516 individuals—some of whom were trafficking victims— with shelter, food, clothing, medical care, religious support, psycho-social counseling, rehabilitation, familial reunification, translation assistance, legal counsel, and repatriation or job placement in Bahrain.
The Expatriate Protection Unit ensured the provision of safe houses and shelter for male and female workers, regardless of their legal status. It also maintained onsite offices for medical and mental health professionals and a representative from the police anti-trafficking unit, and provided a training room for training shelter residents and a conference space for the NCCTIP.
In 2017 the NCCTIP allocated BD 200,000 for the establishment of a victim assistance fund from which trafficking victims could obtain a grant to help them reestablish themselves either in Bahrain or in their home country, as well as monthly compensation in the event their presence in Bahrain was court-mandated to conclude a criminal trial.
Protecting labour rights
Labour Law No.36 of 2012 reinforced protections for domestic workers, requiring employers to provide a labour contract specifying working hours, annual leave and bonuses and paying workers at least monthly.
In late 2017, the government launched standardized tripartite labour contracts for domestic workers. The LMRA provided all 130 registered recruitment agencies in Bahrain with copies of the new contract, which required domestic workers to sign, prior to their arrival, a comprehensive work agreement that unequivocally outlined labour rights and employment obligations. The new unified contract took effect in January 2018, aiming to strengthen protections for domestic workers by requiring employers to declare the nature of the job, working hours and salary.
Flexible work permits
Bahrain’s government has taken significant steps to reform the sponsorship system particularly for workers who are currently undocumented. In July 2017, the LMRA launched a “flexible work permit” program to legalize undocumented workers while simultaneously permitting previously exploited and illegal laborers to self-sponsor. This represents a shift away from the sponsorship-based employment system.
“By allowing higher marketplace flexibility, stronger protections for workers’ rights, and improved workplace environs, this new permit program allows up to 2,000 expatriates to apply every month to reside and work in Bahrain without needing a sponsor, after which successful applicants can work any job with any employer on a full-or part-time basis, negotiate wages and working hours directly, and secure multiple jobs concurrently with varying employers.”