The SG of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions:

Workers’ Rights is a Red line that cannot be Crossed

The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) is the main body concerned with defending the rights of workers in the

Salman Al Mahfoodh
country. It was born after a long struggle that lasted for decades. The GFBT operated under different names, the last of which was the General Committee for Bahraini Workers (GCBW). After the announcement of the reform project and on 28 May 2002, this Committee became the General Federation for Bahrain workers, and on 23 September 2002, a Royal Decree No. 33 of the Trade Unions Law was issued. In 2003 an elected Committee was formed to draft the internal law of the GFBT. In January 2004, founding conference of the GFBTU was held and attended by 40 Unions from the private and public sectors with the participation of the representatives of Arab Labour Organization (ALO), the International Confederation of Arab Trade Unions, the Secretary General of the International Union, the Norwegian Confederation and the International Labour Organization (ILO), among others. This was in order to discuss the conditions of trade unions and workers’ rights in the country. The BHRM interviewed the SG of the Union, Salman Al Mahfoodh, and asked him the following questions:

In the beginning could you please explain the objectives of the GFBTU, and to what extent can one say that the Union has achieved its goals?

Objectives of the Union are summed up in its message, which is to create a working environment where social justice and social dialogue flourish, and without exploitation of any kind. Of course we cannot say that we have achieved all our goals, but we are still striving to do so. In some places we have succeeded in making big changes in issues related to workers’ rights, wages and allowances. In other issues however, there is still a long way to go.

In what way has the reform project affected the situation of workers in Bahrain?

Before the reform project, workers were organized in ‘the General Committee for Bahraini Workers’ (GCBW). Despite the legal restrictions which limited its role to an advisory body, and despite the restrictions of the State Security Law which limited the movement of civil society, the GCBW had maintained its struggle at the local, regional and international levels to free the work of trade unions and make the voices of workers heard in conferences and among Arab and international communities. Law No. 33 of 2002 (known as the Trade Union Law) is the culmination of this long struggle and is the most important outcome of HRH the King’s reform project. This is because the Law was subjected to lengthy discussions between workers and the Government in which each party defended its own points of view. Unfortunately, some articles of this law were amended which was considered a setback such as article No. 21 concerning strikes. We disagree with the Government regarding the right to form unions in the public sector. While we stand by this right, the Government insists on depriving nearly 50 thousand workers from this right without any justification.

How do you assess the relationship between the Union and the Government apparatus, and how responsive are they to the issues you have raised, and is there any dialogue with them?

We do not have permanent friendships or enmities, for we support whoever gives workers their rights as workers’ rights is a red line that cannot be crossed. We have met with Government officials from the top of the political hierarchy represented by HM the King and their Royal Highnesses the Prime Minister and the Crown Prince, in addition to Ministers such as the Labour Minister. During our debates, we do not flatter anyone, nor do we make enemies. However positive these meetings are, they are not a substitute for the establishment of institutions that enable real negotiations between the two parties to take place with regards to planning of the economic policies of the country, including wages, prices, privatization and restructuring among others.

With regards to laws and legislations, how do you read the current Trade Unions Law in comparison with international standards and agreements on work and labour?

As mentioned before, the Trade Unions Law was one of the best when it was first issued, but unfortunately the Government has amended some articles without referring to us. Decree 49 of 2006 has assigned the task of identifying the vital sectors in which strikes are prohibited to the government alone. Consequently, this resulted in a decision issued by the Council of Ministers (Decree No. 62 of 2006) prohibiting strikes in 12 sectors under the pretext that they are vital activities, despite the fact that this is not the case according to the ILO which limits the word ‘vital’ to things that if they stop from running such stoppage will endanger human life. With regards to the right to form trade unions in the public sector, the Government says that it is limited to ‘joining’ an existing union and not to ‘forming’ a new one. Of course we do not agree with these legislations and believe they are unjust to a fundamental part of Bahraini workers. We have filed complaints against the Government to the (ILO), the (ALO), the International Confederation for Trade Unions and the International Confederation of Arab Trade Union, demanding that the infamous civil service circular No.1 for 2003 be abolished because it is not in line with the National Action Charter, the Constitution and international labour standards. This subject was raised during the discussion of the Committee for Trade Union Freedoms in the ILO which demanded that the Government respond to the complaints which it indeed did. We are still following up our complaint to the end and until civil servants have the right to freedom of organizing trade unions.

To what extent has the union reacted to the repercussions of the current global financial crisis and its effect on labour?

We were the first to demand the formation of a national committee for combating the repercussions of the financial crisis and determining the real claimed losses, for example whether an employer who makes his workers redundant is really suffering from the effects of the crisis or is just taking advantage of the situation? And how do we support those badly affected? The Committee has already been formed but has not started working yet and unfortunately, making workers redundant is still continuing using the international crisis as an excuse. We have organized a conference on the financial crisis and its impact on the GCC countries with the participation of Arab and international trade unions, and we passed our recommendations onto the Government, concerned parties and even to the Supreme Council of the GCC.

Attempts to abolish the guarantor system faced many difficulties in terms of practical application. What is your position and if possible, what are your plans to overcome these difficulties?

From a human rights point of view, we are against forcing workers to work with a specific employer, especially that the Government has ratified two agreements on the prohibition of forced labour, namely conventions 29 and 105. However, with regards to the impact of the decision to abolish the guarantor system, we are dealing with this with our partners, but there is no going back on the decision to ban the system. Our position is subject to revision in light of assessing the application of freedom of movement on the ground. If we perceive any harm on Bahraini labour we will reassess this position, and suggest a solution which does not impose employment on foreign workers and at the same time does not cause foreigners to compete with the local workforce.

The talk about the Bahrainization is endless, despite the fact that some reports indicate a decrease in Bahrainization levels. What are the obstacles and what is the role of the Union in this regard?

Although we greatly appreciate the national project for the employment and employing the graduates, we believe that the problem of unemployment is not in the job market itself. The problem in our opinion lies in the fact that our economy does not provide sufficient jobs for Bahrainis. The real problem is that the big companies, such as BAPCO and ALBA, which every Bahraini aspires to work in, are unable to provide many jobs as well as the privatization of many public sector institutions, which has led to increased foreign workforce in such institutions. Among the obstacles is also the fact that the Economic Development Council (EDC) is currently imposing individual polices without involving any community partnership. These polices weaken the Bahrainization through privatization programs and restructuring. We have addressed the EDC, the Legislative Authority and requested to meet his Royal Highness the Crown Prince, the highest official responsible for the economy in the Kingdom, to discuss these matters.

The rights of working women and combating human trafficking are two issues raised which represent the core of the Union’s work, what has the General Federation for Bahraini Workers done in this regard?

We have organized a number of workshops and activities on migrant workers and human trafficking with the cooperation of international trade union organizations and local civil society organizations. The last of these workshops took place in November 2009 with the cooperation of the International Confederation for Trade Unions. We are pleased with the Royal Decree No. 1 for 2008 on human trafficking, but what is more important is confronting the shameful sex trade. We believe that establishing a national committee for combating human trafficking and sex trade is essential, as innocent women are brought into the country to make a decent living, and instead find themselves involved in the sex trade. We, in cooperation of international trade unions and local civil society organizations, will strongly confront this phenomenon. We have supported the inclusion of household servants in the new Trade Union Law in order to protect them from exploitation. This step has already been undertaken by the Legislative Authority.