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
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:
|Salman Al Mahfoodh
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
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
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
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.