Positive Development: Bahrain Abolish Sponsor System

The Bahraini Minister of Labour, Dr. Majeed Al Alawi, has announced that starting from 01 August 2009, the Labour Market Regulatory Authority and not employers will be in charge of foreign workers’ sponsor visas, where they are able to apply to the authorities to change their employers. According to the Ministry of Labour, this will have positive outcomes on the local and foreign workforce including a rise in salaries and the eradication of the so-called ‘disorganized workforce’ phenomena. The guarantor system was previously described by the Labour Minister as ‘not differing from slavery’.

This change is the first of its kind in the Gulf area, was well received and gained strong support from several parties. On 13 May 2009, Human Rights Watch (HRW) praised this step, believing that it will significantly improve the situation of migrant workers and limit their exploitation. HRW also felt the need of including housemaids in the law as they are in particular need of care. Nisha Variya, deputy of the women’s section at HRW said that Bahrain deserves to be strongly applauded as it is the first country to move towards such reforms and said that other countries should follow in its example, for although most governments in the area admit that the current guarantor system allows for the abuse of foreign workers, but they have so far failed to take any positive steps.

On 12 May 2009, the Director- General of the Arab Labour Organization, Dr. Ahmad Loqman praised Bahrain’s decision to abolish the sponsor system and expressed his hope that other Arab countries would follow suit. He described the decision as “courageous and comes with a package of measures for the Kingdom of Bahrain to reform the labour market and the influx of foreign workers and it reflects the spirit of social justice and humanity”

At the same time, the British Foreign Office spokesman congratulated Bahrain for issuing the new work law and regarded it as ‘a first brave step’, hoping that other countries would follow shortly, while the Arab Organization for Human Rights commented on the decision and described it as ‘positive and significant’. There was also an abundance of articles in newspapers in Gulf States supporting the Bahraini law. Also the president of the Assembly of Human Rights in Kuwait, Mr. Adil Aldumkhi, praised Bahrain’s decision stressing that it is a courageous decision and represents a victory for human rights as well as being a step in the right direction. He added that “as we appreciate this step, we also call upon the decision makers in the state of Kuwait to follow the example of Bahrain…in order to give our support to human rights and protect the image of Kuwait in the international arena.” (Al Wasat, 19 May 2009).

Yet the decision has placed other Gulf States in a difficult position, for like Bahrain they are under immense pressure from merchants and businessmen who feel that their interests will clash with this new law. Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry saw that the decision will harm investors and their projects and demanded its cancellation. Bahrain Contractors’ Association joined the ranks of those opposing the decision, stressing in a public statement “this hasty decision is a flagrant violation of the stability of the labour market, the condition of contractors and employers”.