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Thu 16 Jul 2009 12:55 PM

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Arguments that don't add up

Opponents to Bahrain's labour reforms are headed for defeat, says Andrew White.

Arguments that don't add up

Earlier this year, a supporter of the British National Party, a far-right and whites-only political party in the UK, was asked why he was so anti-immigration. “I wouldn’t mind them if they actually worked and didn’t take all our jobs,” came the response.

Cue images of ‘foreigners’ sitting at home all day and scrounging off the state, while simultaneously working all day, putting honest Brits out of employment. And it’s this kind of muddled message that makes the immigration ‘debate’ so maddening.

Bahrain has got it about right, in my opinion. The Ministry of Labour has spent much of the last decade battling against the business community, religious scholars, parliament, and others, in order to push though reforms that make the rest of the region look medieval by comparison, particularly with regards to blue-collar workers.

It has rewritten the region’s rulebook on benefits, insurance, human rights, trade unionism, training and freedom of movement. It has extended the same rights to expatriate workers as are afforded to Bahraini employees, and it has won praise from a host of international groups including Human Rights Watch and the UN’s International Labour Organisation. Not that it’s had anywhere near the same support at home.

In 2007, the Ministry was panned when it determined to push through unemployment benefit for both Bahrainis and expatriates. The scheme is financed by a 3 percent contribution on wages, split between employers, workers and the government. Business leaders hit the roof: this ‘tax’ marked the beginning of the end of Bahrain as a competitive force in the region. And parliament was scandalised: why should government pay foreigners to sit around doing nothing?

In 2009, business leaders and parliament are on their feet again, wailing and gnashing their teeth with indignation. This time the problem is the abolition of the sponsorship system that is a familiar feature of the Gulf. As of August 1, foreign workers will be directly sponsored by Bahrain’s Labour Market Regulatory Authority and therefore able to move jobs without the consent of their previous employer. It is a right that has always been afforded Bahrainis.

The private sector knows it’s going to cost firms a whole lot more to hold on to valued employees. And in parliament, there are concerns that the fluidity of movement could pose a significant danger to Bahraini jobs now that the playing field has been leveled. Both are screaming bloody murder; both foresee economic ruin and civil unrest.

So there we are: the Ministry is damned if expats don’t work, damned if they do. Foreigners are sitting at home all day and scrounging off the state, while simultaneously working all day, moving jobs as they please and putting honest Bahrainis out of employment as a result.

If those who opposed such reforms actually came up with a coherent, consistent position, then they might gain a little more traction.

For a full interview with Bahrain’s Minister of Labour, Dr Majeed Al Alawi, see this Sunday’s issue of Arabian Business magazine.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

Oracle 11 years ago

Clearly the GCC region should take cue from leadership shown by Bahrain. This move in the meduim & long term will make Locals more competitive, give thrust to education in local population and will attract top class talent to the country.

Geriant 11 years ago

Did anyone actually ask the workers what they wanted? You can be sure that in spite of the supposed workers' rights promised there will still me myriad infringements, abuses and the normal corruption. But it is a huge leap forward from the "medieval by comparison" laws in Saudi Arabia, the UAE etc. as stated here. Bahrainis actually know how to work for a living, because they have to in a state not bent on nannying the young into permanent shoppers. The problem will be that many more firms will simply not hire foreign workers, or will sign contracts that circumvent the rights now in play. Desperate South Asians will still pay the slave traders a fortune to get jobs, and will sign away any claim on the rights. If the new rules aren't reinforced with the same vigour that they are being opposed, it will be a waste of effort.

Roy 11 years ago

Why did the author write the word 'foreigners' in quotation marks? Is the word confusing to him? Surely the BNP supporter was referring the the very high unemployment levels of Bangladeshis, Pakistanis and other groups and was protesting the cheap labour of East Europeans etc. Sounds reasonable to me.