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Fri 6 Nov 2009 08:52 AM

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Gulf Air workers stage labour protest

Some 300 employees at Bahrain's state-owned carrier protest against job cuts.

Some 300 employees at Bahrain's state-owned Gulf Air  staged an hour-long sit-in on Thursday in a rare labour action to protest job cuts and beef up their position in the loss-making carrier's restructuring.

"Years and years of discrimination, Bahrainis against foreigners and Bahrainis against Bahrainis", one of the protesters said, saying employees were protesting against lay-offs and large inequalities in salaries.

Labour action is a rare phenomenon in the Gulf Arab region where the workforce largely consists of poorly-paid Asian workers who are at the whim of their employers under a sponsorship system often criticised by human rights groups.

But Bahrain, a small oil producer, has a significant domestic work-force and limited funds to plough into state-owned companies. It has been trying to restructure companies like Gulf Air and Aluminium Bahrain, its largest employers.

Union head Mustafa al-Tooq told Reuters that workers wanted to meet management next week and would proceed with strike preparations if management were not more responsive to union demands.

Any escalation in the conflict between management and unions could hit the restructuring process under the new chief executive Samer Majali.

Three chief executives have tried to turn around Gulf Air since 2002, cutting jobs and realigning its network as previous shareholders Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Oman exited the ailing carrier.

Efforts to resurrect the company have also been hampered by political opposition to laying off employees.

Unions have said Gulf Air plans to lay off 272 employees by the end of the year, with management saying it only planned to cut positions through natural attrition.

Bahrain, the smallest Gulf Arab state, has gone some way towards diversifying its economy away from the oil sector, and is seen as having most advanced labour laws in the region. (Reuters)

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