More than 50,000 foreign workers are employed as domestics in Bahrain today, yet they lack legal protection from exploitation or abuse. Instead, these workers—typically women and girls from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe—rely on the protection of their employers or unscrupulous international agents who bring them into the country for profit.
Because of the country’s small indigenous population, many industries in Bahrain rely on a steady supply of foreign workers—in construction, restaurants, and homes. The workers are typically recruited by international agents who promise lucrative jobs in exchange for a large sum of money. But upon arrival in Bahrain many find that the jobs do not pay what they were promised, conditions are inhumane, or the job is simply nonexistent. These workers are then trapped in a foreign country with no legal recourse. Many are forced into virtual slavery or resort to crime and prostitution to survive.
EDC is working with the government of Bahrain and human rights organizations to reform labor law and practice in the country and to crack down on organized crime networks that traffic in human labor.
“In Bahrain these issues have not been discussed,” says EDC’s Elizabeth Markovic. “You don’t ask questions about foreign workers, you don’t talk about them, and there is little understanding of how this systemic exploitation adversely affects public health and safety by contributing to crime, drug abuse, and prostitution.”
The Labor Market Reform Initiative, funded by USAID, has approached the problem on many fronts. It has drafted legislation, currently pending in Parliament, which would extend legal protection to foreign workers. Project staff are also working with government officials to develop additional anti-trafficking legislation.
Along with these legislative efforts, the project is also leading outreach efforts to raise awareness of the issue more broadly with government workers such as judges, police, and prosecutors. It is also educating employers on fair labor practice.
At a three-day forum this winter sponsored jointly by EDC, the Bahrain Human Rights Society, and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, international experts in human trafficking met with government leaders from Bahrain as well as representatives from other agencies to consider additional ways to combat labor trafficking. It was the first time the issue was raised publicly in the country.
To help the victims of trafficking directly, the project provided professional support to a local migrant workers shelter. The project helped local staff establish a databank of victims, streamline their management system, train new workers, and develop plans for seeking new funding sources.
The next step involves bringing government and private sector agencies together in the development of a Web portal to coordinate their efforts. They hope to develop a joint databank and network for reporting instances of trafficking, share activities and resources, and provide a support network for victims.
“Thanks to these collaborative efforts Bahrain is now seen as a role model for other Gulf countries that are interested in labor reform,” says Markovic.
Originally published on July 1, 2007