Chart showing numbers of sacked employees from the biggest companies in Bahrain, according to records of GFBTU

8 June, 2011

The more you become involved in the complexities of politics, even within a relatively small country like Bahrain, the more you see the fallacy of that maxim of natural law which states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”[1] . If only this were true. Sadly, it is because we are not all born free and equal that we must fight to claim the rights that we are all supposed to have. It is not enough to sit back and watch as supposedly ‘inalienable’ rights are taken away from others.

The International Labor Organisation know this, and while they may not have as much influence over western governments as they once did, supra-national organisations like the ILO are central in raising awareness about the abuse of labor rights in authoritarian states like Bahrain. From a legal perspective, it is important to note that it is not just ‘abstract’ multilateral treaties that Bahrain ignores when forcing the sacking of hundreds of workers for their political and religious beliefs, but also bilateral treaties which it has signed such as the 2006 US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement.[2]

Many international organisations have been alarmed that the current repression in Bahrain undermines all of the hard work that reformers on all sides of the political spectrum have done to modernize Bahrain’s anachronistic political system. The American Federation of Labour and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) noted in a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU), created during the reforms of the 1990s, has been targeted by the government, with more than half of its elected leadership sacked.

The ILO sent a delegation to investigate labor practices in Bahrain at the end of May. It has recommended that 2000 workers who were sacked be re-hired in a gesture of reconciliation.[3] This is a somewhat different outcome of the talks than what was reported in some regional media.[4] Here is what the ILO’s Guy Ryder had to say about his visit:

After talks with President Obama yesterday, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa reiterated his government’s commitment to dialogue ‘without preconditions’.[5] Bahrain’s UN delegation has also stated that it is willing ‘in principle’ to receive a visit from the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, although no date has yet been set.[6]

BCHR welcomes these statements. However, if we are to have any confidence that these promises of reform will be carried through and are not just empty rhetoric, the government must follow them up with concrete statements about the talks and the UN visit. In order for dialogue to be successful, it has to be shown that the government is serious about reconciliation. This requires:

1) Political prisoners, especially opposition leaders, must be released from jail in order to take part in the national dialogue.

2) The ILO’s recommendation that sacked workers be reinstated must be carried through to reduce sectarian tension.

3) The securitization of neutral zones like Salmaniya hospital and the University of Bahrain must end to reduce the fear of people who need to go to university or hospital.

If these limited concessions can be made, there can be some trust that the government means what it says about reform. If not, the only outcome can be continued violence and economic upheaval. The opposition would also like to see the Bahrain GP return, but this is not possible under the current situation. All Bahrainis wish to see an end to the current crisis, and it is hoped that both sides can put aside their differences to engage in constructive talks.

John Lubbock Advocacy Officer, Bahrain Centre for Human Rights London, 8 June, 2011


Babylon & Beyond spoke with Shawna Bader-Blau, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Washington-based Solidarity Center.

AFL-CIO statement.

AFL-CIO’s complaint letter.

AFL-CIO complaint about US-Bahrain FTA.

ActNow Labourstart campaign.

ITUC Press Release warns of slide into dictatorship.

Building and Wood Workers International.

BCHR 7th April - mounting clampdown on Trades Unions.

BCHR 6th April - thousands subjected to dismissals.

ILO DG sounds alarm on dismissal of workers.

UN News March 16, curtailment of TU activities.

Civil Society Orgs letter to the government.

Latest sacking list according to General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (8 June 2011)