Cablegate: A/Ustr-Labor Visit to Bahrain
RR RUEHDE RUEHDH RUEHDIR
DE RUEHMK #0596/01 2851408
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 121408Z OCT 09
FM AMEMBASSY MANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 8958
INFO RUEHZM/GULF COOPERATION COUNCIL COLLECTIVE
RHMFISS/HQ USCENTCOM MACDILL AFB FL
RUEHC/DEPT OF LABOR WASHDC
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 MANAMA 000596
EEB PASS TO USTR
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/08/2019
TAGS: PGOV ELAB PHUM BA
SUBJECT: A/USTR-LABOR VISIT TO BAHRAIN
Classified By: CDA Christopher Henzel for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).
1.(C) Summary: Government officials said it will take a long time to end the sponsorship system for third-country labor, despite recent high-profile announcements. End summary.
2.(SBU) Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Labor Lewis Karesh and an inter-agency delegation discussed labor issues, particularly within the framework of the U.S.-Bahrain FTA, with government officials and concerned civil society leaders in Bahrain October 3 to
4. The delegation met with the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU), Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS), and Bahrain Human Rights Society (BHRS), as well as the Ministry of Labor, Ministry of Commerce and Industry, and the Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA). They discussed ongoing labor market reform, the role of unions, and points of contact for further discussion. The Sponsorship System: Not Dead Yet -------------------------------------
3.(C) The Minister of Labor, Dr. Majeed Alawi, confirmed that Bahrain had enacted important regulatory changes that are aimed at giving third-country laborers the freedom to change jobs. However, he acknowledged that implementing procedures are still being worked out, and that most TCNs would in any case remain tied to their Bahraini sponsors by obligations to complete contracts, or by government regulations requiring them to provide considerable advance notice before changing employers. In addition, the tradition of sponsorship was so ingrained in the minds of both Bahraini employers and of foreign workers that it would take time to eradicate it fully. LMRA CEO Ali Radhi claimed that migrant workers are now able to transfer employers without obtaining consent from their previous employer, provided the worker's contractual obligations are fulfilled. Both Radhi and MWPS' action committee head Marietta Dias indicated that they haven't seen much actual movement of workers from employer to employer.
4.(C) Alawi and Radhi both lamented that the business community has been the biggest obstacle to change. Alawi complained that Bahrain's reliance on cheap migrant labor inhibits productivity and market reforms, but the shortage of Bahraini nationals willing and able to take certain jobs left Bahrain with little choice. The top-down management style prevalent in the Gulf also slowed progress, he said. Getting management to include unions in the decision-making process was, according to Alawi, a difficult, but worthwhile goal. Radhi told the delegation that LMRA must move slowly in reforming the labor market, because doing so in one fell swoop - as first envisioned - would be too much of a shock to the business community. Faiza Khan, Radhi's executive director, explained that she has conducted outreach with weekly Hindi-language radio programs and by attending the monthly open houses at the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Thai embassies to speak directly to migrant laborers about their rights and to answer questions about the LMRA and labor reform. Radhi and Khan directed the delegation to LMRA's website (www.lmra.bh) for background on LMRA, and for statistics on migrant workers, including a breakdown by nationality and sector. Labor Reform Bill -----------------
5.(C) All interlocutors expressed their hope that the parliament would approve a new labor law to replace the existing one from 1976. (Note: The lower house has approved the government's bill and action is now with the Shura Council.) GFBTU, Alawi, and Radhi all explained that the new law would modernize the labor system and would cover domestic workers, who currently do not benefit from many of the provisions of the labor law. According to GFBTU, the new law would clarify the restrictions on strikes in certain "sensitive" sectors, and bring Bahraini labor law in line with ILO guidelines. The new law would also establish a multi-ministry body - incorporating the Ministries of Labor, Health, and Municipalities - to address occupational health and safety issues, replacing the current small office in the Ministry of Labor.
6.(SBU) GFBTU appeared satisfied with the current role of unions, but bemoaned the lack of government unions and strike limitations. Its representatives said they needed a greater role in the decision making process, though, in response to a MANAMA 00000596 002 OF 002 question, they admitted that they currently have seats on all of the EDB's labor market-related sub-committees, just not on EDB itself. The GFBTU board praised the FTA-related legislative changes which allow unions to strike after a simple majority vote, down from the 75% vote previously required. It also praised the law which prohibits employers from firing employees for union activity, although some members complained that there is often a long delay between when a company fires a unionist and when the courts impose a remedy. Requests for USG Assistance ---------------------------
8.(SBU) The GFBTU and Labor Minister asked if the USG could help provide training to both companies and unions on how they should interact with one another. A/USTR Karesh and DOL Office of Trade and Labor Affairs Deputy Director Timothy Wedding responded they would look into training opportunities.
9.(U) The A/USTR-led delegation consisted of the following: USTR: Lewis Karesh, Assistant USTR for Labor Amy Karpel, Associate General Counsel Department of Labor, Office of Trade and Labor Affairs: Timothy Wedding, Deputy Director James Rude, International Relations Officer Department of State: Robert Boehme, Director, International Labor Affairs Office, DRL Anupama Prattipati, Multilateral Trade Office, EEB HENZEL