The government maintained efforts to prevent trafficking. In 2020, the government finalized a three-year, 377,000 BD ($1 million) agreement with an international organization to provide technical expertise to the Center of Excellence and Training for Trafficking in Persons, established in partnership with two international organizations during the previous reporting period, for the purpose of capacity building of victim assistance among government and regional stakeholders. The government was unable to offer training courses due to the pandemic. During the reporting period, high-level government officials and the LMRA participated in the second Inter-Governmental Forum on Combating Trafficking in Persons in the Middle East, hosted by the United Arab Emirates, and the forum appointed Bahrain as its permanent Secretary General in October 2020. High-level officials from across the region and two international organizations attended the forum to share anti-trafficking efforts during the pandemic, specifically related to increasing capacity to protect potential victims of trafficking.
The government also made significant efforts to address the increased vulnerability of migrant workers, regardless of residency status, due to pandemic-related job-loss or extended absence from work due to illness. These efforts included an amnesty period from April 2020 to December 2020 for all out-of-status workers (including those that lost legal status due to job loss), the elimination and/or reduction in costs associated with new and renewal work permits, including the “flexible (or flexi) work permit,” and the establishment of an online marketplace to allow workers who had experienced job loss to be re-hired by another employer in Bahrain as an alternative to returning to their home countries. The government also provided food, medical services, and financial relief to migrant workers throughout the pandemic.
Since its inception in July 2017, the LMRA’s “flexi” permit program has served to regularize thousands of undocumented workers while simultaneously permitting previously exploited and irregular laborers to sponsor themselves independent of an employer. From April 2020 to June 2020, the government eliminated all fees associated with residency visas and the “flexi” permit program, gradually increasing the fees to previous, pre-pandemic levels in September 2020. Likely due to the lower cost of the program, the number of “flexi” permit holders significantly increased from about 23,000 to 46,000 during the reporting period, allowing workers that had lost jobs or were part of the amnesty to regularize their residency status. The government reported around 40,000 migrant workers experienced pandemic-related job loss during the reporting period; however, by providing the “flexi” permit visa at a reduced cost and launching an online marketplace to allow workers to be re-hired in Bahrain, the LRMA reported 51,000 migrant workers had re-entered the workforce and reduced their vulnerability to trafficking. Under the “flexi” permit, foreigners could reside and work in Bahrain without a sponsor, thereby reducing trafficking vulnerabilities inherent in the kafala or sponsorship-based employment system. Successful applicants could work any full- or part-time job with any chosen employer—including multiple jobs concurrently with various employers—and were able to directly negotiate wages and working hours. From November 2018 to June 2019, the government temporarily extended eligibility for the “flexi” permit to domestic workers who absconded from their employers or had expired work visas to allow them to regularize their residency and work status. During the pandemic, the government renewed this policy and allowed domestic workers to apply for flexi-permits during the amnesty period that ended at the end of 2020. However, as of 2021, the government again removed domestic worker eligibility for the program, rendering domestic employees vulnerable to the plight of the kafala system. Legal workers were also eligible to enroll in the program without the consent of their employer after the termination or expiry of their work permit. The “flexi” permit—which cost 432 BD ($1,150) for one year—included a work permit, health care coverage, a refundable deposit for travel tickets, an extension of residency timeframes, and waived immigration fines incurred while in irregular status. Some NGOs and labor rights organizations continued to express concerns that the “flexi” program was not a suitable alternative for low-income workers who may not be able to afford the high cost of the permit each month and in some cases must find daily work to keep up with the costs of the visa. Rights groups also expressed the need to ensure protections for flexi-permit holders; as holders who work on a freelance basis or in short-term employment are not required to have a contract with their employer, and rarely do, heightening their vulnerability to wage disputes or other issues with a temporary employer without protection under the labor law. Further, because the labor law does not explicitly cover flexi-permit holders (as they do not have an employer or sponsor), these individuals are not afforded the ability to file grievances or labor complaints with the labor courts as other workers covered under the law could; rather, flexi-permit holders could only file cases against employers in civil courts. Additionally, a flexi-permit is not an option before a migrant worker arrives in Bahrain—a worker only becomes eligible for the program once their visa has expired, their contract has ended, or they become irregular—which continued to put workers in situations of potential exploitation under a sponsor or employer when first arriving in the country. Since 2011, private sector workers have had freedom to change jobs without their employer’s consent after one year of employment; on average eight to nine percent of Bahrain’s migrant worker population change employers each year. However, the LMRA still must approve the transfer, and like the flexi-permit program, domestic workers do not have the ability to change jobs without employer consent—further heightening the risk of exploitation to this vulnerable population. The government also reported all workers were able to terminate employment at any time, with a notice period according to their contract, and leave the country permanently without employer consent.
Passport retention was a crime punishable under Article 395 of the Bahraini penal code, with a penalty of jail time, a fine, or both. However, according to the law, employers were allowed to retain an employee’s passport if the employee gave the employer permission to do so, enabling the employer to justify the action. Laborers continued to be able to file a grievance for passport withholding with the police, the Ministry of Labor and Social Development (MOLSD), or the LMRA. When handled by the LMRA, instances of passport retention were reportedly screened by trained GPD staff for indicators of trafficking. Representatives of labor-source country embassies reported that cases handled by the LMRA resulted in expedient and fair disposition of cases. A worker could also register a complaint to the court directly if the employer refused to return the passport; however, in most cases, once the LMRA, MOLSD, or police approached the employer, they returned the passport to the employee, and the worker chose not to pursue criminal charges against their employer. In a purported effort to address the crime, the LMRA’s GPD began working more closely with a local NGO to learn more about passport retention and address the issue directly with employers. During the reporting period, the GPD reported improvements in addressing passport retention by employers and reported that incidents of employers returning confiscated passports to employees increased by 365 percent. The GPD’s strategy included an awareness campaign about the issue of passport retention targeted at employers and underscored administrative and potential criminal repercussions for confiscating a worker’s documents. However, as in previous reporting periods, labor authorities or police did not report referring any cases of passport retention to the PPO for criminal investigation or prosecution.
The government made efforts to prevent forced labor by increasing inspections of recruitment agencies and announcing a plan to launch a Wage Protection System (WPS). The LMRA continued to oversee the issuing of licenses and regulation of recruitment companies through quarterly inspection visits to the offices and other measures to ensure the protection of workers’ rights. For example, the government continued to require all recruitment agencies to submit a security deposit equivalent of 10,000 BD ($26,530) to safeguard employees’ rights and required each employer to provide dedicated accommodation for recruited workers that met the LMRA’s standards. The LMRA’s PID employed 70 inspectors who were responsible for enforcement of employment violations, immigration violations, and worksite inspections. The LMRA’s PID reported conducting 2,264 inspections during the reporting year, of which 152 were for recruitment agencies. Through these inspections, the government permanently shut down six companies and suspended one recruitment agency; in 2019, it closed one agency. It also suspended 15 additional companies due to noncompliance with LMRA regulations and having workers without legal status employed in the establishments. As in previous years, the government did not report referring any recruitment agency or offices to the PPO for further investigation or criminal prosecution. In March 2021, the government announced plans to launch a WPS for private sector workers beginning in May 2021; the system, intended to be rolled out in three phases, is not currently obligated for employers of domestic workers, but employers of domestic workers had the option to participate in the system. The government reported the aim of the system was to ensure regularly and timely transfer of worker’s wages directly to their bank account and enhance transparency; the system will automatically flag instances of non-payment or delayed payment of wages, and an employer’s failure to pay monthly salaries on time would result in penalties and legal procedures against violators.
The government continued to fund awareness campaigns via text messages and social media targeting low-skilled migrant workers through the reporting period. It used mobile phones to proactively engage with migrant labor populations, sending out nearly one million text messages with the trafficking hotline information, labor rights facts, and police station locations as well as information to migrant workers about the pandemic and associated safety and health measures. In addition to traditional messages about the dangers and signs of trafficking, the LMRA also deployed extensive outreach campaigns to raise awareness for workers regarding the amnesty period during the year, guidance on how to obtain and renew a flexi-permit, and how to regulate their legal status due to pandemic related job loss. During the previous reporting period, the LMRA launched a website (endtrafficking.bh) with a wide range of information on trafficking and myriad resources readily accessible for foreign workers. However, NGOs reported key information on the website was only available in English, limiting its application. The LMRA continued to provide booklets outlining labor rights in 13 languages common among expatriate and migrant worker populations and distributed them to such populations upon their arrival at the Bahrain International Airport and at the LMRA when applying for initial or renewed residency cards. The LMRA’s Expat Protection Center’s trafficking hotline collected reports and served as a resource to educate workers about their rights and available services in Arabic, English, Hindi, Malayalam, Sinhalese, Tagalog, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The government advertised the hotline’s number and mandate through pamphlets given to each migrant worker upon arrival in Bahrain and circulated through the LMRA’s social media platforms and website. The government reported receiving a 151 percent increase in the number of calls during the reporting period (16,201, an increase compared with 6,444 such calls the previous year), most of which pertained to the pandemic and associated job losses. Officials initiated two trafficking investigations and identified and referred one victim through this hotline during the reporting period. The government concluded memoranda of understanding with several labor-source countries, including Pakistan and India, that focused on oversight of recruitment agencies and protection of migrant workers in Bahrain and provided technical assistance to other governments in the region on trafficking topics such as victim identification, care and assistance, migration management and sponsorship reform, and building a NRM. The government did not make efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex acts. The government provided anti-trafficking training for its diplomatic personnel.