Around half of Bahrain’s population are migrant workers, who together comprise more than three quarters of the country’s workforce. Hailing predominantly from South Asian countries such as India and Bangladesh, but also other countries such as Egypt, Jordan and the Philippines, their numbers have increased steadily from the 1970s, sustained first by Bahrain’s oil boom and subsequently by its economic development in other sectors following liberalization. While spread across diverse sectors, the migrant workforce remain concentrated particularly in construction and services such as domestic work.
Domestic workers in Bahrain are vulnerable to abuse as Bahrain’s existing labour laws fail to adequately protect them. The various forms of exploitation they face include the failure to be paid their wages, with many cases indicating that migrant workers can go months or even years without receiving payment from their employer. Confiscation and withholding of passports, which makes it increasingly difficult for an individual to leave an abusive work environment, is also a common occurrence. Unsafe working and living conditions also take their toll: in January 2013, for example, 13 migrant workers were killed in an apartment building fire because of improper housing standards.
Female domestic workers have reported cases of physical and sexual abuse, with many not even allowed to leave the confines of the home, as well as working excessive hours. There have been many reports of suicides among migrant workers who have been involved in forced labour, debt bondage and isolation.
Although the Bahraini government introduced reforms to strengthen safety regulations, combat human trafficking and enable migrants to leave employers, in practice little has changed in the treatment of migrant workers and their ability to seek justice. There is little evidence to suggest that employers who violate the rights of migrant workers ever face the consequences now stipulated in Bahraini law. Human Rights Watch stated that according to data provided by Bahrain’s Labour Ministry, only 30 per cent of complaints filed by migrant workers in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were resolved. It was further documented that legal cases took between 6 and 12 months to resolve and that during this time migrant workers are unable to work. With no income, they are essentially put in a situation that may push them to accept an out-of-court settlement.