MANAMA // Bahrain revises its sponsorship system today, the first Gulf country to do so, giving expatriate workers greater freedom to change jobs, but amid criticism from industry groups which say it will create chaos in the workplace.
The "mobility law" which comes into effect today is ostensibly designed to pave the way for the free movement of labour, as well as bring the kingdom's laws in line with developed countries and is part of a broader package of reforms intended to bring more Bahrainis into the workforce. Although the new visa system will make it easier for foreigners to change jobs, employers have to pay the government a fee to employ an expatriate, money that goes towards retaining Bahrainis.
"It is important for Bahrain's development. We cannot have a decent business environment and decent standard of living for Bahrainis unless we introduce these changes," said Kamal Ahmed, chief operating officer of the Economic Development Board which was set up to promote foreign investment and carry out economic reforms. Instead of a private company being the sole sponsor of a worker, the Labour Market Regulation Authority, an agency set up by the government, is now responsible for issuing employees with two-year work visas once a job contract has been signed. The expatriate will be allowed to change jobs provided a three-month notice period is given.
All foreign employees, who make up 60 per cent of Bahrain's 1.1 million population - with the exception of the approximately 70,000 domestic workers such as maids and cooks - are covered. The changes have become a hot political issue because it appears to challenge the fundamental relationship between the state and the powerful private sector in Bahrain which has controlled the terms of importing labour for decades.
Majeed al Alawi, the labour minister, has described the old sponsorship system as akin to slavery and that there was no legal basis for it. "Sponsorship is not humane. We think sponsorship is outdated," Al Jazeera Online quoted Mr al Alawi as saying. "This will bring our laws into the 21st century." While human rights groups have welcomed the new law, many details still remain unclear. Business groups and politicians have called on the government to spell out how the law will be implemented, enforced and under what terms.
"It was marketed as helping Bahrainis but now more and more they [government] are saying it is because Bahrain has international obligations," said Khalil al Marzooq, the deputy chairman of the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, the largest opposition group in parliament with 17 seats. "We don't disagree with any law that helps citizens. Why should we treat people like this when they are helping develop our country?" he said, referring to the various reports of physical and sexual assault of labourers and withholding of salaries and passports.
"From our Islamic principles we have been taught that any human being is a brother to you by blood or by creation. But right now it is not carefully planned. On Saturday we'll hear a lot of screaming from the small and medium enterprises and the construction industry." Some of the loudest criticism has come from the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry which has 10,000 members. "We are not against the law. We are saying the details, the application terms must be detailed in such a way that everybody knows his obligations and what his expectations are," said Ebrahim Zainal, its first vice chairman.
He said that companies which rely heavily on foreign workers especially the construction industry do not want to spend money and time on recruiting staff only to see them leave after a few months particularly if they are highly qualified professionals. "Don't you think that would disturb the operation of the first employer? And it would upset and may cause him a lot of losses and damages because to get a replacement it would take a long time and take extra money. We expect the labour ministry should protect the private sector on things like that."
Mr Zainal added that another concern was that there should be a period of perhaps six months before an expatriate was allowed to work for a competing firm. Marietta Dias, head of the action committee for the Migrant Workers Protection Society, a volunteer organisation to help abused workers, called it a "step in the right direction". "Having said that, we haven't got a clear-cut ruling on how it will work. We will wait and see how it develops case by case. Very broadly they are saying a person can walk out of one job and into another but in practice we know it won't work this way."
Many laws concerning migrant workers were not always enforced, she said, pointing out that one of the most common complaints was that labourers did not get their salaries on time, or that their passports were withheld, both of which are illegal. "For every 100 cases we see, 70 are to do with non-payment or irregular payment." But the law is not just about ensuring rights for overseas workers. It is the latest in a series of bold reforms designed to help a population which has complained about lack of jobs, decent housing and education.
The island has the highest level of civil unrest in the Gulf and tensions have spilt out on the streets in recent years and taken on a sectarian slant in the Shiite-majority country. The economic reforms have been spearheaded by Mr al Alawi, who spent the 1990s in exile in London as a member of a banned political organisation but returned at the invitation of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa to help bring changes to the kingdom.
The country is in a catch-22 situation: Bahrainis find it difficult to compete with highly qualified expatriates for white-collar jobs because they do not have the necessary skills but they do not want to work in blue-collar jobs because wages are low due to a large pool of cheap Asian labour. The government has introduced a minimum monthly wage of 200 dinars (Dh1,950) for nationals, unemployment insurance and legalised some union activity all of which have been praised by international organisations.
However, one of the most controversial reforms is that companies must pay 10 dinars a month for every foreign worker they hire in an attempt to encourage firms to hire nationals instead. The charge for expatriate workers plus the 200 dinars that firms must pay for each work permit is being channelled into a fund that is training Bahrainis for jobs. "All these things are linked," said Mr Ahmed, the Economic Development Board's chief operating officer. "The main thing for us is that Bahrainis are the employees of choice. We have to make the private sector as the engine for growth and we want to make sure Bahrainis can see the private sector as the employer of choice. We need to make sure to create a level playing field where Bahrainis compete with expats based on their qualities."
Another reason for the new law is to help curb the so-called free visa system in which companies illegally grant visas for up to 1,500 dinars to labourers who take up odd jobs, said Mr al Marzooq, deputy chairman of the Al Wefaq National Islamic Society. At the Manama police fort in an old part of Manama, about 400 labourers stood about in small groups looking for work such as driving or carrying goods. About a dozen of them said they were "free visa" holders.
"Under the new law we don't have to deal with sponsors anymore, we hear," said Syed, 25, who did not wish to have his last name published because his work permit had expired and he was working in the country illegally. "Among my friends there is talk about you pay a fine and that's it, no more sponsor. That's the rumour. I used to work but after two years my visa ran out and my sponsor asked for 1,000 dinars to renew it. I didn't have money so I left him and became a free visa.
"I'm doing various jobs earning four to five dinars a day. My managers are holding my passport and money. I have nothing. As soon as I can leave I want to go back [home]." Mr Ahmed, at the economic development board, said implementing reforms and educating people about them would take time. "You cannot change everything in one day. But it is a process. You want to use the right policy, the right procedures, you want to educate people, change the whole culture and I think it will happen. But if you do nothing then nothing will be changed."