A group of unemployed social studies graduates has been organising sit-ins in front of the ministry of education and other government offices for the past two years in the hope of securing jobs in their fields. Their persistence has prompted members of parliament and education experts to warn that failing to address their demands could have repercussions on the country's development plans. It has also brought the country's education system, which has been marred in recent years by teacher protests, allegations of discrimination and charges of bad planning and oversight, into the spotlight once more.
On Monday, a handful of the graduates gathered in front of the ministry of education to renew calls to find them jobs within the ministry. It was their 32nd sit-in since they launched their protest in front of the Civil Services Bureau in February 2008. In 2006, the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, said the "necessary mechanisms" would be put in place to secure employment for graduates. But graduates of the social sciences say nothing came of that.
"Despite directives from the prime minister - government officials have yet to act on them and we have not seen an implementation of these directives on the ground," said 32-year-old psychology graduate, Ali Hassan Matrook, clutching a Bahraini flag at Monday's sit-in. "It does not seem that the ministry of education is interested in listening to us and the response from other government officials and elected members of parliament have varied between supportive to indifferent," Mr Matrook said.
The protesters accuse the government of ignoring their protests over the past two years. Officials declined to comment on the matter. The graduates, who hold university degrees in such social studies fields as psychology, social work and social education cannot determine the exact figure of the unemployed graduates in their field, but they have become locally referred to as the "social unemployed".
"The situation is depressing; many of those who do not show up anymore for the sit-ins don't do so because their morale has been devastated or they have taken up jobs with less pay outside their fields. The length of time it has taken us to try to get light shed on our issue and the lack of response are a cause of despair for many of us," he said. Mr Matrook's gloom was shared by his fellow sit-in mate for the past two years, Raida Ahmed Ali, 27, who studied on a government grant at the island's only state-supported university before graduating in 2005 with a social studies degree.
"I'm supposed to be able to support myself and contribute to the family income. We are a large family and my father, who is retired now, always encouraged us to study so we can advance our careers, but today all of us have completed our studies and most of us are unemployed," she said. "I have two sisters, one who studied law and the other accounting, and they are both unemployed. My brother just got a job after being unemployed for five years following his graduation. I am not the breadwinner in the family, but I wanted to repay my father, who was a simple labourer and did all he could so we can finish our studies. But today I feel as if I am a burden on them."
Ms Ali, whose grant came from the prime minister's office, said she originally wanted to get a degree in the Arabic language, but took a social studies degree at the insistence of the ministry of educaton's grant adviser, who told her that the grant would be withdrawn if she insisted on studying Arabic. "The adviser told me that they had an excess of Arabic teachers, but they needed psychology or social studies graduates in these new fields. I worked hard, taking seven courses each term, so I could graduate with the first batch and here I am now unemployed," she said.
Ms Ali said it was dreadful planning by the ministry that led to the current predicament. "The ministry - wouldn't allow us to get degrees in the Arabic language and today they have a shortage in Arabic teachers and had to turn to Egyptian and Jordanian teachers to fill those positions," she said. "The irony in all of this is that the ministry still gives out grants to students to study these same fields. This year alone, 29 students have been granted scholarships to study social studies."
The ministry of education, which has declined to comment, referring employment issues to the Civil Service Bureau, does not release figures about what percentage of its more than 14,000 teachers and educational staff is made up of expatriate Arabs. The president of the Bahrain Teacher's Society, Mahdi Abu Deeb, said one of the suggestions they brought forward to address the issue was promoting Bahrainis within the ranks of the schools and ministry to open up the positions for the new graduates.
"There are several suggestions on the table, [including] promoting experienced teachers, having fewer students per class, or retraining some of the graduates to fill other roles. - But we do not see a real will on the part of the government to resolve this problem," Mr Abu Deeb said. "The rest, which the ministry cannot employ, should be employed in other ministries or in the private sector in roles that meet their qualifications."
One opposition MP, Jalal Fairooz, who represents Al Wefaq Society, took part in the 30th protest for the graduates. He said it was their constitutional right to have jobs provided for them. "Fifteen million Bahraini dinars [Dh146m] were allocated two years ago to employ 1,912 graduates, but to this date only 4m was spent. True, some 800 were employed during these past two years but during the same time between 2,000 and 3,000 new unemployed university graduates entered the market," Mr Fairooz said.
"Today the estimate is that we have 4,000 unemployed university graduates and are lacking a central planning organisation that links between the future graduates and the needs of the labour market only compounds the problem." Mr Fairooz added that government attempts to employ the graduates in the private sector were inadequate because the jobs were not in keeping with the qualifications. Some graduates received offers to work as deliverymen, sales clerks, hotel receptionists or as telephone operators.