x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Bahrain's National Dialogue talks focus on job losses

Country's trade union chief says without complete reinstatement of more than 2,000 worker sacked in the aftermath of protests earlier this year, 'we cannot have a meaningful national dialogue.'

MANAMA // Bahrain will have difficulty ending rifts among its people unless more than 2,000 workers who were sacked in the aftermath of protests earlier this year get their jobs back, Bahrain's leading union official said yesterday.

"Without the complete reinstatement of these jobs, we cannot have a meaningful national dialogue," said Sayed Salman Al Mahfood, head of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), referring to the government-sponsored talks that started yesterday and include participants drawn from a wide range of political, civic and professional groups.

The talks were aimed at charting economic, social and political reform in the country after months of turmoil that saw more than 30 people die in clashes between protesters and police.

The first sessions had full attendance last night and discussions ranged from sectarianism in political parties to the need for a new family law, said Isa Abdul Rahman, the spokesman for the National Dialogue.

"We aimed from day one to have a comprehensive dialogue, inclusive dialogue," Mr Abdul Rahman said. "From the first 30 minutes today, I can say we have achieved that."

But Manama was tense, as riot police shut down roads into the village of Sehla, where the family of a man who died on Friday from wounds he received during the turmoil in March gathered for the third day of his funeral. There were clashes with police on Saturday, the first day of the funeral.

Brigadier Tariq Al Hassan, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior, said on Monday that the police were quelling small protests around the city with "minimum force".

A major challenge for the government remains the layoffs that followed the initial protests.

Mr Al Mahfood said there had been signs in recent days that only people who were determined by authorities to have been illegally fired would get their jobs back, leaving out those who did not come to work because they decided to join pro-democracy demonstrations or go on strike.

The layoffs have been controversial inside Bahrain and internationally. The country's free-trade agreement with the United States, a major economic partner, is under threat after the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations (AFL-CIO) filed a complaint asking for the termination of the agreement with Bahrain for alleged violations of labour rights. The Bahrain government denied it violated the terms of the free-trade agreement. It had hired a US law firm, Sorini, Samet & Associates, to fight the claim.

The International Labour Organisation, the United Nation's labour rights agency, called on the government to restore all people who were fired for striking in support of protests in February and March.

The ILO director-general, Juan Somavia, told Reuters: "Our main worry is people being able to work and ensuring they can exercise their freedom of association and not be pressured as a result of events."

Jameel bin Mohammed Ali Humaidan, the minister of labour, said yesterday that King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and Prime Minister Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa had issued instructions on Monday to expedite its report on the dismissals and complete it within 10 working days.

Mr Ali Humaidan said that decisions over reinstating jobs came down to whether they had broken employment laws. One such law says that if an employee is absent for 10 continuous days without excuse, he can be fired or subjected to other disciplinary actions.

"We are very technical people here," he told The National in an interview. "We are investigating the circumstances of each dismissal. Some cases happened without enough evidence."

Mr Ali Humaidan said that Ministry of Labour employees had teamed up with lawyers to investigate roughly 1,800 cases of private sector dismissals after the protests. The government had previously announced in June that 571 jobs would be restored, but only a fraction of these have actually taken place as of this week.

A report compiled by the GFBTU lists government-controlled companies, such as Gulf Air and Aluminium Bahrain, as having had the largest number of layoffs after the protests (1,171). The Ministry of Labour said it was still analysing GFBTU's list to check its accuracy.

Some human rights and political groups have said that the dismissals were politically motivated and contributed to a greater division across Bahraini society. The identification of protesters who held jobs in government-related companies has played out on the internet.

One website reviewed by The National highlighted employees of Gulf Air, the country's national airline, in photographs of protests. For each employee, there is a circle around their head and their position. The 131 photographs include pilots, cabin crew, staff and doctors working in Gulf Air clinics.