Bahrain in legal bid to get workers to return

Bahraini authorities are cracking down on absenteeism in a bid to restore productivity in the the Gulf's smallest economy.

An employee of Bahrain Petroleum Company, the Persian Gulf island's national oil company, crank on a pipeline valve Monday, Oct. 27, 2008, in the Sakhir, Bahrain, desert oilfields. Growing evidence of a severe global economic slowdown drove oil prices below $62 a barrel Monday as investors brushed off a sizeable OPEC output cut. (AP Photo/Hasan Jamali)

MANAMA // Bahrain is clamping down on absentee public sector employees as it tries to restore productivity after weeks of unrest.

In a weekly cabinet meeting at Gudaibiya Palace in Manama on Sunday, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the kingdom's prime minister, ordered all ministries and government departments to submit reports on employees failing to turn up for work.

Staff absent without official permission will be subject to legal action and could face a cut in salary or termination of employment, a statement on the civil service bureau's website said yesterday.

The directive comes after a nationwide strike imposed by the General Federation, Bahrain's largest trade union, which has about 25,000 members, was halted as workers were asked to return to duty last week.

Aluminium Bahrain's (Alba) trade union, which represents one of the biggest companies within the federation, was one of the first to end its strike.

Ali al bin Ali, the head of the union at Alba, said the reasons behind the strikes were not clear but they were hitting profits at local businesses.

"What we were worrying about was the small and medium-sized businesses in Bahrain and the strikes were affecting this type of business," Mr al Bin Ali said. "A lot of financial loans and bills have to be paid and [strikes] will deduct from the salary."

Of Alba's 2,700 staff and union members, only 300 were entitled to strike and these were from "non-essential" administrative departments, minimising the economic impact, he said.

But Mr al Bin Ali added that Bahrain Petroleum Company's (Bapco) union, the second-largest in the federation, had "failed" in its approach by allegedly continuing strikes.

The state-owned Bapco, which has the capacity to produce more than 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude, has partly shut down operations. Management at the company said this was because of maintenance work, not staff shortages.

"Of course if there are unauthorised strikes we will take action. What do you expect?" said Khalid al Sabbagh, the general manager of the marketing division at Bapco.

"We are a government entity and we follow government procedures, so anyone who didn't come [to work] will definitely be penalised."

Mr al Sabbagh added that "everybody is back to work now".

Capacity had dropped to 190,000 bpd, Faisal Mohamed al Mahroos, the chief executive of Bapco, told Reuters last week.

Bahrain has a long tradition of trade union activism and a history of protest stretching back decades.

The state reduced restrictions on trade unions in 2006 when it was negotiating a foreign trade agreement with the US. But a prime ministerial decree subsequently introduced curbs to trade union activities.

Jane Kinninmont, a Bahrain specialist at the London think tank Chatham House, said the government's orders were politically and economically linked.

"On one hand it is a political attempt to restrict the opposition, but at the same time it's an effort to get the economy going again, which will be welcomed by supporters of the government," Ms Kinninmont said. "I don't think you can completely separate the two."

She added that part of the official justification for using violence to disperse protesters around Manama's Pearl Roundabout was that they were disrupting business.

Restrictions have tightened as turmoil rattles the economies of countries across the Mena region, with the governments of Egypt and Saudi Arabia banning protests outright.

Since the rout of protesters from Pearl Roundabout on March 16, which ended a month-long protest, the Bahraini government has made clear it will not tolerate dissent.