Bahrainis take to the streets over job security

At a rally, a union leader says workers in the country were not immune from the repercussions of the global financial crisis.

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MANAMA // Bahrainis marked International Workers Day yesterday with a march on the National Assembly amid growing concerns over job security and migrant workers rights. More than a thousand unionised workers and their families chanting, "Unity, Unity, Workers", and "Worker raise your head, let the struggle be your shield", marched on the streets of the capital during the annual May Day labour rally, which ended at the doorsteps of parliament.

At the rally, Salman al Mahfood, the secretary general of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), an umbrella organisation for unions, said that workers in Bahrain were not immune from the repercussions of the global financial crisis. "Workers in the construction and financial sectors were most affected by this crisis in Bahrain. The state needs to play in a role in stopping the wave of layoffs," he said. "The Bahraini staff working in the banking and financial sector are true national wealth that should not be relinquished nor wasted."

According to the Bankers Union, the country lost more than 600 jobs in the sector last year. Khalil Zainal, the head of the Bankers Union, said that in the past few weeks alone about 60 people also lost their jobs, while sources in the industry suggested that banks here would not consider adding new jobs until next year. Earlier in the day, during a ceremony for "outstanding workers", Majeed al Alawi, the minister of labour, said that 20,000 Bahrainis had been hired last year, with more than 1,000 people finding jobs through a government project for unemployed university graduates.

Over the past few months, a sharp increase in layoffs across several industries have made demonstrations by the unemployed, and labour strikes, a common occurrence. The largest of the left-leaning opposition groups, the National Democratic Action Society, or Waad, called on the government yesterday to halt its "erratic and unexamined" privatisation of some public sector establishments. In a statement handed out at the rally, Waad said that the absence of "proper oversight" in privatisation ventures raised concerns about their legality.

It added that there was "a need to combat corruption and protect the contributions" of the workers to the General Organisation for Social Insurance, the country's social welfare arm that, according to Waad, was facing a deficit and could possibly be bankrupt in less than two decades. Nationalist Democratic Assembly (NDA), an opposition grouping closely linked to the Iraqi Baath party, called for the suspension of the naturalisation policy, which it claimed was unfair for Bahrainis by allowing foreign workers to compete with them for available jobs.

GFBTU, Waad and NDA also renewed calls to allow the workers in the public sector to form unions. Labour issues have dominated the past week, which saw protests for laid-off workers, the death of the influential unionist Jaleel al Hoori, the government's first assessment report of efforts to combat human trafficking, and GFBTU holding a two-day conference to address how to best protect the rights of migrant workers.

The government's human trafficking report, released on Thursday, detailed efforts to protect migrant workers from exploitation and trafficking, including legislation, training procedures for government staff, and the government's co-operation with the UN and international organisations. The report received praise from human rights and migrant workers protection activists. "Acknowledging the issue is the first step to tackling it," said Noora Essa Feleyfel, the head of the action committee at the Migrant Workers Protection Society. "There is a lot of work to be done, but we are heading in the right direction. We need to have a clear definition of human trafficking and to have criteria that we can measure against in order to bring those cases forward because right now it is still vague and covers a broad range of issues."

The society also helped pass a set of a recommendations on Thursday at the end of a two-day conference that was attended by labour representatives from Nepal, the Philippines, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Yemen, and organised by the GFBTU and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions. The International Workers Day, or May Day, commemorates the struggle to secure the right for an eight-hour work day after US police in Chicago opened fire on workers during a general strike in 1886. At least a dozen people were killed and several were injured. Trials relating to the clashes led to the hanging of seven others.