Captives of Ignorance, Want and Greed “Free Visa” Labor in Bahrain and the Mirage of Wealth
Al Wasat Newspaper – Manama – Seventy two migrant workers, mostly from India and others from Bangladesh, are crammed into a rickety house in al-Naim area of Manama. They share seven rooms, four on the ground floor and three on the top floor. The staircase between the two floors collapsed, so they replaced it with a frail wooden ladder.
Exposed electrical wires stretch across the walls of the crowded bedrooms. The bottom of the workers’ bunk-beds are used to store bundles of clothes, cooking utensils, and simple belongings. However, the available beds are insufficient compared to the number of residents, prompting some to rent them for 12 hours a day at a lower price.
When I entered, no one tried to stop me or asked who I was. Some workers were busy preparing food on top of primitive kerosene stoves and others were washing clothes in a large bowl. A few workers stood by, watching me with curiosity and suspicion, as they all live in a constant state of anxiety and fear.
The house, which door does not have a lock, is rented to people who do not know each other. Their relationships with the landlord differ. In most cases, the landlord is an Asian broker renting from a Bahraini owner, turning the place into a workers’ dorm and leases it by bed.
The inhabitants of this house are part of the forced labor force. They are known as “free visa” labor and are estimated at 80.000 (or one-fifth of the total expatriate workforce of around half a million). Most of them fall victim to Bahraini citizens who exploit loopholes in the labor law and poor supervision to bring workers into the country.
Employers provide workers with visas for fake jobs, in most cases, then they dismiss them and tie them to a yearly commission. Their partners on the other side are often middlemen, in countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The following investigation concludes that this phenomenon is on the increase due to the inefficiency of monitoring mechanisms and workers’ fear of complaining against their sponsors, to whom they are in debt and have to pay before even thinking of returning to their countries.
“Free visa” workers are living in conditions that might best be described as inhumane. They work around the clock for a pittance to cover the Bahraini sponsor’s share and pay the brokers in their country, as well as the hungry mouths of their families overseas.
This situation has been recurring for three decades now. As soon as the worker arrives, his sponsor holds his passport and throws him in the labor market, despite having brought him to the country promising the worker a specific job. The lucky ones get steady work in an hourly system, but the majority roam the streets in search of simple and unstable jobs, washing cars and selling goods and services in the streets, without any legal or union support or health coverage.
They arrive on the basis of promises and temptations from their relatives and their friends working in Bahrain, paying huge sums of money for their airline tickets and visas, in addition to the commissions paid to the middlemen. They are like chickens who are being fed with crumbs, but lay golden eggs for their sponsors.
The workers’ dwelling is only one side of the inhumane situation facing forced labor in Bahrain. Victims of a mix of poverty, ignorance, and a desire for a better life, shackle themselves and their future by borrowing sizeable amounts of money to buy a visa into Bahrain. Thinking only of their escape from the grip of poverty in their home countries, they do not realise that they have bought their own chains (and in some cases their hanging ropes).
Often their visa turns into an inescapable life of “illegality,” in which they are forced into the moment when they arrive at the airport and realise that they do not have any work or a legitimate sponsor. But they are still forced to secure a livelihood for themselves and their families and to find a way to pay their debts.
The doors of return close behind them and they fall into the bondage of debt, which grows over time. They endure a life of misery, hardship, and the harshness of precarious work, away from the eyes of official inspectors. The ropes around their necks tighten. For some the rope becomes reality and dozens commit suicide every year.
Size of “Free Visa” Labor
Labor Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) CEO Osama al-Absi categorises “free visa” labor as follows: those registered in nonexistent entities, those whose work permits in the local market have not been renewed, and those whose permits were revoked but remain in the country.
However, a field survey conducted by LMRA this year, reveals a fourth category that includes much greater numbers than those who fall under the Authority’s classification. They are workers whose papers are legal, but who do not work for the original sponsor whose name appears on their official records. Absi estimates their number being around 39.000.
Deputy Secretary of the General Federation of Workers Trade Unions in Bahrain (GFWTUB), Ibrahim Hamad, maintains that this fourth category (whose residency is legal but is in violation of the law since they do not work for their original sponsor) tops 40.000.
Despite the legality of fourth category workers in terms of residence, it violates the laws of the labor market, as the labor law mandates that foreign workers must work exclusively for their sponsors.
Absi denies rumours spreading among the workers that the “free visa” phenomenon is due to a breach of the visa and work permit systems. He indicates that 78 percent of those identified as what he calls “loose labor” from the fourth category were originally brought to the country to work in small establishments employing less than five workers.
The Jaws of Ignorance
The problems of the “free visa” workers begin in their home country when they purchase their visas for around 1.450 Bahraini Dinars (BD) (US $3,836). The money, between eight and ten times the promised monthly salary, is usually borrowed.
This occurs despite an express provision in LMRA’s laws regulating on the labor market, which criminalises the sale of visas to migrant workers. “It is prohibited for any person to receive any moneys or obtain any benefit or advantage from an employee in lieu of issuing him a work permit or in return for the employment of such an employee or his retention in his job,” it id stated in Paragraph (c) of Article 23 of the act.
However, agreements, which occur between workers and brokers, are not written in documents or contracts. Most of those workers do not even meet their original sponsor, since the middlemen are taking care of everything.
Bahraini lawyer Ahmad al-Zakir explains that “the law states that it is illegal to recruit or employ foreign workers except in the job they were brought in for (Article 23(b)), but we do not see them abiding by it.” He believes the text allows the authorities to send offending employers to the criminal courts, based on the law itself.
He mentions Article 36, which states: “Without prejudice to any severe penalties stipulated under the Penal Code or any other law, any person who commits a violation, to the provisions of Paragraphs B and C of Article 23, or Articles 28 and 30 of this Act, shall be sentenced to an imprisonment, not less than three months and does not exceed one year plus fine not less than 1.000 Dinars but does not exceed 2.000 Dinars, or either of these two penalties. In the case of habitual offenders, the penalty shall be imprisonment for not less than six months and does not exceed two years plus fine of not less than 2.000 Dinars and does not exceed 4.000 Dinars.”
However, Zakir stresses that “it is rare for workers to file cases against their employers for being brought into the country and then left to fend for their own. This is either due to ignorance or a lack of desire, because of the need to work and to make money. It could be because they already fell [into the trap]. But some of the workers are aware of their situation, whether it is legal or not, and came from their countries on this basis, enticed with illusory job opportunities by the brokers who only care for their commission from such deals.”
He considers the recruitment of migrant labor to be a lucrative business for permit owners (the prospective sponsors) who are experienced in circumventing the law. They know how to fulfil the requirements of obtaining a commercial register, which is the first step in importing labor. They benefit from the accelerated procedures promoted by LMRA to encourage investments. The whole issue takes no more than four days, for a fee of BD200 ($530) for two years. This is in addition to a fee of BD10 every month per worker, which was suspended in June 2011 after the slowdown in economic activity due to the events in Bahrain.
In return, the sponsor (permit owner) makes an average of BD1.450 ($3.850) on every worker remaining in Bahrain for two years. If workers wished to extend their stay (which is usually the case), they will have to pay BD800 ($2.120) each to ensure that they will remain for an additional two years.
If a sponsor manages to bring in 100 “free visa” workers (some are said to be bringing them in by the hundreds), he receives BD145.000 ($385.000) at the beginning of the process, without making any effort or providing them with health and legal insurance. If they have to remain for an additional two years to cover their debt and make a better living, they will have pay an additional BD80.000 ($210.000 thousand) in total.
Economic indicators from the Central Bank of Bahrain (March 2012) indicate that the average yearly salary for Bahrainis in the private sector is around BD7.368 ($19.492) and reaches BD8.544 ($22.603) in the private sector. Bringing migrant workers to the country seems more lucrative and much easier.
According to the deputy head of the workers union federation, some employers have dozens of loose labor in the market. They only know about them through the money that arrives from the brokers. However, there is no mechanism to monitor the fate of the workers and if they actually work in the sponsoring establishment, except through inspection.
But this is only part of the issue criticised by the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2012, which says that “many labor recruitment agencies in Bahrain and source countries require workers to pay high recruitment fees – a practice that makes workers highly vulnerable to forced labor once in Bahrain.”
It should be noted that the majority of this migrant worker segment knows nothing about their prospective work situation or the work contract with their sponsor. Based on information from LMRA, “65 percent of migrant workers had not seen their employment contract…upon arrival in Bahrain,” the US report adds.
A survey conducted for this investigative report on 22 “free visa” workers from India and Bangladesh shows that the majority had no prior knowledge of the situation that awaited them. They chose to leave their home countries being promised that they would make a lot of money, lured by relatives and acquaintances, who also could receive commissions from brokers in Asia working for Bahraini sponsors.
Forced to Break the Law
The moment they arrive in Bahrain, “free visa” workers are turned into “coerced lawbreakers,” and are forced to bear the consequences of their illegal situation, hiding from work inspectors to avoid paying a fine, being jailed, and then deported.
Saringat S., who arrived from India two and a half years ago, roams the street washing cars. He says he does not know how much more he has to work in order to pay the debt left behind in his country and the accumulating interest due to the delay in payment. Saringat does not have a residence card, meaning that he can not go to a health centre if he gets sick.
“I am aware of my situation being illegal, but I do not know the details. All I know is that I should not fall into the hands of the police,” he says. “When I decide to go back, I will give myself in and file a complaint against my sponsor to retrieve my passport. I do not mind paying the illegal-stay fine. My sponsor could file a delinquency complaint against me so he would not bear legal responsibility.”
The law imposes a fine of BD10 ($26.5) per year of illegal stay. All the sponsor needs to do then is pay for the return ticket.
Passports Under Lock
The suffering begins when workers are stripped of their passport as soon as they arrive, despite the international prohibition on the practice. Bahraini courts also consider passports to be personal documents and always decide in favour of the worker. However, the problem lies in implementation, due to linguistic and class barriers facing those who suffer the most in their employment.
Withholding their passports ties the workers to their sponsors and denies them from making use of laws that allow changing sponsorship, when they find one who is willing to provide them with a legal situation and steady income. But even when they decide to return to their countries at the end of the contract period, most sponsors demand up to BD500 ($1.330) to give them back their passports.
Rana G., a young man from Bangladesh who is a “free visa” worker, is one such example. He wanted to return home to see his dying father, but his sponsor refused to hand him back his passport. He also refused to provide him with an agreement that would have allowed him to change sponsor, 18 months after entering Bahrain, although the law allows switching sponsors one year after receiving the visa.
The Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS) adopted his case. Over the period of 8 months, action committee member Liz Szalay paid several visits to police stations and the public prosecutor. She met with his sponsor who heaped abuse on Rana and his new sponsor. Several court sessions later, Rana was able to receive a temporary travel permit, after the sponsor denied having the passport in his possession.
This is just one of the stories that points out the difficulties facing workers who decide to file a complaint on their own, with limited personal capabilities, in addition to the language barrier. However, it should be noted that this category cannot even submit formal complaints due to their illegal position, in the first place. They only decide to go to the police to complain when returning becomes the only remedy to their situation.
Lawyer Maha Jaber explains that the withholding of passports is one of the main problems faced by foreign workers. The situation is aggravated for “free visa” workers, due to their fragile and illegal position and fear of being arrested and punished.
Jaber indicates that the courts look into several workers’ cases on a daily bases, but the law allows a margin for Bahraini sponsors to be elusive in handing back the passport. This might take between three to six months, which is, by all measures, a very long period for workers who attempt legal recourse.
Eventually, sponsors will either have to abide by the court decision to hand over the passport or claim that they lost it. Only then can workers resort to their embassies in order to receive a laissez-passer allowing them to return to their countries. In any case, the sponsor is not penalised for bringing in “free visa” workers or withholding the passport.
The suffering of “free visa” workers due to sponsors withholding passports is confirmed by the number of temporary travel documents issued by the embassies of Bangladesh and India. According to Bangladeshi Ambassador to Bahrain Hassan Mahdi, his mission issues between 80 and 90 one-time travel documents every month, which is around one thousand per year.
The same goes for the Labor attaché in the Indian Embassy S. Santosh who indicates that they issued 917 laissez-passer documents in 2011. For the current year , they already issued 502 documents. Santosh explains that when the Bahraini government introduced an initiative in 2010 to facilitate the exit of workers violating the law, the number rose to 2.400 documents.
Money’s Too Tight to Mention
After paying their financial dues, the majority of “free visa” workers find themselves back to square one after the two years of the visa and contract have passed, maybe earlier if they were slow in their daily toil. According to a survey on the ability of those workers to withstand the weight of the situation, it becomes clear that after deducting the cost of travel to the host country and daily expenses from the total income, their net earnings to be sent back to their families does not exceed BD53 ($140).
The workers are then either forced to remain and purchase an extension visa for BD800 ($2.116) or pay BD500 ($1.323) to their original sponsor to get back their passports. This brings their monthly net earning to around BD20 ($52), in case they decide to remain and buy the visa, and BD32 ($85), if they decide to take their passports and leave. In both cases, workers will be back to the same situation they faced before coming to Bahrain.
But in cases where the workers are not capable of covering all their costs, they decide to keep running. Some decide to run away forever and put an end to their lives. In 2012, more than 50 foreign migrant workers are known to have committed suicide, according to a review of news items published in the local media, compared to 22 suicides in 2011.
Mohammed Rafiq, a Bangladeshi who has been living in Bahrain for the past 20 years, describes the impact of the economic situation on the workers. Every month he has to pay his Bahraini sponsor BD60 ($160) in return for the visa and commercial registration for his small grocery shop in the old district of Gufool in Manama.
“Two years ago, the situation became very difficult [at the start of the political troubles] and business now is not as goos as it was before,” he explains. “I lost a lot. My clients, who are mostly workers, cannot pay for their purchases as in the past. Most of them lost their jobs or are making less money.”
The Roots of the Problem
The problem of “free visa” workers began in the 1980s as newspapers were filled with complaints by Bahrainis about single workers living in their neighbourhoods. But despite its negative humanitarian, economic and social impact on the workers themselves and on the local community, the solution seems elusive due to the combination of several factors. Most notably and most influential is the fundamental flaw in the application of the penal code.
The labor law criminalises trade in foreign workers and those who employ them later while not under their sponsorship, in addition to the workers themselves. However, inspection only applies to those who employ them later. The original sponsor is left alone until it is time to deport the worker. Then he has to pay the cost of sending him or her back home.
The law applies to those who employ foreign workers who are not under their sponsorship. They are punished with fines and imprisonment under Article 23(b) of the LMRA Act, which states that “employers are prohibited from employing foreign employees without a valid work permit,” and doubles the punishment for offenders that repeat the crime.
The law also criminalises the workers with fines, imprisonment, and deportation, according to paragraph (b) of Article 36. Nonetheless, workers in this case are clearly victims of ignorance of the illegal situation in which they found themselves or were forced into this position due to their financial situation.
The US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 mentions this issue and calls on the Bahraini government to “ensure that identified victims of trafficking are not punished for unlawful acts committed as a direct result of being trafficked, such as illegal migration or prostitution.”
“The government continues to lack systematic procedures to identify victims among vulnerable groups,” the report adds. It also says that “Bahraini government officials indicate there is a general lack of awareness of trafficking crimes among working-level police.”
While the “government of Bahrain encouraged victims to participate in the investigation and prosecution of traffickers; however, workers typically did not file court cases.” This was due to “distrust of the legal system … and to avoid additional maltreatment at the hands of the employer,” among other reasons.
In addition, there are other factors enabling the growth of the problem, which makes it more difficult to manage. Both the Bangladeshi and Indian diplomats find it very difficult to raise awareness or to determine the volume of forced labor from each country.
In the same context, the inspection system reveals a slackness in dealing with this type of labor, since the number of inspectors in LMRA does not exceed 56. Although Absi explains that they intend to raise the number to 75, the number is still still modest compared to the number of establishments in the market, which number 133.000 – a ratio of one inspector per 2.375 establishments.
Moreover, Absi indicates that the current inspection mechanism does not allow the tracking of individual workers, despite knowing their location and place of residence. Inspection applies to institutions and not persons. Additionally, representatives of three government agencies must be present during inspection: the LMRA, the municipality and the police.
According to Absi, there is also a difficulty in accommodating workers arrested before deportation, as the shelter run by the Ministry of Interior can only hold 30 people. In the current situation, if the inspections lead to the arrest of 30 workers per day, as part of stopping the influx, this will mean that 7.440 can be accommodated per year (248 workdays). In that case, the operation will take around 10.7 years.
But these calculations exclude the humanitarian situation and do not take into account the fate of workers once they return to their home countries empty-handed, having lost their money and many years of their life only to have accumulated a sizeable debt.
Despite the humanitarian situation of forced labor, it seems to be a good option for host countries, for these workers to offer themselves in the labor market at very low prices. Host countries benefit from forced labor in construction, landscaping, car-washing, transportation and other temporary jobs, which seldom require high skills and are paid paltry wages.
There seems to be no solution to the problem of “free visa” workers, unless there is a rigorous approach by authorities in Bahrain and labor-exporting countries.
The proposed solutions from both sides carry two dimensions. The first is humanitarian and legal, aiming to protect forced labor from ignorance and attempting to reach them before they start following the mirage of the good life in Bahrain.
The second is the desire of local authorities to get rid of this problem. This type of labor creates an imbalance in the structure of the labor market due to the low cost for employers and their willingness to do anything they are asked and for long hours, beyond the limitations of the law, which does not recognise them in any case. This also exacerbates the problem of unemployment among Bahraini citizens.
Add to this the social problems resulting from the inhumane situation of forced labor in the country. According to LMRA, the rate of unemployment in Bahrain is 4 percent. However, GFWTUB indicates that the real figure is more than 12 percent.
The responsibility for the first dimension falls on the authorities in the workers’ original countries, who are required to look into ways to raise the awareness of their citizens about the real situation and control the legality of their travel to Bahrain to conduct a specific task for a specific sponsor. The Bangladeshi embassy did just that three years ago. In an attempt to curb the number of workers, it required a letter from the prospective sponsor, proving that the worker being brought in will work under their sponsorship. However, this mechanism failed to control the issue completely.
“I cannot say that this system proved to be highly efficient. There still is a possibility of bringing workers to the country and nothing can stop sponsors from discharging them, following the approval of the embassy and the issuing of a visa,” Consul Mahdi explains.
Before that, the Indian embassy had imposed several conditions on importing labor from India, including a minimum monthly wage of BD100 ($265) and a BD1000 ($2.653) deposit at the embassy, when applying to bring workers from India. But the system cannot control workers coming through direct agreements or employment brokers in Bahrain.
To reduce the impact of withholding passports, the Bangladeshi Consul recommends the establishment of a “Passport Bank” where the passports of foreign workers in Bahrain would be deposited and made available to the worker and the sponsor when they need them.
For his part, Absi hopes to reach a balance between facilitating the issuing of permits, in line with the “investment-friendly environment” being promoted by Bahrain, and controlling a problem that creates an imbalance in the structure of the labor market, as well as the exposure of those workers to a difficult life and work conditions. He intends to put forward a proposal requiring employers to open bank accounts for workers under their sponsorship, to control remittances and ensure that sponsors intend to actually employ those workers they responsible for.
The influx of migrant workers continues under the same conditions that create the situation of “free visa” and forced labor in the market, as long as the true cause of the problem, the original sponsor, is being ignored, and as long as regulatory bodies remain weak and the courts remain slow in dealing with the issue. It is also due to the home countries of the “free visa” workers which find it difficult to control the migration of workers who are oblivious of the situation that awaits them.
These workers alone pay a huge price for their lack of information, falling into a downward spiral of misery and having to forsake many human and livelihood considerations. Their only wish is to provide a better life for themselves and their families, which lands them in a situation of bondage.