Bahraini Officials Use Free Market Economy to Justify Lack of Minimum Wage

Two weeks ago, Bahrain’s Labor Affairs under-secretary of the Labour and Social Development Ministry, Mohammed Al Ansari, stated that the Gulf country is not considering a minimum wage for domestic workers or anyone working in the private sector. In 2011, Bahrain implemented a BHD 300 minimum wage for employees in the public sector. While the Bahraini Parliament voted to also set a minimum wage for the private sector in January 2014, the government did not formally adopt the law. Al Ansari’s statement comes less than two weeks after fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member Kuwait set a 60 KWD minimum wage for domestic workers on 14 July 2016.

Al Ansari has justified the lack of a private sector minimum wage by saying that it could disrupt and negatively affect Bahrain’s free market economy. “Bahrain is currently not in a position to consider a minimum wage for domestic workers. In fact, we don’t even have a minimum wage for nationals in the private sector,” Al Ansari told a Bahraini newspaper. “The kingdom has a free and open market which works on a demand and supply system; we do not want to interfere and upset that,” he continued.

This “free and open market” is what allows Bahraini employers to exploit migrant labor. The lack of private sector minimum wage most adversely affects the country’s migrant worker population, who comprise over 75 percent of the workforce. Specifically, domestic workers are predominantly migrant workers and comprise almost 13 percent of the total workforce and approximately 42 percent of the female workforce.

Failing to guarantee a minimum wage is just one way the Government of Bahrain perpetuates the vulnerability of migrant workers. Migrant workers often receive wages that are significantly lower than the wages promised to them before their move to Bahrain. Furthermore, the kafala system of employer-based sponsorship enables employers to exert control over migrants’ visas, movements, and daily lives. As many workers can pay fees as high as 20 months’ wage in order to secure positions in Bahrain, they are often in debt upon arrival. As stipulated by law, their employers also pay fees for their recruitment, and subsequently exploit migrants’ monetary insecurity by withholding parts or all of their wages. This debt bondage is a type of trafficking for forced labor, and is a widespread practice in countries with a kafala system.

The Government of Bahrain must recognize its free market economy’s role in perpetuating the existence of forced labor and human trafficking within its borders, and take steps to curb its negative effects. Implementing a national minimum wage for the private sector would be a step forward in combating these issues. While it would need to be accompanied by the abolition of the kafala system, a minimum age would act to demonstrate the government’s commitment to the human rights of its migrant worker population. Bahrain should follow Kuwait’s lead by implementing a minimum wage for domestic workers, as well as all workers in the private sector. Until Bahrain recognizes that its policies are complicit to human trafficking and migrant worker abuse, human rights violations will continue to ensue.

Brittany Hamzy is an Advocacy Fellow at ADHRB.