Bahrain Moves to Reform Kafala, Exclusions Remain

Last week, the Bahrain government announced a new flexible work permit that would allow migrant workers to act as their own sponsor. The new permit is unprecedented as it’s the first mechanism of its kind in the Gulf designed to dismantle the kafala system of sponsorship-based employment, which tethers migrant workers to their employers and renders them subject to abuse. If properly enforced, the move will grant greater autonomy to migrants by removing aspects of the country’s exploitative sponsorship system, but the permit excludes groups of vulnerable workers.

The permit is set to allow roughly 10,000 migrants who are in the country illegally, namely those who have overstayed their visa due to abuse from previous employers, to seek multiple temporary jobs for a period of up to two years. Officials have deemed the permit a “legal alternative to employing illegal workers.”  To work under this new permit, a migrant will be required to pay $80 USD a month in addition to a one-time fee of $530 USD.

However, the permit prohibits workers from seeking employment in sectors that require professional licenses such as nursing and engineering. Moreover, it is unclear whether the permit applies to migrant domestic workers, who remain one of the most vulnerable migrant groups in Bahrain.

The Bahraini government began a lengthy process of abolishing the kafala seven years ago, but these moves have failed to fully protect workers. In 2006, the Bahraini government established the Labour and Market Regulation Authority (LMRA) to replace the employer as a foreign worker’s sponsor. It is empowered to issue work visas, regulate private employment agencies, educate workers and sponsors about their rights and legal obligations, and simplify the work permit system for the employment of foreign workers. In 2009, the government appeared to reform aspects of the kafala when it enacted Decision No. 79 Regarding the Mobility of Foreign Employees from One Employer to Another, also known as the 2009 Mobility Law. The law allowed migrant workers to switch employers without their sponsors’ permission so long as a notice period of no more than three months was stipulated in the employment contract. Workers could stay in the country legally for up to 30 days while they sought alternative employment.

However, the government undercut this move in 2011 when it enacted legislation that further constrained workers. Law No. 15 of 2011 requires workers to remain with their employers for a period of one year before changing jobs, leaving intact aspects of the kafala that circumscribe workers’ freedom of movement.

Furthermore, the new permit appears to apply only to “illegal” workers, or those who have fled abusive employers and overstayed their visas. While the permit is designed to allow these workers greater autonomy and protection against abuse, it appears to exclude all other migrant workers in Bahrain—those who cannot change employers until after one year of employment, as Law No. 15 of 2011 stipulates. This includes migrants employed in the construction, domestic and service sectors. Migrant domestic workers, such as female household workers, receive minimal protection under the country’s labor law compared to their male counterparts in the construction sector. Regulation of domestic work is often viewed as a private matter, as domestic workers are confined to the households in which they work. As a result, they are subject to a range of abuses by their employers, including sexual assault, who make it difficult for them to seek redress.

While the new permit is designed to benefit illegal workers, it excludes some of the most vulnerable. The permit only partially dismantles the kafala, as it fails to afford self-sponsorship to workers who are in Bahrain legally. Past precedent also questions the efficacy of the permit’s enforcement. The Bahraini government’s inconsistent track record of reforming the kafala system to better protect workers, compounded by restrictive legislation, questions their commitments to reform.