The government of Bahrain has launched a crackdown on illegal migrant workers, effectively giving them the option to correct their residency status. The initiative comes as the country reels under an economic crisis due to ballooning budget deficit and low oil revenues.
Osama bin Abdullah Al-Absi, CEO of the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), told Zawya-TR that there are currently more than 55,000 illegal workers in Bahrain, mostly from Bangladesh. This figure represents around 10% of the total Bahraini work force, the highest rate of its kind in the world, according to the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions.
The campaign, which began recently and will end in December 2015, is being overseen by LMRA and was initiated after the Gulf country's economy took a hit from declining oil prices. State-run Bahrain Petroleum Company (BAPCO) puts Bahrain's financial losses at USD 262 million in 2014.
In addition, the adoption of an estimated USD 90-per-barrel base oil price over the past years has contributed to the widening of the budget deficit, forcing the government to introduce reforms in its subsidies policy.
Al-Absi has urged private sector institutions and illegal foreign workers to take advantage of the grace period, which would give undocumented migrants exemption from paying penalties and administrative violation fees.
He added that the LMRA has carefully considered the campaign and received approval from the council of ministers.
Boom attracted foreign labor
The number of illegal workers, mostly from Asian countries, started to see an uptick some 13 years ago as a result of Bahrain's economic boom. Over the years, foreign labor in the country has grown considerably, exceeding more than half of the Bahraini population.
Most of the workers who arrived in Bahrain were employed in the construction and transportation sectors. Several companies in the Gulf kingdom rely on undocumented workers, who accept low wages.
According to a report from the Ministry of Labour, the number of local labor registered at the Social Insurance Organization stood at more than 156.400 by the end of the first quarter of 2015, while the total number of foreign workers was at around 538.500.
As part of the campaign, the Bahraini government has given undocumented workers two options: 1) they can leave the country without paying immigration penalties, or 2) they can continue working as per the country's laws and regulations by signing an agreement with a new employer, who will apply for the worker's papers at the General Directorate of Nationality, Passports and Residency. Those wishing to avail of the second option will also be exempted from penalty charges, provided their application for status change is filed within the grace period.
According to the Bahraini law, paragraph B of Article 36 of law # 19 of 2006 on irregular labor, "each foreigner who violates provisions of paragraph A of Article 23 hereof will be fined no more than USD 260. In case of indictment, the court will order the deportation of such a foreign worker and not allow his re-entry to the kingdom for good or for a specific period that is no less than three years."
Penalties also apply to employers who have violated the law, where a fine of no less than USD 2,600 will be imposed for each worker. Workers who have breached the country's residency rules will likewise face work permit cancellation and deportation.
Al-Absi reiterated that following the end of the campaign, the LMRA will start taking the necessary legal action against those flouting the law, with no exceptions.
Bahrain's minister of labor Jameel Hmaidan said in earlier statements that the prevalence of irregular of undocumented labor is very complicated, not only in Bahrain but also in the rest of the Gulf region. Several workers violate the law and the situation is aggravated by the number of companies exploiting illegal labor.
Dr. Jasim Husain Ali, a member of the of the Bahraini parliament's Economic Committee, has accused the so-called "people of power" of hiring illegal workers instead of employing Bahraini nationals, eventually pushing wages down.