Strengthening and promoting migrant construction workers’ rights in Bahrain through trade union collaboration

The ILO FAIRWAY Programme, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI), a global union federation, and the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) have joined forces to support decent working and living conditions of migrant workers in the construction sector in Bahrain, including strengthening representation of migrant workers in trade unions and representative bodies such as company-level OSH committees.

As a foundation for this collaboration, a rapid mapping and assessment study was conducted to examine the status of the construction sector in Bahrain and key barriers to decent work, including poor occupational safety and health (OSH) on work sites and in dormitories, delay or non-payment of wages, and restrictions with respect to freedom of association.

The study was launched in a tripartite meeting on 26 May, attended by the Ministry of Labour and Social Development, the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry, BWI, GFBTU and the ILO.  An important aspect of the dialogue was a focus on occupational safety and health, including in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. “In many countries, the construction sector is the number one employer of workers, yet it is not easy to make the sector safe as it is prone to occupational safety and health issues”, said Frank Hagemann, ILO Deputy Regional Director for Arab States. Hagemann continued, “Bahrain has made significant efforts on the regulatory and enforcement front, and it is clear that the objective of improving working and safety and health conditions for migrant workers in the construction sector can only succeed if it is built on a tripartite foundation, and the event today is a reflection of this collaboration.”

The Assistant Undersecretary of the Ministry of Labour and Social Development for labour affairs, Ahmed Al Hayki, noted the government’s “commitment to respecting ILO Conventions and standards” and enactment of regulatory reforms which helped to ensure timely wage payments in the private sector, and setting up safe worker accommodation (through unused schools) to reduce crowding in workers’ dormitories.
Ambet Yuson, the General Secretary of Building and Wood Workers' International (BWI) noted that “Like everywhere in the world, the spread of COVID-19 massively hit the economy of Bahrain. The impact of the pandemic on migrant workers in the construction sector has been even worse, as many of these workers faced health issues. Organizing migrant construction workers in Bahrain, through a strategy that will respond to the growing concern over COVID-19 by building the capacity of workers on OSH issues and establishing OSH committees,” was an important priority, he noted.

The next phase of the collaboration will focus on training OSH focal points on safety measures, with 15 OSH officers from several construction companies so far trained, and an additional 35 officers to receive training in the coming months. Part of the goal is to sensitize OSH officers on migrant workers’ rights. “In the training, we discussed the policies in place to ensure that migrant workers keep their passports and can be treated as human beings”, said Efren Villanueva, an OSH officer in Sulb Bahrain . He added; “Workers must have the right to complain if their management does not provide them with their earned overtime on time.”

The next objective is the establishment of five OSH worksite committees at the company level with strong migrant worker representation.

According to the latest Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA) statistics, the number of workers in the construction sector in Bahrain is estimated at 166,000, of whom about 159,000 are men and 7,000 are women. The number of Bahrainis employed in the construction sectors consists of 12,000 workers. Non-Bahrainis, therefore, represent the majority of workers in the construction sector and account for about 154,000, of whom 151,000 are men and 3,000 are women.