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Bahrain: Consultations an Important Opening to Protect Human Rights, Promote Regional Security

Bahraini workers rally for democracy at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama, March 2011, photo courtesy of ITUC.

Finally, 17 months after the U.S. Department of Labor accepted a complaint detailing the government of Bahrain’s repeated violations of the free-trade agreement with the United States, the department has reported its findings. 

This report, issued today, is laudable for its call for bilateral consultations to address ongoing worker rights violations. However, the delay in its release has been costly—for Bahraini workers, for U.S. credibility as a human rights defender and for workers in other countries with bilateral trade agreements with the United States. If the U.S. government does not live up to its commitments and hold Bahrain accountable to the trade agreement’s labor chapter, then why should we expect other trading partners to bother?  

It was clear at the time the AFL-CIO filed the complaint that Bahraini authorities were violating worker-protection obligations under the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry came to similar findings, documenting cases of discrimination, dismissals, reprisals and workplace interrogations, among other rights violations. Yet as months became a year and then some, the U.S. government investigated and temporized while Bahraini authorities continued to persecute Bahraini workers, institutionalize discriminatory workplace practices and supported—through intermediaries— dangerous, public witch-hunts vilifying union and human rights activists. 

The U.S. government now must demonstrate that the consultations comprise a serious effort to address Bahrain’s blatant disregard for the trade agreement’s labor chapter, including punishing people at work for their peaceful participation in democracy marches. 

The alternative—a pro forma exercise that rectifies nothing—would underscore a belief in the Middle East that America’s geopolitical interests far outweigh those of human rights and social justice. The U.S. government must ensure that protecting worker and human rights is key to promoting security in Bahrain and throughout the region.

The campaign to dismantle the Bahraini labor movement underscores its importance to human and worker rights in the Gulf. The General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU) is non-sectarian. It has called for social dialogue, the right of all Bahrainis to be represented in the halls of government and the right to peacefully demonstrate to express those aspirations. Its unions are a model in a region where governments typically deny their right to exist or try to control them. Indeed, while the United States remained silent, Bahraini authorities established a rival, government-influenced labor federation, not ironically called BLUFF.

Today’s report provides an initial verdict on the situation facing workers in Bahrain. Mere words, however, cannot erase the damage done. And consultations must be followed with concrete and effective actions.

If there is hope for reconciliation in Bahrain, it is most likely that it will begin in workplaces, where people of different views interact every day. The U.S. government can help end the persecution of Bahrainis as well as facilitate the healing process by making it clear, in words and deeds, that human and labor rights are an immediate priority.

The Bahraini labor movement matters, as do labor movements around the world (including here in the United States). The labor movement empowers workers to organize and educate themselves and work collectively to improve their wages, benefits, working conditions and their productivity. When workers are not free to organize and bargain, employers are emboldened, not only to pay less, but to freely discriminate against and harass workers. 

That is why enforcing this trade agreement is so important: Leaving Bahraini workers behind will result in greater insecurity in Bahrain and encourage more labor repression by our trading partners elsewhere. 

Cathy Feingold is the director of the International Department at the AFL-CIO.

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