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Amid unrest, Bahrain companies fire hundreds of Shiites

At least 16 Bahraini companies or government ministries have fired hundreds of mostly Shiite workers during the past week. Employees speak of being dismissed despite being on pre-approved leave or having received approval to stay home due to the unrest.

By Correspondent / April 7, 2011

Thousands chant anti-government slogans as they march during a funeral procession in the western Shiite Muslim village of Saar, Bahrain, Wednesday, April 6.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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Manama, Bahrain

Hundreds of mostly Shiite employees have been fired from Bahraini companies over the last week for participating in a strike, in what appears to be retribution for the protest movement that has shaken this tiny US ally in the Persian Gulf.

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The fired workers join students who have lost government scholarships to study abroad, medical workers who have been targeted, and hundreds of people who have been detained as the government tries to suppress a movement that threatens its power.

The dismissals, officially for absenteeism, send a strong message to Bahrainis that dissent will be punished. They also appear to further a systematic targeting of the Shiite majority by the Sunni government, in a pattern that is daily driving deeper wedges between the two sects and making reconciliation even more difficult in an already polarized society.

“Day by day, sector by sector, we’re being punished. Just watch Bahrain TV to find out who’s next,” says Hussein, an IT specialist who just lost his job at Aluminum Bahrain, referencing the nightly broadcasts on state TV that viciously attack the opposition.

At least 16 companies or government ministries have fired more than 565 employees in recent weeks, most citing absenteeism, according to a count by the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights. By law, employers can terminate workers when they have an unexcused absence of 10 consecutive or 20 nonconsecutive days. Some companies in Bahrain struggled to manage when labor unions called a general strike on March 13, after government forces cracked down violently on protesters who had blocked a major highway, preventing motorists from getting to work.

But at least some of the companies that fired workers did not follow the proper legal procedures for firing absentee employees, according to Essa Ebrahim Mohamed, a lawyer who advises the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. And nearly a dozen workers at four companies said in interviews that they had not actually been absent for more than 10 days, or that they had been on leave approved by the company.

Some say their managers encouraged workers to stay at home if they did not feel safe traveling to work, as armed gangs took over neighborhoods and roads were shut down with checkpoints.

The decision to terminate the employees seems to have occurred suddenly, after most absent employees had returned and worked normally for a week.

“This is a political decision, not managerial or employment-related at all,” says Sayed Hadi Al Mosawi, a chairman of the trade union at the telecommunications company Batelco and a member of the Shiite political opposition bloc Al Wefaq. “It's symbolic punishment to scare others.”

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