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.
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The head of the UN's International Labor Office, Juan Somavia, sent a letter to Bahrain’s prime minister urging him to take action to ensure that workers do not face “unfair, unjust and degrading treatment for having expressed their legitimate rights in accordance with the principles of freedom of association,” he said in a statement.Skip to next paragraph
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Fears for their safety kept workers home
Though many workers obeyed the call to strike, many others said they stayed home simply out of fear for their safety during the week-and-a-half in question starting March 13. Workers who live in Shiite villages say the roads out of their villages were closed by threatening armed civilians. Even when they were replaced by police checkpoints, people feared the real danger of being arrested or disappearing at such checkpoints.
“How could I go to work?” asks another Aluminum Bahrain, or Alba, employee, who is also named Hussein. He was among 150 employees who were fired beginning Friday, and the company’s union head says that will increase to 270. He lives in a Shiite village where weekly violence has occurred. “Ask anybody – at that time you might go and never come back.”
He said he received e-mails and phone calls from his manager urging him to stay at home if he felt unsafe, and was in contact with his supervisor daily. Multiple Alba employees interviewed separately tell similar stories, and they raise other issues as well. The company normally uses electronic leave requests, which are difficult to erase from the system once they’re filed, says Hussein, who has knowledge of the system because of his position. But during the strike, the company stopped using electronic forms, and instead switched to paper, he says.
Employees also say the buses that Alba normally sent to transport employees to work suspended their normal routes after one was stopped in Hamadtown and the employees were pulled out and beaten. Workers ask how they were supposed to get to their jobs when even the company bus couldn’t operate normally.
Hussein, the IT specialist, said he stopped going to work because of the strike, but could not have gone even had he wanted to since the roads in and out of his village were closed with checkpoints. He returned to work after nine days, he says, fewer than the 10 required to fire him. Like other employees, he says the situation was normal at the company for more than a week after he returned, and no one mentioned the issue of absenteeism.
Gates closed, IDs taken
They were surprised, then, to arrive at work on April 3 and find all gates to the plant but one closed. At that gate, employees were required to swipe their ID cards. All those whose cards didn’t register were grouped to one side. Then security guards took their badges and handed them letters, dated March 31, that informed the workers they had been fired, with one month’s severance. The letters did not give a reason.
When he called his manager to ask why, his manager couldn’t tell him, only saying it was “from the top,” says Hussein.
When contacted for comment, Alba released a written statement from last week saying that 85 percent of its employees attended work during the strike period, but that “employees who have infringed the Kingdom of Bahrain’s Labor Law as well as Alba’s HR policies by not reporting, or committing other offenses against the company, will have to face disciplinary actions accordingly.”
When the Monitor tried to meet with a group of fired Alba workers Tuesday, a man wearing civilian clothes was waiting at the meeting place. He told all the workers to leave, and threatened to arrest anyone who didn’t.
No law that compels companies to rehire
Many of the fired workers believe they will get their jobs back. But Mr. Mohamed, the lawyer, says it may not be that simple. Even if they were fired illegally, he says, the law does not compel companies to rehire the employees, although they can file suits for compensation.