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

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

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.

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“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.”

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.

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.

He says companies did not follow proper procedure of notifying absent employees after five days that they risk being fired if they do not return to work. Only one of the fired workers interviewed by the Monitor received such a letter, but only after he had already returned to work.

“The law says a company can fire an employee for absence for 10 days without reason, without cause,” Mr. Mohamed argues. “But the question is, is the absence without cause or not? That is what is challenged.”

Mohamed says employees cannot be considered absent under that law for going on strike, which is their right. He also argues the fraught security situation could be considered a cause for absence.

One worker told he was fired for protesting

An employee at Gulf Air, which fired at least 17 workers, said his dismissal was technically legal. He had been absent for five days last year after a car accident that fractured both his feet. The employee, who lives in Shiite village of Sitra, stayed home for five days after March 16, when at least 200 people were wounded as security forces and armed gangs attacked people there. He asked Gulf Air to give grant him some of the vacation days he was eligible to take, but the company refused.

And while companies appear to be trying to justify most firings by the absenteeism, Bahrain Islamic Bank employee Mohamed Al Hamad said his dismissal had nothing to do with being absent. His manager told him explicitly that he had been fired for participating in the protests at Pearl Roundabout, he says. His name, personal ID number, bank cellphone number, and position were posted in a threatening message on Twitter. He has had two promotions in his four years at the bank, and was recommended for another in February.

When 'pre-approved leave' becomes 'unexplained absence'

At Bahrain Telecommunications Company, or Batelco, meanwhile, employees say many of those fired were on pre-approved leave during or before the crisis, and they say the company has now called the leaves unexplained absences. Batelco has fired at least 85 employees, according to a company spokesman's statement to the newspaper Al Wasat. Bahrain's government holds a majority stake of shares in Batelco, like Alba and many of the other companies that fired workers. Batelco did not return calls requesting comment.

Abu Ali, a former Batelco employee and father of five, said he had been on vacation when the strike began. He called his manager and asked to extend his leave because of the security situation, and the manager agreed, he says.

He described masked civilians manning a checkpoint near his home and interrogating him about why he was driving into his own neighborhood that week. “I had to take them to my home to make them believe that I lived there,” he says. “Then I was afraid for my family. They knew where I lived. I stayed at home and didn’t even send my kids to school.”

He stayed away from work for a week. When he returned, everything was normal for a week, he says, until an abrupt meeting, similar to the one at Alba, when he learned he was fired.

“We didn't do anything wrong,” he says. “Our mistake was that we were on leave, and that we are Shia. Even some Sunnis didn't attend work, but none of them were fired.” He paused and laughed good-naturedly. “Maybe they will give them a promotion because there are a lot of empty seats now.”

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