Bahrain: Workers Lead The Way

Our guest author today is Heba F. El-Shazli.  She has 25 years of experience in the promotion of democracy, independent trade unions, political and economic development. She has worked with institutions and leaders throughout the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to challenge authoritarian regimes. Currently she is a visiting professor of international studies and modern languages at the Virginia Military Institute. The views expressed here are her own.

Bahrain has been rocked by turmoil since Feb. 14 – with protesters calling for political reforms from Pearl Square’s "towering monument of a pearl," in the heart of Manama, Bahrain’s capital city. It is the country’s Tahrir Square, its own seat of Liberation. In contrast to Egypt, though, Bahrain’s path to freedom been slower and more violent. On Feb. 17, the government brutally attacked protesters, killing four and injuring dozens. The next day, security forces opened fire on a crowd of thousands marching in funeral processions for the previous day’s victims.

In the midst of this chaos, a young and independent Bahraini labor movement is finding its voice. In response to the government’s violence, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), with a membership of 66 unions – around 25% of the workforce – threatened a general strike if the government did not back off, start talking to demonstrators, and permit peaceful protest to continue.

And the government backed off.

Although reports were fragmentary, bloggers reported that some union members had already walked off the job, and one noted that teachers were leading the way. His blog featured video of demonstrations by abaya-clad teachers. Al-Jazeera also reported that many teachers had joined the protesters in Pearl Square.

In a statement to the Gulf Daily News, GFBTU spokesman Karim Radhi said the terms of the strike depended on two key points:

the people will “strike until all military forces are withdrawn and the peaceful protests are allowed to continue without any confrontation," he said. The military did leave and Radhi said the federation would “continue to monitor the situation."
Independent unions are a relatively new phenomenon in Bahrain, and they still face many challenges. The GFBTU – comprised of about 60 private sector unions and six public sector unions – was formed in 2004, following the enactment of a reform labor code in 2002, passed after years of struggle to organize worker committees and pressure the government to allow reform.

The new labor code protects the rights of workers – including foreign workers – to join unions and to strike. Collective bargaining is not permitted in the public sector, yet workers have formed unions in defiance of the government’s ban. Overall the environment for workers and their unions still leaves much to be desired.

The nascent power of the Bahraini labor movement is also rooted in the economy. According to the Carnegie Endowment’s Arab Reform Bulletin, the average monthly salary is US$814/month, while nearly 30 percent of workers earn less than US$530/month. Bahrainis are acutely sensitive to job losses; for many years, the country suffered double digit unemployment, triggering protests and riots. Jobs remain a troublesome problem for the kingdom, especially in relation to its Gulf neighbors. Youth unemployment, for example, is over 25 percent, the highest in the region.

Despite the very real challenges that remain, the creation of an independent labor movement in Bahrain raises the hope that it can become a model for other Gulf countries that still prohibit independent unions. The reach of the GFBTU is international, as well, because it is an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

With a membership that cuts across political, ethnic and religious lines, the Bahraini labor movement is positioned to play a positive role in the democracy movement. This diversity is particularly important in a nation that is 70 percent Shi’a, but is ruled by Sunnis. Although Bahrain defines itself as a hereditary constitutional monarchy, the reality is that the King still has absolute power over the political, economic, and even social life of the nation. He appoints the cabinet, headed by his uncle, who has held the position since Bahrain’s independence nearly 40 years ago. This bitter argument over power and influence dates to the 18th century, when the ruling family invaded Bahrain from Saudi Arabia.

The Shi’a-Sunni tensions in Bahrain have been especially acute in recent years, due to the anxiety caused by the Iraq invasion, Iran’s drive to become a nuclear power, and the ruling family’s close relationship with the United States, which maintains a large naval base in Bahrain.

At his writing, the demonstrators occupy Pearl Square; the government has adopted a conciliatory tone and is casting about for some solution short of abdication. A dialogue may be forthcoming. In the meanwhile, the labor movement is in the Square as well. As promised, they continue to monitor the situation and will try to do their best to protect the fragile flame of democratic reform in Bahrain.