U.S. Labor Advocates for Bahrain Workers Caught in the Crossfire

Michelle Chen

Funeral prayers are said over the coffin of Ali Isa Saqer, an activist who died in April while held by Bahrain police forces.

The unrest in Bahrain has washed in and out of the U.S. media spotlight as protests churn all over the Arab world. But one American community that’s keeping a watchful eye on the tiny Gulf nation is organized labor. It turns out that Bahrain’s political unrest is an international labor problem. While the monarchy cracks down on labor unions, it continues to enjoy special trade privileges with Washington.

The AFL-CIO has filed a complaint with the Office of Trade & Labor Affairs criticizing the US-Bahrain free-trade agreement, enacted in 2006. Noting that the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU) has been a leading force for political reform, AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka has challenged the agreement in light of the government’s record of human rights violations.

The move is part of a global campaign, supported by Building and Wood Worker’s International and the International Labour Organisation, to call attention to the plight of thousands of workers, including more than 750 union members” and leaders of the GFBTU, who were dismissed as a result of their political ties. According to the AFL-CIO’s April letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates (Bahrain harbors a U.S. military outpost):

More than half of the democratically elected membership of the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions’ executive committee, including its Deputy General Secretary, have lost their jobs and the state has made threats of legal action against them. The government of Bahrain appears to be moving to eradicate this independent, democatic and non-sectarian trade union movement.

So far, though, the U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk has hedged on the White House’s response, saying at a Congressional hearing, I don’t know that I would agree with the assessment that we go from A to Z in terms of saying we’re going to pull out of the trade agreement.”

That hearing was focused on three new trade deals pending on the Hill, with Panama, South Korea and Colombia. While all three of those contain controversial provisions allowing for deregulation of whole industries and more offshoring of jobs, the Colombia trade deal has been particularly dogged by human rights questions — namely the systematic killing of trade unionists. Despite some revisions, activists say that the agreement will fail to protect labor organizers from attacks.

Dozens have died in the suppression of protests, and the government seems to have been cracking down on everyone from the foreign press to school girls, but workers face unique perils. Earlier this month, the Bahrain government charged medical workers with acts against the state.” According to Physicians for Human Rights, reports Al Jazeera, at least 32 health care professionals have been detained since Bahrain declared martial law” and many have been subjected to ” beatings and tear gas.’ ”

The AFL-CIO has been one of the few voices in Washington speaking out on Bahrain. In fact, the relatively soft treatment enjoyed by the Saudi-backed tiny island kingdom, also host to a US military outpost, demonstrates the White House’s flexibility” toward the Middle East when commercial or geopolitical interests are at stake.

Oklahoma University Middle East scholar Jonathan Landis told Reuters this week:

Bahrain has killed twice as many of its citizens as Syria has if one adjusts for population size. Yet its ambassador was welcome at the Royal Wedding in Britain, and Bahrain was given a pass for repressing its revolution…

Either it is because Shi’ites are not considered as highly as Sunnis due to Western enmity with Iran and fear of the Shi’ite Crescent’, as it is often called, or it is because the U.S. has a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia and needs oil and military bases in the Persian Gulf.

Though the public statements on behalf of the Bahrain Trade Unions have not highlighted it, the hidden backbone of Bahrain’s embattled workforce is a vast migrant labor pool, including many recruited under dubious circumstances from South Asia. Last December, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights called attention to the harrowing psychological, physical and sexual abuse” routinely suffered by migrant domestic workers.

And as ITT reported previously, some South Asian workers have gotten caught in the cross-fire in the anti-government uprising. The Gulf Daily News reported in late March that rights groups had documented dozens of cases of brutality against Asian migrants. Migrant Worker Protection Society chairwoman Mona Almoayyed lamented, They aren’t in the army and they aren’t Bahrainis, just Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who come to work in Bahrain.” Oppressive regimes do not distinguish between economic refugees from overseas and homegrown political dissenters.

According to the AFL-CIO petition, the GFBTU represents migrants as well as Bahraini workers. The current uprising could become yet another point of unity between Bahrain’s aboveground” and underground” labor forces. When the political establishment threatens to quash all of civil society, no worker is safe.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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