Foreign workers look on as anti-government protesters pass by during a demonstration in Manama

Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in Bahrain face exploitation and abuse despite government reforms designed to protect them, according to a new Human Rights Watch report.

Mani Mostofi, author of the study, says HRW interviewed over 60 migrant workers, worker advocates, government officials and social workers about the migrant workers situation in the nation. He says they found a system of common abuses in desperate need of more government action.

Mostofi spoke about the issue in an interview with VOA’s Susan Yackee. Below please find select highlights of his comments. You can listen to a fuller version of the interview by clicking on the sound file below.

mostofi mani 150 QUICKTAKE: Migrant Workers in Bahrain Face Widespread Abuses   Mani Mostofi

Mani Mostofi

Debt used as collateral

These abuses start when Bahrainis are in their home countries, and are charged recruitment fees to come over. These recruitment fees are fees that are paid so that they can find a job (sometimes they cover airfare and visas). But what happens is that when they come to Bahrain, they usually have debt equivalent to what we found is 8-10 months of their wages in Bahrain. This debt is held as collateral. It’s usually their family home or family jewels, or their most valuable family possession.

Pay docked

The most common complaint that workers have is that sometimes they don’t get their wages, which is the primary reason they come to the country. We found about half of the workers we interviewed hadn’t received their wages for anywhere from three to ten months, though we found that sometimes workers hadn’t received their wages for longer than ten months. Once they don’t receive their wages, they run into all sorts of problems. The debt that they have accumulates interest, they can’t pay for their own sustenance when they’re in Bahrain, and they can’t pay for their families. Employers are allowed to get away with this even though it’s against Bahraini law. Both their labor laws and their criminal laws make it illegal to hold wages. But the system of enforcement isn’t strong enough to make sure this abuse isn’t as common as it is.

Passports taken

Workers will also have their passports held by their employers. When their passport is held by their employer – it is their main identification – an abusive employer can hold a lot of power over a worker. When any dispute is had – for example, over wages being withheld or wages that are being payed below what is promised – this passport becomes a huge source of power for the employer and a bargaining chip in settlement.

No charges filed

For most workers, the legal framework is there to deal with abuses, so there are lot of appropriate health and safety regulations, criminal penalties and labor penalties. What the government needs to do is implement these more vigorously. A starting point would be to deal with the issue of unpaid wages. We haven’t found one case of an employer being charged with criminal penalties for not paying wages, even though it’s a criminal offense in two laws, both the penal code and the country’s anti-human trafficking law.

Listen to a fuller version of the interview with Mani Mostofi (3:51):

 QUICKTAKE: Migrant Workers in Bahrain Face Widespread Abuses   Mani Mostofi

Susan Yackee

Susan Yackee is anchor of VOA's International Edition radio show. She has been a reporter in the Washington area for more than 35 years and regularly interviews newsmakers and analysts in DC and around the world. Susan works in television, radio and social media.