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BAHRAIN: Unions fight discrimination, firings even after martial law lifted

June 5, 2011 |  6:17 pm

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Bahrain’s monarchy lifted its martial law June 1, but human rights activists and union leaders say they continue to struggle with workplace discrimination in the gulf state as those who protest are targeted and fired for being traitors.

Babylon & Beyond spoke with Shawna Bader-Blau, regional program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the Washington-based Solidarity Center, a workers' rights group affiliated with the AFL-CIO, about her trip to meet with workers in Bahrain last month.

Q: Why did you go to Bahrain?

A: We’ve been following the situation in Bahrain where our close colleagues and friends in the general federation of Bahraini trade unions have been under vicious attacks in the media and by employers because of the role they played in the protest movement. So we went to gather information from the unions.

Timeline: Repression in Bahrain

Q:  What role did the unions play in the antigovernment demonstrations we saw earlier this year in Bahrain?

A: In February and March, the trade unions were calling (along with other civil society groups), for very straightforward democratic reforms, nothing very extreme, just the right to elect a parliament and constitutional reforms. They support the monarchy, but they have some longstanding economic grievances about poverty and unemployment. So they were calling for a dialogue.

Q: What did you find when you visited May 10?

A: By the time we got there in May, there had been massive retribution against the unions which called for a general strike in March because of the violence. They were hearing from workers who were getting harassed at these checkpoints, so they called a strike. By the time I got there, 1,400 workers had been fired from their jobs either for participating in a strike or they were being called in by managers for having participated in protests at the Pearl roundabout. Today it’s up to 1,700.

Q: How are they finding out who participated in the protests?

A: Workers were being called in and interrogated by managers, and on the basis of that, they would be fired. Others -- they would look at attendance lists and if they were not in attendance during the general strike, they would be fired. This is happening at the big state-owned enterprise and across the economy in public and private sector companies. There started to be circulated in a couple of companies lists that were names of people who were considered “traitors” by other employees who were maybe against the protest movement, listing their names and personal information, like their cellphone, and listing in word documents and later on Facebook their offense, like, “Seen in Pearl roundabout” or “Listed Pearl roundabout on Facebook.” Pictures of people with circles around their faces have even appeared in parliament, with members of parliament holding up pictures of demonstrators with circles around their faces. It’s very scary and ominous.

Q: What’s happening to the people labeled as “traitors”?

A: There’s just a general sense of terror. Because at the same time, there are military trials going on of doctors and human rights leaders who are also accused of being traitors. When the same accusations are being made in the workplace, it’s terrifying.

Q: What are the unions doing?

A: The trade unions are trying to be constructive with the government despite all this. But in the meantime, they’re primarily concerned with these dismissed workers. In a country with a relatively high level of unemployment, where are these people supposed to find jobs? What are they supposed to do? The president of Bapco, the oil company union, was there 30 years. The trade unions are trying to do everything they can to get them reinstated and end the dismissals. They continue to fire people for political reasons as recently as last week.

Q: Even after the king lifted martial law?

A: There are still firings. The unions are trying to help the dismissed workers any way they can and looking for support around the world. Many unions have written letters of support to the government of Bahrain in solidarity. I met with about 20 union leaders who had been fired. They feel very sad -- this was a labor movement they had fought for for 40 years, and they’re just getting ripped apart.

-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo

Photo: Pictures of Bahraini leaders are seen Sunday affixed to a gate of the country's main Salmaniya hospital, guarded by national guardsmen and police in the capital, Manama. Trials for numerous doctors and other medical workers being prosecuted in connection with February and March antigovernment protests were scheduled to begin Sunday and Monday. Credit: Hasan Jamali /Associated Press

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