Sacked Bahrain F1 staff stay out

Bill Law
BBC Radio News

image captionThe Bahrain Grand Prix is one of the country's key international showcases

The row over 29 sacked Formula 1 employees deepened on Thursday when it emerged that most have yet to return to work.

The workers say they were fired for participating in protests against the government of King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Out of 29 who lost their jobs, only three have come back.

The Bahrain International Circuit (BIC) says its employees were dismissed for breach of contract after not turning up to work. It says it has since offered to rehire 19 employees.

But workers say at least 12 who were asked to return have refused, arguing that the terms of a new contract are unfair. They say the contract fails to restore lost pay and benefits. They are also being asked to drop cases brought for unfair dismissal.

The 29 were among more than 1,600 Bahrainis summarily dismissed from their jobs last year in both the private and public sectors.

In a bid to defuse tensions, King Hamad issued a royal decree last week instructing that all those who had been sacked be allowed to return to work.

The decree came in the wake of a report late last year by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI).

image captionThe Crown Prince of Bahrain is said to be a huge fan of Formula 1

The king ordered the independent investigation after the violent suppression of protests by security forces which left more than 40 people dead in the Gulf state.

Damning verdict

Chaired by renowned Egyptian lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, the report proved to be a damning indictment of King Hamad's government.

Mr Bassiouni documented numerous human rights abuses and systematic torture of detainees in February and March.

His report also examined the cases of employees who were sacked for allegedly supporting pro-democracy protests. Nearly all of those affected were Shia Muslims.

Bahrain has a Shia majority population but is ruled over by a Sunni Muslim family, the al-Khalifa. The Shia community has long complained of discrimination at the hands of the al-Khalifa.

Cancelled race

The king's son, Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, is reported to be a huge supporter of Formula 1.

Seen by many as a political moderate, he attempted to broker a deal between the government and protesters. But he was effectively sidelined as the situation in Bahrain worsened.

Despite his efforts, last year's Bahrain Grand Prix, scheduled for 13 March, was cancelled because of unrest in the Gulf kingdom.

image captionThe Bahrain Formula One track was opened in 2004

The 29 employees were sacked in April last year.

Zayed al-Zayeni is the chairman of the motorsport venue Bahrain International Circuit (BIC), the company holding the rights to run the race.

Asked if he had any regrets over the sackings, he replied: "It was not our decision, not our call."

That comment appears to confirm findings in the Bassiouni report that pressure from the government was brought to bear on companies and ministries to remove anyone suspected of supporting the protests.


Mr Zayeni told the BBC that he was keen to get the Bahrain Grand Prix back on track.

"We have to move forward, the country has to move on."

He said that on Monday, in line with recommendations from the Bassiouni report, the circuit had welcomed back the sacked staff members.

"Based on his majesty's instructions we have called them back and there will be no mark against their record," he added.

One of the sacked workers, who asked not to be identified, described a chaotic scene on the day of the arrests in the BIC offices.

"The head of security [at BIC] went from desk to desk with two plainclothes police officers. If you had a Shia name you were arrested."

The worker said that he and the others were taken to a local police station, verbally abused and beaten.

"We loved Formula 1, we loved working for the company. How could the managers allow this to happen?"

Asked about the crown prince, the worker said: "We love him, I would come back just for his sake."

And then he asked: "Does he know what has happened to us?"

Like other arrested BIC employees, the worker said he had not participated in pro-democracy demonstrations.

'Positions filled'

Karim Radhi, a spokesman for the General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions (GFBTU), said that along with other companies who had fired employees, BIC had failed to acknowledge that the sackings were wrong.

"When we heard that BIC was bringing employees back, we were happy. We thought they would acknowledge the violations and correct them."

But he said the hope that BIC would set what he called "a good example" had fallen flat.

Mr Radhi said that all sacked workers should be unconditionally reinstated, returned to their previous jobs and their back-pay and benefits restored.

But companies have already filled many positions and are loath to let their new employees go.

The opposition says that is because Shia have been replaced with Sunni, especially in senior and middle-management jobs.

And as the dispute over jobs drags on so too do the protests.

Activists say that if the Bahrain Grand Prix goes ahead in April as scheduled, it will become a focal point for what they say will be peaceful demonstrations against the al-Khalifa regime.

Peaceful or otherwise that is not good news for a government anxious to put a good face on reform efforts and, as Mr Zayeni says, "move on".