Middle East

New Bahrain trade federation splits union movement

Bahrain Labour Union Free Federation

As unrest continues in Bahrain, the Gulf kingdom's trade union movement appears to be splitting in two.

A breakaway federation says it has attracted thousands of members since launching in July. The organisation - which uses the curious acronym, BLUFF - says its rival is "too political and no longer focuses on labour issues".

BLUFF stands for the Bahrain Labour Union Free Federation. Its vice-president, Basim Kuwaitan, told the BBC that unions from 12 companies had joined his organisation and estimated the number of members as "between 13,000 and 15,000".

Mr Kuwaitan says the reason for the creation of a new federation was simple. The existing General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), he claims, was "not labour related anymore".

"The GFBTU called a strike in March last year that was related to political issues. It was against the law. Labour unions should steer clear of politics," he adds.

But critics like Cathy Feingold have described BLUFF as an "absolutely blatant attempt to split the union movement". Ms Feingold is the director of the international department for the AFL-CIO, the powerful American trade union federation.

Unions representing workers at many major corporations in Bahrain, several of them with ties to the ruling family, the Al Khalifa, have gone over to BLUFF.

And there are allegations that in at least one case it happened without a formal vote. A member of one union told the BBC: "There was no vote, the executive just announced that we were part of BLUFF."

Mr Kuwaitan denies that charge. "We followed the proper procedures as laid down by the labour code," he says.

Karim Radhi of the rival GFBTU says his organisation represents 80 unions and 25,000 members. He questions the independence of BLUFF.

"We should investigate just how free and independent the new federation is," he says.

Thousands sacked

Bahrain has been wracked by more than 18 months of civil strife. At least 60 people, including several police officers, have been killed. The opposition puts the death toll at 80, a figure the authorities dispute.

Image caption More than 4,000 people were dismissed from their jobs during last year's unrest

Last year, more than 4,000 people were dismissed from their jobs. Almost all were Shia Muslims, who form the majority in a country ruled by a Sunni royal family.

In the wake of widespread international condemnation of how the government handled the protests, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed an independent tribunal, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), to investigate abuses.

The BICI, under the leadership of Egyptian lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, released a damning indictment in November 2011.

Its report, whose conclusions were accepted by King Hamad, confirmed the excessive use of force by security forces, numerous human rights abuses, as well as the sackings.

One worker who asked not to be identified told the BBC that at the height of the unrest he was unable to get to work for four days because many main roads were blocked. As soon as they cleared, he went back to his job at the aluminium company Alba. Six weeks later, he was among more than 400 workers who were dismissed.

"I never left work to protest, I didn't go to protests after work, I did not protest at all," the worker said. "And all who lost their jobs were Shia, except for one Sunni".

He told the BBC that he was out of work for over a year.

Getting back to work

One of the key BICI recommendations was that the people who had lost their jobs be reinstated.

This week in Geneva, the Bahraini labour minister told the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that 98% were back at work, and issued a statement saying: "The ministry's efforts are aligned with the [BICI] recommendations and consistent with Bahrain's aims for reform and reconciliation."

Mr Kuwaitan of BLUFF says that in getting people back to their jobs "co-operation with the ministry has been quite good".

But Mr Radhi of the GFBTU claims that "at least 500 people" are still out of work.

One worker who did not want to be identified told the BBC that when he was reinstated in April this year it was with less responsibility.

He said that the company then asked him to move to another area, but he considered the move an effective demotion. When he threatened a grievance, the company sacked him again.

"People are afraid to talk about what is happening because if they do they may lose their job, like what happened to me," he said.

Mr Kuwaitan insists BLUFF will take on employers and the government on issues such as wages, training and reinstatements.

"Our main aim is to look after and defend workers. That does not mean we are splitting the labour movement."

However, Ms Feingold of the AFL-CIO calls the emergence of BLUFF "a real step backwards and very unfortunate".

"This is an incredibly dangerous time for unions in Bahrain," she warns.