Bahrain this month launched a major shakeup of its permit system for expatriate workers, aiming to crack down on foreigners who arrive in the country under self-sponsorship and without anyone vouching for their residency.
The country has abolished its 2016 FlexiPermit system, which allowed expatriates to enter and reside in the country for two years without a predetermined employer. Holders of a FlexiPermit were able to work full or part-time for an undefined number of employers in an undefined number of fields and could renew the visa when it expired.
Under this system, more than 531,000 foreigners from 161 nations were working in Bahrain by the end of 2021. This number included some 110,000 expatriates who entered the country with employment, but then left their place of work without registering a new workplace, address or contact number.
The Bahraini prime minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, abolished the FlexiPermit system in response to complaints from the country’s commercial sector. The sector had attacked the system since its inception, calling it harmful to the commercial market in Bahrain.
Under the new system, foreign workers must have found employment in order to obtain a work permit, and work in specialized professions will only be permitted with a license to practice the profession or equivalent from the relevant authorities. Foreigners in Bahrain on a tourist visa will not be allowed to join the system.
Expatriate workers who had operated under the FlexiPermit system, including those who violated the terms of their residency and anyone who had left their place of work, were allowed to register under the new system. They were able to obtain a work permit for their stated profession by paying a monthly fee.
According to the new system, a foreign worker carries a card containing a QR code, which lists all relevant information about them, including the professions in which they are allowed to work, the type of permit they hold and health insurance they have.
Expatriate workers in Bahrain who register under the system will be obliged to cover the cost of issuing and renewing the permit, health insurance and insurance for departure expenses, in addition to monthly fees and registration fees. The registered workers are also not allowed to set up any businesses themselves.
"Unfortunately, the FlexiPermit system was misused by foreign workers,” a source familiar with the issue told The Media Line. “They caused problems for the commercial sector, in addition to the involvement of some of them in fraud and violations of the law."
The source added: "Before the FlexiPermit was implemented in 2017, employers had to apply for a visa for the worker, and then the worker would come to Bahrain through the sponsorship of that company. If the worker wanted to change [employment], they had to secure a new employer before changing their sponsor."
He said that while the FlexiPermit had been created “to allow more freedom for workers and to give violators a second chance to register in the system,” the process had been abused.
"What happened is that some [expatriate workers] started to create commercial operations and sell outside the law, in addition to defrauding and begging in the streets, while others committed offenses related to human trafficking, prostitution and drugs," the source said.
"The security authorities tracked these risks, carried out their work, deported the violating workers, and changed the system to prevent abuse that took place. The new system does not violate international human rights laws, and does not allow human trafficking either," he said.
Hassan Abdulnabi, a Bahraini journalist specializing in economic affairs, told The Media Line that while expatriate workers are needed in Bahrain and in fact the entire Gulf, “unfortunately many of them are violating the law, and therefore these practices must be controlled."
Abdulnabi also said that many foreign workers in Bahrain have “a work permit that allows them to work within companies and not establish their own business, but some illegally set up their own trade.”
He warned that such practices caused great harm to the small Bahraini market, which annually sees more than one billion dinars (2.65 billion USD) transferred by the foreign workers in Bahrain to their own countries. Given that the country’s GDP is only 14 billion dinars (37 billion USD) in total, this is unsustainable, he said.
"The Gulf countries in general are among the countries in which the highest amount of funds is transferred abroad, relative to the percentage of workers and GDP. Bahrainis are now unable to manage their businesses because of this," he said.
Nouf Jamsheer, the CEO of Bahrain’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority, told a government press conference that the new registration system would be a partnership between the public and private sectors.
Jamsheer noted that monitoring of the system has also been stepped up in cooperation with the Interior Ministry, including visits to workplaces, in order to “preserve and protect the rights of all parties."
"We are addressing illegal practices, including selling work permits and working without a permit, in addition to combating all forms of human trafficking and forced labor," she said, adding that a "wage protection" system will guarantee that workers receives their payments.
Sameer Nass, chairman of the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the news conference that, "the number of informal workers had reached frightening numbers.”
The new system, he said, "protects the Bahraini economy."
Labor and Social Development Minister Jameel Humaidan said that "there will be protection for migrant workers,” but warned that “any violator will be deported directly."
Testimony from locals
Hassan Khaled, a Bahraini who owns a blacksmith workshop, told The Media Line that he had been held hostage by his expatriate employees who refused to do the work for which they were hired.
"I had to leave the workshop due to my workers of Indian nationality, all issued with a FlexiPermit, and I can no longer manage them," he said.
"They started sabotaging the tools, and then did not deliver the tasks as required. But because I paid their recruitment money and initial work permit fees, and the fees for their tickets and residence, I was unable to bring in other workers," he said.
"After six months of losses, they asked me not to interfere in the affairs of the workshop, and leave it for them to manage it for 200 dinars a month (530 USD), while the workshop's income was more than 10,000 dinars (26,500 USD) before they started sabotaging it."
Ann, a worker from the Philippines living in Bahrain, told The Media Line that the new system also offers protections to foreign workers who were open to abuse under the FlexiPermit.
"I came here in 2018 to work as a secretary, but some of my friends convinced us to get the flexible visa and leave our employers," she said.
"I did not have the money, so they gave me the money to get the permit,” she said, adding that they were also from the Philippines. “Then I did not get a job and I could not pay the debt, so they told me that I had to work in prostitution and withheld my passport.
"I turned to the authorities, who protected me. They returned my passport to me and the entire network was arrested. Now I work as a waitress in a restaurant. I changed from the flexible visa and became sponsored by the owner of the restaurant."
Average earnings in Bahrain
Abdul Wahab, a Bangladeshi worker who has lived in Bahrain for 15 years and works as a car washer, also told The Media Line that the changes could be an improvement.
"Previously, I was renting a work permit from a company. I was registered with them as a cleaner, but I paid them 1,500 dinars (4,000 USD) every two years in return for working freely and not for the company," he said.
Wahab said he has a monthly income of about 500 dinars (1,300 USD) for washing cars. He pays 30 dinars (80 USD) per month for accommodation in a shared room and spends another 80 dinars (210 USD) on expenses. “I transfer the rest to my family in Bangladesh,” he said.
Now he has moved to the new system, under which he pays the government 500 dinars (1,300 USD) for his work permit, which includes health insurance and other benefits.
"It is certainly much better than paying a company and evading the police because I am not working at my workplace.”