Foreign workers in Bahrain face job cuts as government aims for 'Bahrainization'

Many companies in Bahrain are now tending to lay off non-Bahraini employees in jobs that can be filled by citizens, according to their specialization.

Manama, Bahrain (photo credit: B.ALOTABY/CC BY-SA 4.0 ( WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Manama, Bahrain

Following the lead of other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, the Kingdom of Bahrain is moving toward the Bahrainization of jobs and a reduction in the number of foreigners working in the public and private sectors. This step aims to reduce unemployment, which reached 5.4% by the end of 2022, according to official statistics from the Council of Ministers.

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In line with the shift in government policy, many companies in Bahrain are now tending to lay off non-Bahraini employees in jobs that can be filled by citizens, according to their specialization.

The unemployment rate in Bahrain ranged between 3.7% and 4% from 2012 until the pandemic’s outbreak, after which it rose to 7.5%. Since then, the government has succeeded in gradually reducing it to 5.4% and aims to further reduce it to below 3.5%.

According to the data of the Bahraini Public Authority for Social Insurance for the year 2022, 50,000 people work in the government or public sector, while 614,000 work in the private sector. The private sector includes 100,000 Bahrainis and 514,000 foreign workers, most notably from Asian countries (primarily India, Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines, and Pakistan) and some African and Arab countries.

Despite Bahrain’s intention to restructure the government, employment in the public sector rose from 48,915 in 2021 to 50,375 in 2022—a 3% increase. Over the same period, it increased in the private sector for Bahrainis from 96,934 to 99,945—a 3.1% rise.

 General view of capital Manama, Bahrain, October 30, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED)
General view of capital Manama, Bahrain, October 30, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/HAMAD I MOHAMMED)

Bahrain has taken steps to reduce number of foreign workers

Recently Bahrain has taken several steps to reduce the number of foreigners working in the kingdom, who annually transfer nearly 1.2 billion Bahraini dinars ($3.2 billion) to their home countries, constituting more than 8% of Bahrain’s gross domestic product.

About 72% of non-Bahraini employees in the private sector receive salaries and wages falling below 200 BD ($530) per month, working mainly in the carpentry, plumbing, construction, contracting, and construction sectors. Meanwhile, 4% of foreigners working in the private sector receive salaries exceeding 1,000 BD ($2,700) per month.

The minimum monthly wage for Bahrainis in the private sector is 350 BD ($930) for those with a high school diploma, and 450 BD ($1,200) for those with a university degree, while the government has raised the minimum wage for some professions such as medicine and engineering in the private sector.

For years, Bahrain has followed a policy of subsidizing wages for Bahraini citizens in the private sector. The country’s Labor Market Regulatory Authority charges employers a monthly fee of 10 BD ($26.60) for each foreign worker, which is then transferred to the Labor Fund, or Tamkeen.

Tamkeen is a Bahraini-innovated institution that aims to support the wages, training, and rehabilitation of citizens. In addition, it supports startups founded by Bahrainis by paying half of the costs of the equipment they need.

Over the past years, members of the Council of Representatives (the lower house in the Bahraini Parliament) have criticized the government for tolerating such a high percentage of foreigners, who as of 2021 comprised 52% of the total population of 1.5 million.

During its negotiations with the government last May on the 2023-2024 budget, the Council of Representatives succeeded in raising the fees paid by the employer on their foreign workers, in addition to further subsidizing the wages of Bahrainis and their employment in the private sector.

Ali Al-Dosari, a member of the Bahraini Parliament, told The Media Line, “The jobs that have unemployed Bahrainis must be Bahrainized.”

He explained that “it is not a target for a specific group of people or workers. We in Bahrain are a small market, and the number of jobs is limited. It is possible to hire employees from outside Bahrain only with a shortage of Bahraini employees.”

During discussions with the Council of Representatives, Education Minister Dr. Mohammed Mubarak Juma confirmed that the percentage of Bahrainized jobs in the ministry (one of the largest government sectors employing non-Bahrainis) had risen to 87%. This statement indicated that no teacher or employee would be contracted from outside Bahrain, a policy followed by other GCC countries by contracting only with Arab teachers from Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, Tunisia, Palestine, and others.

The Civil Service Authority also announced a new policy not to contract with any non-Bahraini employee if there is a Bahraini with the same specialization. The policy also states that if non-Bahrainis are employed, they must during their contract period train Bahraini citizens to do the same job.

After staff from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) visited Bahrain in May 9-18, the IMF said in a May 25 statement that “job opportunities can be provided for Bahraini citizens in the private sector by enhancing the flexibility of mobility in the labor market, containing public sector wages and continuing to address the mismatch of skills with labor market needs by providing coordinated and integrated training programs.”

According to Al-Dosari, the overall number of unemployed in Bahrain is gradually decreasing, but the pace of employment must continue to increase.

“The unemployed (numbering about 15,000)—most of them studied at the state’s expense throughout the academic year and many of them received support during their university studies, and they cannot build their lives in their country without getting a job,” he said.

“Many companies in the world lay off their employees in the event of a disability or due to the use of artificial intelligence, job restructuring, etc., and we can also dispense with non-Bahrainis if there are [unemployed] citizens,” Al-Dosari continued. “The priority must be for the citizen in obtaining a job in his country.”

Abbas Ali, a Bahraini journalist specializing in economic affairs, told The Media Line, “For decades, Bahrainis have not faced any problems, and there has been no talk of a foreigner or Bahraini in a job, as there have always been jobs for everyone. But several years ago, we began to see a large presence of foreigners in Bahrain, without accountability.”

Ali said the reason for the increase in foreign workers is that non-Bahraini hiring managers give preferential treatment to their countrymen.

“Many of them were discovered to have forged certificates or even did not have sufficient experience or qualifications to get a job,” he said. “They were hired only because they are of the same nationality as the president, company executive, or hiring manager.”

Amir Suleiman, an Egyptian sound engineer who used to work as an employee in Bahrain, was laid off recently.

“I worked in Bahrain for about five years, but after 10 Bahrainis were hired in sound engineering, I was laid off,” he told The Media Line.

“Maybe they do not have the same experience that I have in this field, but now the company where I work has decided to Bahrainize jobs, and you find many citizens working in the same jobs,” he continued. “We have gone from 100 non-Bahraini employees in several departments to less than 10 employees, who are in place only because there is no Bahraini alternative in their specialization.”

Inter Nations ranked Bahrain as the best in the region and seventh in the world among countries in which foreigners and expatriate workers prefer to live. The survey covers several aspects, including quality of life, ease of stability, personal finance, working conditions, and family life.

The survey stated: “Bahrain is following the path of excellence in a remarkable and dazzling way, as 83% of respondents said that living in Bahrain is identical to living in their home countries and that their feelings while they are in Bahrain are similar to their feelings in their homelands, and that they adapt quickly to life in Bahrain and prefer to work there. Only Mexico, which scored 85%, excelled in this factor.”

The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry has repeatedly resisted the Council of Representatives’ proposals to limit some jobs to Bahrainis, as it violates the International Labor Convention and may lead to an imbalance in some jobs.

The Chamber of Commerce prefers steps to uplift Bahraini workers in the workplace, by supporting training and the presence of Bahrainis in high-status jobs, not just promoting employment because of their Bahraini citizenship. This work is supported by Tamkeen, the labor fund.

The Bahraini Labor Ministry has also launched several initiatives to employ Bahrainis in non-required specializations, as it faces a problem in hiring some specializations that have a surplus in the labor market, such as law and the social sciences.