Human rights report slams passport scam

Bahrain group calls for law to be upheld to protect workers

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By  Zoe Naylor Published  October 1, 2005

A human rights organisation has slammed the practice of withholding migrant construction workers’ passports as tantamount to ‘blackmail’. A report published by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) says the number of cases where sponsors, recruitment agents and employees in the kingdom hold workers’ passports is on the rise. But according to Nabeel Rajab, vice president of BCHR, the situation is the same right across the region. “We took Bahrain as a test case, but the problem exists in all of the Gulf countries,” he says. “Almost 90% of the migrant labourers in the region have their passports held by their sponsors or companies.” A high number of these labourers work on construction sites across the Gulf. According to the BCHR report, the practice began in the 1970s as a justifiable means of protecting sponsors from having their workers flee the country as a result of breaking the law, which the sponsor would then have to deal with. But Rajab says this has been misused over the years and is now a way of forcing labourers to stay put. “According to the law in Bahrain, and I think this applies to all the Gulf countries — and certainly internationally — it is against the law to hold the documents of expats working abroad.” He adds that the law is not being implemented because the victims are not local; they are mostly from poor countries in Asia, and some are from Africa. “Some of the workers don’t have embassies here to complain to; and even if the embassies are present, they don’t want to highlight the problem and jeapordise their economic relations with the Gulf countries,” explains Rajab. “The governments will not take any action to prevent workers from having their passports held. If a worker complains, their case is forwarded to the court and the whole process can end up taking take three to four years.” This unfair treatment can, according to BCHR, provoke some workers into running away and finding work elsewhere — often illegally. And for others, the extreme pressure can prove too much. According to the report, 22 Asian construction workers in Bahrain attempted suicide in 2003, with a further 11 Asian workers committing suicide in the first three months of

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