UN agency urges Bahrain to re-employ 2,000 workers

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA, June 7 (Reuters) – The U.N. labour rights agency urged Bahrain on Tuesday to give jobs back to at least 2,000 workers fired for striking in support of pro-democracy protests.

Bahrain’s unions called a general strike in March to back protesters from the Shi’ite majority demanding greater freedoms from the Sunni-led government.

Bahraini forces and troops from nearby Sunni Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia crushed demonstrations later that month.

The Gulf kingdom’s legislation, allowing independent trade unions was unique in the region, but eight of 15 executive members of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions are among those dismissed, International Labour Organization (ILO) director-general Juan Somavia said.

“Our main worry is people being able to work and ensuring they can exercise their freedom of association and not be pressured as a result of events,” Somavia told a news briefing.

Officials at Batelco, Gulf Air, Bahrain Airport Service and APM Terminals Bahrain said at the time that they had laid off more than 200 workers due to absence during the strike. State oil company, Bahrain Petroleum Co (Bapco), later said it had sacked nearly 300 employees.

The ILO denounced the mass sackings and “other repressive measures” in early April. It later sent a high-level team to Bahrain for talks with government officials, as well as worker and employer groups.

The Obama administration is reviewing an American labour group’s petition calling on the United States to warn Bahrain that its crackdown has put a 2006 trade pact at risk, U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said on May 12.

Syria and Yemen, where pro-democracy uprisings have turned deadly, have a different history to Bahrain in terms of union activity, according to Somavia.

“In the case of both Syria and Yemen, the trade unions back the governments. There is very little evolution of independent trade unions,” he said. (Editing by Louise Ireland)