UPDATE 1-Bahrain firms fire hundreds of strikers in crackdown

* Unions called strike during recent unrest

* Mass firings could cement sectarian divide

* Rumours swirl that hundreds more will be sacked

(Adds ILO reaction)

By Frederik Richter

MANAMA, April 5 (Reuters) – Bahraini firms have fired
hundreds of mostly Shi’ite Muslim workers who went on strike to
support pro-democracy protesters, an opposition group said on
Tuesday, in what appeared to be part of a government crackdown.

Bahrain’s unions called a general strike on March 13 to
support Shi’ite protesters against the Sunni-led government who
for weeks occupied a square in the capital until security forces
moved in on March 16. The strike was called off on March 22.

Officials at Batelco (BTEL.BH: Quote, Profile, Research), Gulf Air [GULF.UL], Bahrain
Airport Services and APM Terminals Bahrain said they had laid
off more than 200 workers due to absence during the strike.

“It’s illegal in Bahrain and anywhere else in the world to
just strike. You have to give two weeks’ notice to your
employer,” said one executive who did not wish to be named.

Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition group, Wefaq, said it
estimated that more than 1,000 workers had been laid off and
that most were Shi’ites.

Some analysts said large-scale dismissals of Shi’ite workers
could be politically risky by speeding up the disintegration of
Bahraini society into Shi’ite and Sunni enclaves.

“They’re basically punishing people to the degree that they
can, and I think in the long term this is a very risky strategy
for them to take,” IHS Global Insight’s Riani said.

“Unemployment has its effects on social relationships, the
well-being of the society,” said Wefaq member Jasim Husain.

Government officials could not be reached for comment.

ILO CONDEMNATION

In Geneva, the International Labour Organization (ILO)
denounced the mass sackings and “other repressive measures”.

The United Nations agency said it would organize a
high-level mission to Bahrain as soon as possible to talk to the
government and to worker and employer organisations.

Bahrain has increased its arrests of bloggers, activists and
Shi’ites, with more than 300 detained and dozens missing since
last month’s crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations.

Bahrain saw the worst sectarian clashes between its Shi’ite
majority population and the Sunni-ruled security forces since
the 1990s after Shi’ite protesters, inspired by uprisings in
Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets in February.

The clashes have killed at least 13 protesters and four
police and prompted Bahrain to declare martial law and invite
troops by Sunni Gulf neighbours, who are worried of the regional
influence of Shi’ite neighbour Iran.

Gala Riani of risk analysts IHS Global Insight said the
sackings showed that the government felt under fire. “This
shows, to some degree, both how nervous they (the rulers) are
and also how confident they are,” she said.

“They feel like they’ve got the security situation under
control, so they can fire people in the dozens or the hundreds
without risking renewed mass protests.”

After security forces crushed the protests, the government
launched a crackdown on opposition activists, Shi’ite villages
and media such as the only opposition newspaper, Al Wasat.

It suspended the newspaper on Sunday, accusing it of
falsifying news about the unrest, and replaced the editor. It
resumed printing on Monday, the same day the government arrested
and expelled two journalists, both Iraqis. A government
spokeswoman said Al Wasat had broken press laws.

More lay-offs are expected at Bahrain Petroleum (Bapco)
which has fired the head of its workers’ union. Workers fear
that hundreds could be sacked at the company after parliament
launched an investigation headed by a Sunni hardline deputy.

“Everybody is afraid,” a worker who did not wish to be named
told Reuters.

UPDATE 1-Bahrain firms fire hundreds of strikers in crackdown