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We recently had the chance to sit down and talk with representatives of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions during a US visit sponsored by the AFL-CIO. What follows is an edited sequence of different parts of the interview, which was conducted in Arabic on 6 October 2011 in Washington DC. The interview features S. Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh (Secretary General) and Abdulla Mohammed Hussain (Assistant Secretary-General for Arab and International Relations) of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions. A translated transcription is offered below the video (translated by Ziad Abu-Rish).
[Click here for a Spanish translation of this interview.]
S. Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh (SSJAM): The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions lived the events in Bahrain from the very first moment. Of course, the primary concern of the General Federation is the status of workers in Bahrain. However, it is not a stretch for it to take an interest in political reform because we have complete faith in that there is no separation between the trade union movement and the workers' movement. I believe that all aspects of life are interconnected. Meaning, just like you cannot separate the economic situation from the political situation, you cannot separate both those situations from the social situation. If we get into this debate, there are those that believe that there should be a separation between the trade union movement and the political situation. However, we believe they are connected. We in the trade union movement are paying attention to the social situation, to the economic life of the individual, the freedom of the individual, his rights, and his work. Therefore, it is only natural to explore all of these aspects.
SSJAM: The events in Bahrain took their course and there was a lot of attention [paid to them], primarily … the political aspect of things. However, the General Federation entered the situation when it felt there was harm befalling the workers and affecting their safety at work as well on their way to and from work. We felt that their safety was threatened by such things as the checkpoints that were set up. At the time, a worker was subjected to questioning, insults, etc. This is the natural situation in which the General Federation would and did declare a general strike. The story of Bahrain since 14 February is a big one. However, I've tried to summarize the topic by circumscribing it to the workers' arena and how the General Federation initiated its engagement with the issue as it pertains to the safety of workers.
Abdulla Mohammed Hussain (AMH): In continuation of what my brother and colleague Salman--General Secretary of the Federation--said, we see what the consequences for workers in Bahrain are of the events. After the intifada of the Pearl Roundabout, with the security solution and attacking on protesters, Bahraini TV began a campaign to call for the firing of workers that participated in the marches or the general strike. It was a fierce campaign. […] The number of those whose jobs were terminated, that are registered with the Federation, has reached 2,775 individuals as of two days ago. These numbers are increasing every day. We have reviewed all the documents, including letters of termination. [They all state something to the effect of] did you participate in a march, did you go to the Roundabout, and many other issues. We can give many examples. One example we use a lot is that the parliament, which is supposed to protect freedoms including the freedom of expression and freedom of association, terminated one particular worker. It is documented in this worker's letter of termination that he is being terminated because he participated in the funeral procession of one of the victims. This cannot be a reason for terminating a worker. There is a relationship between an employer and employee centered on the profession itself and any problems that might exist in its practice, but not on his freedom of expression. Freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and protest are provided for by the Bahrain constitution. Therefore there cannot be laws or regulations from other institutions that contradict the constitution, which is the father of all laws in Bahrain and is the primary reference of law. How do you terminate a worker for participating in a march when these freedoms are provided for?
In reality, when we speak of 2,775 terminated workers, we are not only speaking of [those] 2,775 individuals. These individuals have families, and thus the number of those affected by these terminations expands. Let's talk about the private sector, on which we conducted a study documented by statistics and direct contacts with the terminated workers. This study was conducted back in August. The number of those terminated from the private sector is 1,911 individuals. The size of their families is 9,693 individuals. In the public sector, there are those that have been terminated and those that have been suspended. Their [combined] number is 739 individuals. The number of family members they are responsible for is 3,647 individuals. In sum, the total number of family members affected is 13,340. These are accurate numbers that have been documented by the Federation's study.
The results of this campaign are clear. Bahrain TV carried out a campaign calling for the termination of workers and these are the results of that campaign. Today, our demand and priority as a Federation is that workers be reinstated. We also have trade unionists who have been terminated and they number fifty-five individuals, forty-nine of whom are of the different institutions and six of whom are from the leadership of the Federation. These are signs of an attack on the trade union movement in Bahrain, and we wholly reject it. We have rights as trade unions and there is a law for trade unions. We are exercising our rights as trade unionists. Therefore we cannot be terminated because of our trade union activism. Nor can workers be terminated because of their opinions and affiliations. This is a very important issue to us.
SSJAM: As proof of the importance of this Federation and the importance of its participation, the crown prince requested that the Federation present its concerns when he announced the dialogue initiative. The Federation participated in this dialogue and presented its concerns in writing to the crown prince. These concerns were not far from the demands of the people. In fact, they coalesced with the demands of the people, but only in so far as the demands for political reform and not the demand for the fall of regime. There might have been voices calling for the fall of the regime. And I believe that whomever made such calls bares responsibility for them. The Federation, however, takes responsibility for calling for political reform, which is not only the demand of the Federation but also the demand of the popular movement, and was also expressed by the political leadership, including the king and crown prince.
AMH: We believe that there needs to be a political solution and it needs to take effect immediately, and therefore a moving away from the security solution. The truth is that the security solution will only exacerbate the crisis. With a political solution there might be a serious dialogue and political solutions that genuinely address the reforms people are calling for. In this regards, and despite the fact that we are now in October---the events having started in February and March and the security solution coming between 13 and 15 March when a state of emergency was declared. We believe that there must be political solutions, genuine dialogue, and placing the issues in their proper contexts. We need to move away from security solution because security solution always create crises. There continue to be indicators. Meaning, the rulings that have been issued in the latest period; the past ten to fourteen days. There are rulings that we believe are harsh. One example is the case of the president and vice president of the teachers' association, each sentenced to ten and thirteen years [respectively]. These are harsh measures when it comes to a civil society institution. There is also the case of the president of nurses' association and the vice president of the nurses' association, who were given approximately fifteen-year sentences. This is in addition to the recent sentencing of doctors after months of detainment. We view these as indicators of a continuing crisis rather than the unfolding of a solution.
On the other hand--even the issue of termination--there is a minister of labor that knows that there are workers being terminated but has still refused to issue statistics on who exactly was terminated to compare with our own statistics and verify who has be reinstated and who has not been reinstated. We argue that there has been some reinstatements, but this issue remains stalled. It is really important to us that workers return to work. We saw in the last few days that workers at the university were terminated. Therefore, there remains---we are talking about ongoing terminations since March through today.
We in the trade union movement are concerned that there are calls for the prosecution of some of the trade unionists, and they will have hearings in the coming month as they have already been summoned. We view this as a troubling development because trade unionists are being prosecuted for conducting their trade union work. In relation to the attack on the trade union movement, there are even the issues of harassment, attacks in the media, treating the entirety of the trade union leadership as if they were criminals and traitors.
We need to get past these issues and have a serious dialogue. We are prepared to sit at the dialogue table. As my brother and colleague Salman noted, we are with reform. Every reform that is achieved is sure to be reflected on us as a trade union movement and for us to be greater freedom.
SSJAM: The mobilization on the ground continues. It may not be at the level it was in the previous period, but it is nevertheless ongoing. Our analysis of the situation is that things remain unclear and the goals obstructed. However, there is still mobilization at the domestic level. There is also mobilization at the international level that is helping to stir the waters. Although it is a very slow mobilization. When all is said and done, popular mobilizations always---Well, let us just say that everything has an end. Consequently, today the peoples [of different countries] are having the last word.
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