Workers, and other protestors who have been participating in the demonstrations since February 14 (even before that) are diverse. They come from different religious and political backgrounds. Some of them had never participated in any protest before February 14, but were outraged by continuous oppression and discrimination. The decision to go on protests and later on strike was driven by the mass movement of people across Bahrain, but was faced with the regime’s brutality. Bahrain, a small island located in the Persian Gulf, is the home to the US Fifth Fleet and is the West’s ally in the region.
Economic inequality in Bahrain
The Bahraini revolution is just like any other legitimate revolution in the world: it is driven by people’s revolt against ongoing exploitation and oppression, in this case by the Al-Khalifa ruling family.
The population in Bahrain is 1,323,535 including more than 600,000 expats. Bahrain’s GDP is high- per capita (PPP): $27,300. However, this does not mean that people are living in good conditions. According to a report released in 2004 by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), around half of Bahraini citizens living in the oil-rich region are suffering from poverty and poor living conditions. The gap between the very rich and the poor is significant.
The miserable conditions that the majority of the Bahraini population suffer from arise from different issues–social, economic and political–but they all stem from Al-Khalifa ruling class that has been in power for more than two centuries. According to BCHR, poverty in Bahrain is mainly caused by unequal distribution of wealth, waste of public money, financial and administration corruption, poor planning and exploitation of foreign workers (who constitute 60 per cent of the labour force). The main issue behind the deteriorating conditions of workers in Bahrain is the accumulation of wealth and resources in the hands of a small group of people— mainly the ruling family and loyalists.
People in Bahrain have many reasons to protest in the streets and occupy the Pearl Roundabout (which is the equivalent to Tahrir Square in Egypt). There could be no real democracy without solving the economic problems. Al-Khalifa will stay in power as long as they are able to control the population economically, politically and even socially. Many Bahraini workers decided to go on strike. However, the regime exceeded all levels of expectations regarding brutality. On the other hand, there were others who didn’t go on strike, but the regime repressed them for participating in protests.
For instance, officials at Batelco, Gulf Air, Bahrain Airport Services and APM Terminals Bahrain said they laid off more than 200 workers after their absence during a strike in March 2011. Al Wefaq opposition group stated that Bahraini firms fired hundreds of Shia workers who participated in pro-democracy protests. According to Amnesty International’s annual report about the violations committed during 2011, at least 4,000 people who stayed away from their jobs during or were believed to have participated in the protests were sacked or suspended–including 300 from the state-owned Bahrain Petroleum Company.
The state has gone as far as arresting and torturing activist workers who participated in the pro-democracy protests. Teachers who were calling on strikes and protesting have been one of the most targeted groups in Bahrain. As some eyewitness students describe, classrooms are depressing places while many teachers and students are spending their days behind prison bars.
Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila Salman were arrested for calling for a strike, in their role as trade union leaders. Salman, the acting president of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association (BTA) was released on November 25, 2012. However, Abu Dheeb, the previous president of BTA remains detained facing five years in prison sentence. He is behind bars for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and for demanding reforms to the educational system. Salman and Abu Dheeb, along with other detained teachers were tortured and ill-treated. In addition to torture in prison and solitary confinement, Abu Dheeb reported that even the pro-government nurse who took him to Al Salmaniya hospital to get necessary medical treatment had beaten him on the way to the hospital.
Amongst the workers who are struggling are the medics who were detained, tortured, and lost their jobs for treating injured protestors and for participating in peaceful protests. On February and March 2011, at least 95 health workers were detained during regime’s crackdown on pro-democracy protestors. Many of the medics’ charges were quashed, while others were released on bail. However, nine medics still face charges.
On October 2, 2012, six medical professionals were arrested. Security forces raided their homes at dawn. The re-arrest followed the decision on October 2012 of the Bahrain Court of Cassation to uphold the sentences imposed upon nine medics. During what’s known as National Security period, the Bahraini authorities used torture as a method of obtaining confessions from detained activists including medics. All confessions were obtained under torture. Authorities continue to use this method on some detainees. Roula Al-Saffar was one of the health professionals sentenced by a military court to between 5 and 15 years in prison in September 2011. A civilian court on appeal acquitted her. Following her arrest on April 4, 2011 she said that she was tortured in detention.
She described to Amnesty International what happened to her during the Criminal Investigation Department interrogations:
“A woman officer entered the room and said ‘I will blindfold you and I will deal with you now’. Then three men entered the room and started hitting me… She had an electric device in each hand and hit me with it on both sides of my head at the same time. I felt dizzy and lost consciousness. I don’t remember what happened straight after. Then they took me to another room and one of them called me a whore and insulted my family… On the third day she gave me electric shocks again and she asked if I went to the strike. Another woman started slapping me. She cut my hair with scissors. Then they burned my hair on the sides. They hit me and sexually harassed me by putting their hands all over my body… This continued for four or five days.”
All workers— teachers, medics, farmers, fishermen, journalists, etc. suffer from the exploitation and oppression of Al-Khalifa regime. Fishermen, who are surrounded by water from all directions (as Bahrain is an island) can hardly fish anymore. All waters are private properties of Al-Khalifa and their rich loyalists. They are living in poverty despite the resources around them.
Farmers have not enough resources and Al-Khalifa ruling family had confiscated the lands of their ancestors. Those who are working in the fields find farming a very tough task despite Bahrain’s rich soil. Journalists are jailed for reporting about the ongoing violations. Other workers in different fields are substituted by foreign workers in an attempt to marginalize the Shia majority.
Those who were sacked from their jobs after the protests are suffering from deteriorating economic conditions. They continue to protest for their right to return to work. The only way to help the working class in Bahrain to achieve their goal in having real democracy is to break the wall of silence and demand an end to the West’s support to the oppressive Al-Khalifa regime.