This July marks two years since a flexible work permit was introduced by the Labour Market Regulatory Authority (LMRA), bringing relief to thousands of expatriates.
Many of them had been dubbed illegal because they had run away from their place of work.
In the run-up to marking the milestone in expat labour relations, the Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) released a survey, which pinpointed this arrangement as the most disapproved by business owners.
Well, no surprises there.
But before they call for sympathy, let’s analyse the figures.
Until January this year, 17,100 expats had been granted the flexi permits.
The permit has resulted in the number of illegal free visa workers dropping from 82,000 to 59,000 in the past nine months.
Bahraini employers complain that workers who irresponsibly run away are then rewarded and legalised by the flexi permit, leaving sponsors with the bill of recruiting and bringing them here.
There is also the added time and expense of training them, only to have to repeat the process when they run away.
Now, look at the data again.
An overwhelming majority, 78pc, of flexi permits were for construction workers, painters or carpenters; 11pc were for cleaners, food suppliers and electricians; while the rest were divided among 400 low-income jobs.
How many Bahrainis are working in these job categories?
If working expats converted their work permits to flexi visas, their jobs would in most cases be filled by other expats.
That means the underlying question is not about Bahrainisation, but access to cheap labour.
Remember that a flexi visa is not inexpensive and it also comes with strings attached.
To qualify, the rules say an applicant must have either had his/her work permit terminated, or have an expired permit that has not been renewed by their employer.
We all know that such irregularities are the fault of the employer, who invariably handles the renewal of their workers’ permits – especially at this foundational level.
If a company has not bothered to renew an employee’s work permit, the chances are high that there are other irregularities – such as poor living conditions or salary arrears.
Such an employer loses the right to protest if their worker moves on to greener pastures.
An expat has to pay BD749 for a two-year flexi visa, plus another BD30 every month to maintain their status.
That’s a princely sum for a worker at this level.
After that, the successful applicant has to make his/her own living arrangements, as well as accept responsibility for their commute and healthcare costs.
And then they need to make enough money to send some home.
Believe me, those who apply for flexi visas do so after thinking long and hard.
An expatriate worker who travels to Bahrain for blue collar work has more incentive to actually stay in one job, rather than spend more money on an expensive flexi visa.
Often, they are the sole breadwinner and need to send money home regularly.
Many expats at this level mortgage their land or family jewels to jump the queue at the recruitment agency that arranges their first job in Bahrain.
Where is the sense in running away before their contract is completed?
Doing so means they would lose the security of regular income and a safe and reasonably comfortable lifestyle in company care.
If employers want to counter the flexi visa project, the solution lies in their hands.
They simply need to treat workers better, pay them on time and provide comfortable living and work conditions.
Following these simple steps will mean expat staff have no incentive to leave.
We need to put the sense of employer entitlement behind us and regard our workers as fellow humans, whose aspirations, goals and desires are similar to ours.