A friend who returned to her European country and set up a pop-up fashion store as an entrepreneur was shocked at the pampering that shop assistants demanded – and got – to stay on the job.
She was lucky since she had just one to kowtow to. But barring the Gulf, it is a fact that the workforce uses its freedom to switch jobs as a bargaining chip when it comes to striking a better deal at work.
When His Royal Highness Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, Crown Prince Prime Minister, proposed an open labour market in 2006, it was a revolutionary idea and I recall an Asian diplomat telling him that generations of working class people – especially expats – would bless him for the boon of a free labour market where they could give notice and change jobs to improve career prospects.
The idea changed the equation of worker rights and employer responsibilities. It expanded and developed into the flexi-permit which gave hundreds of workers at the bottom rung the opportunity to test their wings and step up their earning capacity.
Little wonder then, that Bahrain consistently tops the list of most preferred expat destinations and also as among the best places to do business.
So, when it ain’t broke, why are MPs trying to fix it? By insisting on tweaking labour laws so that workers cannot change jobs for three years, they are turning back the clock to the Dark Ages when even management contracts read like bonded labour. It will demotivate workers and people with the best talent and potential will avoid coming to work in Bahrain.
The argument that Bahraini businessmen spend valuable resources to bring young expats to the kingdom and train and skill them only to have them leave for better prospects, or to set up rival businesses, is specious.
For one thing, I would say 90 per cent of expat workers get their foot in the door only because they bring unique education, training and skill sets to the job. For another, few of them quit the job to start a rival business – entrepreneurship is a very specific skill and most people are not equipped for it.
There are issues of access to capital in a foreign land and also to a skilled workforce – and if they manage to cross all these hurdles to establish themselves, surely they deserve encouragement? Competition makes for a robust economic environment.
Human rights are not just a political matter – it encompasses a wide spectrum of behaviour and increasingly, countries and corporates are stitching it into their organisational and national value systems. As our world gets more diverse, we have to ensure that this variety is reflected in the way we respond to our workplace and the way we live.
Instead of wasting time dismantling laws that have proven their efficacy, the MPs should look for a way to support the government in flattening the curve by speeding up processes to get undocumented workers to also vaccinate themselves. Bahrain apparently has more than 70,000 undocumented workers and their vulnerability to Covid-19 makes it imperative to include them in the safety network.