Bahraini firms fire hundreds of strikers

Protesters in Pearl Square, Bahrain. (Getty Images)

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, Gulf Air, 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.

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.

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