BAHRAIN activists yesterday urged employers to ensure that migrant workers are being treated fairly under the harsh conditions imposed by the global recession.
The call follows a United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report issued yesterday, calling on governments worldwide to re-examine their approach to immigration policies.
This should be done with a view to offering a "new deal" to migrant workers whose skills could help spur economic recovery.
The report - entitled Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development - put forward a six-point package aimed at opening up existing channels to more workers and ensuring that they retained protection and their rights.
It suggested that governments needed to cut down the bureaucratic red tape that migrant workers face, arguing that pulling down the "paper wall" would help stem illegal migration by making it easier to stay above board.
Other recommendations include easing restrictions on internal migration, boosting co-operation between host communities and migrants, and including migration in national development strategies.
The report also called for lowering transaction costs for migrants such as passport fees.
Asian migrants moving to the Gulf can often pay 25 to 35 per cent of what they can expect to earn over two or three years in recruitment and other fees, the report added.
"In the midst of what is shaping up to be the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, unemployment is rising to record highs in many countries," it said.
"As a result, many migrants find themselves doubly at risk, suffering unemployment, insecurity and social marginalisation, yet at the same time are often portrayed as the source of these problems.
"It is important that the current recession must not become an occasion for scapegoating, but rather be seized as an opportunity to institute a new deal for migrants - one that will benefit workers at home and abroad while guarding against a protectionist backlash."
The report suggests that migrant workers who are laid off due to the recession be allowed a reasonable period to look for a new job, at least until their existing work and residence permits expire.
It also claims that governments should work alongside migrant workers in ensuring that those who are laid off before the end of their contracts can claim severance payments and any outstanding wages.
"If governments take these types of measures, the economic crisis could become an opportunity to promote better treatment and avoid conflict," it adds.
Migrant Workers Protection Society (MWPS) action committee head Marietta Dias told the GDN that conditions for migrant workers had deteriorated since the financial crisis first took hold.
"The reality is that many low-income workers can be laid off at a moment's notice, are not eligible for indemnity and often are owed months of salary which they never receive," she said.
"The truth is we don't have any statistics for how many migrant workers in Bahrain have lost their jobs due to the recession, but there are cases.
"What we have seen is a huge rise in the number of workers who are not being paid from month to month and companies are blaming the credit crunch for this.
"But for low-income labourers who earn no more than BD90 a month - most of which they send home - how are they supposed to survive?"
Ms Dias said that while the claims of the UNDP report were sound in practice, without an effective way to implement them she feared the authors were wasting their time.
She added that part of the problem was that many migrant workers in Bahrain often owed vast amounts of money stemming back to when they first gained access to the country's shores.
The going price for an Indian male to obtain a working visa to Bahrain is around BD1,200, which could take up to half a decade to be repaid, according to Ms Dias.
"This is a princely amount for a low-income labourer to pay back and half the time they have no idea what they are letting themselves in for," she said.
"The other half of the time there is no job at all or they are being paid literally nothing for a hard day's work.
"You do have to credit Bahrain in their attempts to resolve these issues; they certainly are leading the way in terms of abolishing the sponsorship system, but there is a long way to go.
"It is the same thing time and again, excellent laws but poor implementation."