Bahrain firms fire hundreds of strikers in crackdown

MANAMA - Bahraini firms have fired hundreds of mostly Shi'ite workers who went on strike to support pro-democracy protesters, part of a government crackdown, an opposition group said on Tuesday.

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.

"Unemployment has its effects on social relationships, the well-being of the society," said group member Jasim Husain.

Government officials could not be reached for comment on the arrests.

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 protests.

Bahrain has seen 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 neighbors who are wary of the regional influence of Shi'ite neighbor 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."

"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, replaced the editor and resumed printing on Monday, the same day it arrested and expelled two journalists, both Iraqis.

A government spokeswoman said Al Wasat had broken press laws.

Some political analysts said large-scale dismissals of Shi'ite workers could speed up the disintegration of Bahrain's 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.

More lay-offs are expected at Bahrain Petroleum (Bapco) which has fired the head of its workers' union. Workers fear that hundreds could be fired 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.

CNBC, Tues Apr 5 2011

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