Labor Department Urges Talks Over Bahrain Labor Unrest

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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government of Bahrain has fallen short of commitments to recognize labor rights and prevent employment discrimination under a free trade agreement with the United States, the Labor Department said Thursday.

But the agency declined to suspend the trade pact, despite a request from the AFL-CIO. Instead, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis urged more diplomatic talks with Bahrain to resolve complaints about the Persian Gulf nation's crackdown on unions and labor reform protesters.

"We are hopeful that through engagement with our trading partner we will find a solution that is good for workers both in the United States and Bahrain," Solis said in a statement.

Washington has been urging Bahrain's Sunni monarchy to talk with protesters and has publicly condemned the violence and mass arrests following a general strike in March 2011, which included journalists, activists and trade union leaders. But U.S. officials have stopped short of more direct action against Bahrain's rulers.

The 6-year-old trade agreement waives tariffs on industrial and consumer products for Bahrain, a key U.S. ally and home to the Navy's 5th Fleet. The pact is one of 17 such bilateral trade agreements with Washington, which also include Israel, Jordan, and Oman in the Middle East.

In a 50-page report, the Labor Department found that the Bahraini government "did not take steps to remedy shortcomings in its laws on freedom of association and employment discrimination." The report -- issued in response to the AFL-CIO complaint -- said Bahrain targeted trade unionists and others for firing and criminal prosecution for their role in the strike. It also found that Shia workers and political critics of the government faced discrimination.

In a statement, the Bahrain Embassy said its government would carefully review the Labor Department's report, but noted that many of the concerns have already been addressed by an independent government commission in Bahrain.

"As we stated previously in this matter, we do not believe that there is any violation of obligations under the labor chapter of the free trade agreement," the statement said.

The embassy said 98 percent of the 4,600 workers fired during the strike had been either reinstated, reemployed or otherwise had their cases resolved.

Dozens of people died after labor protests that began in February 2011 by Bahrain's Shiites, who represent 70 percent of the population but are excluded from top political and security posts.

AFL-CIO officials say they are disappointed that the Labor Department took 17 months to issue the report, saying Bahrain has continued to persecute workers and support witch hunts of union and human rights activists.

"The U.S. government now must demonstrate that the consultations comprise a serious effort to address Bahrain's blatant disregard for the trade agreement's labor chapter," said Cathy Feingold, international director of the AFL-CIO.

Feingold said more talks must be followed with "concrete and effective actions" to prevent further persecution of Bahraini workers.

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