By Mohammed Harmassi
BBC Arabic Service Radio
Bahrain's foreign labourers will no longer be at the mercy of their employers
Bahrain has announced it will scrap its sponsorship system for foreign workers - a first in a region often criticised by rights groups over the issue.
The system, known as "kafala", is used to monitor the number of foreigners working in Gulf Arab economies, which rely heavily on cheap foreign labour, mostly recruited from countries from the Indian subcontinent.
Bahraini Labour Minister Majeed al-Alawi said the changes would be introduced in August.
Mr Alawi said the main change in the regulations would mean foreign workers would now be directly sponsored by the Labour Authority and would not rely on their employers.
The current system, which is common to all Gulf countries, has long been criticised by human rights groups for placing workers at the mercy of their employers.
Employers usually take employees' passports when they enter the country and sometimes use possession of the travel documents to extort a large fee before the workers can leave the country.
Gulf governments have historically welcomed immigrant workers on the assumption that nationals will not do many jobs, which they consider to be below them.
Despite this, Majeed al-Alawi told BBC Arabic radio that the new system would form part of a broader initiative to place a ceiling on the number of expatriate workers in Bahrain.
The US State Department in 2008 placed Bahrain in tier two - out of three - of its annual human trafficking report for not fully complying with minimum standards to stop the trafficking of people for forced labour or the sex trade.
Labour ministers of other Gulf countries have agreed that the present sponsorship system needs to be overhauled.
The system means that expatriate workers can enter, work, and leave the host country only with the permission or assistance of their sponsor.
Many sponsors exploit the system to make money.
Since the 1970s, there has been a significant increase in the number of immigrants working in the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council or GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates).
The pattern of immigration has also changed as South and Southeast Asian migrant workers have replaced Arab migrants.
They now constitute as much as 90% of the foreign workforce in some GCC States.
The "kafala" system has become the legal basis for residency and employment.
Migrant workers receive an entry visa and a residence permit only if a GCC citizen or a GCC institution employs them.
Sponsorship requires the sponsor-employer to assume full economic and legal responsibility for the employee during the contract period.
The worker can only work for the sponsor and is entirely dependent on their sponsor to remain in the country.
In many GCC States, the sponsor is legally able to confiscate the passports of employees until their contract has ended.
Bahrain's Labour Minister Majeed al-Alawi likened the current system to slavery.
Women employed in domestic service are particularly vulnerable.
If an employee sues their sponsor for violating labour practices, there is generally no form of unemployment protection while the case is pending in the legal system.
And even if the worker wins the case, the usual result is for the sponsor contract to be terminated, meaning that the worker has to leave the country.
While the "kafala" system provides the state with an important means for monitoring labour flow, these policies can infringe the rights of workers as they are often used to deny them justice and basic protection.
This is the system that Bahrain says it is now committed to change.