By Doug Palmer
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Bahrain appears to have violated commitments it made to the United States to protect workers' rights in its response to a March 2011 general strike at the time of the Arab Spring, the U.S. Labor Department said in a report on Thursday.
"It is our duty to ensure that trading partners meet their commitments to labor standards in free trade agreements," U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in a statement.
The report stopped short of recommending legal action under the U.S.-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement, which went into force in 2006. Instead, it called for consultations between the two countries on labor rights concerns.
"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.
Bahrain, a small island country in the Gulf off the coast of Saudi Arabia, is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
"In the widespread dismissals after the March 2011 general strike, trade unionists and leaders were targeted for firing and, at times, criminal prosecution for their role in the strike, and Shia workers and political critics of the government faced discrimination," the Labor Department said.
"The report notes that the reinstatement process for these dismissed workers has raised additional concerns of violations of freedom of association and political and sectarian-based discrimination against Shia workers, which reflect the larger context of a deteriorating labor rights environment in Bahrain."
The largest U.S. labor organization, the AFL-CIO, complained nearly 18 months ago that the Bahrain government's brutal crackdown violated commitments they had made to protect workers' rights under the free trade pact.
A Bahraini government-commissioned panel found in November 2011 that the country's security forces used excessive force to suppress pro-democracy protests, that included torturing detainees to get confessions.
Cathy Feingold, international director at the AFL-CIO, said the Labor Department's delay in issuing the report has been costly for Bahraini workers and for the credibility of U.S. commitment to workers rights in all its free trade pacts.
For the proposed consultations with Bahrain to be meaningful, they need to have high-level participation from the U.S. State Department and Trade Representative's office as well as the Labor Department, Feingold said.
Representatives Sander Levin and Jim McDermott, high-ranking Democrats on the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee, welcomed the call for consultations.
"Our trade agreements can and must serve to improve living standards and working conditions worldwide," Levin said.
"This is the right thing to do," McDermott said.
(Reporting By Doug Palmer; Editing by Sandra Maler, Mohammad Zargham and Jackie Frank)